Rajinder Kumari Nayyar (76), a senior artist in Chamba, worked as a trainer at the first Chamba embroidery centre in the 1960s, which was set up by the efforts of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and run by the national award winning Chamba embroidery artist, Maheshi Devi.

In Conversation with Chamba Rumal Artists: Evolution, Revival and Future

in Interview
Published on: 25 August 2020

Rupsa Nag

Rupsa Nag has a Masters degree in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is currently enrolled in the Korean Language Diploma Course at Jadavpur University, Department of Linguistics. She is a freelance writer, translator and art enthusiast.

Embroidery artists Rajinder Kumari Nayyar, Indu Sharma, Pinky Sharma and Heena, along with miniaturist Parikshit Sharma, discuss the various techniques peculiar to Chamba rumal making as well as the challenges faced by artists today.

Rajinder Kumari Nayyar (76), a senior artist in Chamba, worked as a trainer at the first Chamba embroidery centre in the 1960s, set up by the efforts of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and run by the national award-winning Chamba embroidery artist, Maheshi Devi. In 2018, Nayyar was felicitated by the famous miniature painter Vijay Sharma on behalf of the Bhuri Singh Museum for her contributions to Chamba rumal making during its first phase of revival. The conversation with her was recorded in Hindi in Chamba on November 13, 2019.

Heena lives in Shimla and studies miniature painting at the Himachal Pradesh University. She was born in Chamba and took up Chamba rumal making as a 14-year old at the CHARU centre, setup in Chamba by Delhi Crafts Council, headed by Masto Deviji. Despite her early years of struggle, Heena is now a successful Chamba embroiderer who is taking her heritage forward. She was interviewed in Hindi in Shimla on September 29, 2019.

Pinky Sharma has a master’s degree in Hindi literature. She learnt Chamba rumal making from her sister Indu Sharma, who is an established embroidery artist. She practises this art form ‘as a passion and partly to sustain [herself] financially.’ Pinky Sharma is keen on exploring the different design aspects of Chamba rumal making, such as stitching in different directions, shading using threads, working on different patterns and so on. 

Indu Sharma is among the most skilful artists in Chamba and has received state- and national-level recognition for her Chamba rumal embroidery. She enrolled in the first batch of Delhi Crafts Council’s training and production centre, CHARU, in 2000 when she was 19, and worked with them for 10–12 years. She received her training in the craft from veteran artist Kamala Nayyar. She collaborates with designers and trains many young girls in Chamba who are interested in the art. Indu Sharma is married to the miniature painter Parikshit Sharma, who trained under Vijay Sharma. The couple were part of Delhi Crafts Council’s revival programme. They continue making Chamba rumals together in the old process where a miniature painter makes the outline on which the embroidery is made. The interview with Pinky Sharma, Indu Sharma and Parikshit Sharma was conducted in Hindi, at Chountra in Chamba on September 14, 2019.


Rupsa Nag (RN): Could you speak a bit about the history of Chamba embroidery?

Indu Sharma (IS): Chamba embroidery flourished most under its rulers [under the various kings of Chamba]. Post-Independence [of India] it was revived by Kamaladeviji’s [Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay] efforts when Maheshi Deviji used to do it. When I was a kid, my guru Kamala Nayyarji taught for a year at the Rang Mahal centre where many girls trained in the art. After that, in 1990, the Rang Mahal centre shutdown when the work came to a complete standstill. After this it was only by the efforts of the [Delhi] Crafts Council that this art was revived. I would say they have been among the main contributors because they took it up exactly when it was on the verge of being completely endangered. Thanks to their efforts it has now picked up and is recognised on a much larger scale.


RN: Could you talk about the motifs and images in the Chamba rumal?

Rajinder K. Nayyar (RKN): At that time, Raasmandala [an episode of the dance of Krishna which finds place in various Hindu religious texts] was the most popular design, followed by Gaddi Gaddan [man and woman of a shepherding tribe that resides in the hills of Himachal Pradesh], which is not so popular these days, but it should be since it symbolises Chamba’s own culture. I also remember, apart from theme-based designs, the motif of a rose with green leaves was very much in demand as well. One time we were given a nylon-based delicate fabric and asked to make roses on it, 30-35 varieties of roses were ordered.


RN: What was the training like during your time?

RKN: I had a diploma in tailoring and cutting, both of which I used to teach at the centre. Suraj Begum used to take the embroidery classes. Maheshi Devi used to head the centre and take a few classes on embroidery as well but, working closely with her, I was given the responsibility to take several classes on stitching, cutting, and further, evaluate and supervise the students. The centre had a yearlong course. Trainees used to receive a monthly government stipend of Rs 30. We, the teachers, were regularly paid; Prem Lalji was the master artist at the centre.


RN: What changes do you see in the current scenario?

RKN: After the centre shut down, people opened their own smaller centres which were usually temporary and then there was a point when the art came to a standstill altogether. But a lot more people are doing it now. But girls these days train for only a few months, young people often don’t have the patience for this art form, it is time-consuming.


RN: Chamba rumal is an amalgamation of literature, painting and embroidery. Could you elaborate on this?

Heena:  Basically, Chamba rumal is just a name; it is actually Chamba embroidery which is found not only in rumals [handkerchiefs], but across many artworks. Chamba rumal is an embroidery technique which makes the artwork look similar from both sides for which we use do rukha tanka [double satin stitch].

IS: Do rukha tanka is the speciality and foundation of the Chamba embroidery. It has been consistent since its inception. We add variations now by making smaller, more intricate figures as compared to the bigger figures made during the 1960s. Dandi tanka [stem stitch] and cross stitches are also used in the do rukha form which exists in other embroideries as well.

Heena: The concept of themes and paintings that are used in our Chamba rumal is related to some literature or the other. For instance, the ashtanayika theme is based on Keshavchandra Das’s composition [his poetry anthology, Rasikapriya]. In earlier times, the royal courts had poets and painters. Since there were no cameras at the time, life was depicted through paintings. So, when Keshavchandra Das’s works became famous, themes like ashtanayika [eight types of heroines defined in Bharata’s Natyashastra, seminal performance arts text of the Indian subcontinent]nayak-nayika bhed [different hero and heroine and their loves in different contexts] were first manifest through paintings. When the miniature style of Chamba rumal came during the seventeenth century, those paintings were manifested in the rumals.

The themes used are related to poetry based on rasas among which shringar is most popular. Anyone could be the nayak-nayika but Krishna and Radha’s tales being popular, Raasmandala and Gita Govinda [Gitagovindam is a twelfth century text on Krishna by the poet, Jayadeva] are the most favoured themes.

People often think that it has to be solely theme-based but it is not mandatory for a Chamba rumal to always adhere to a theme. Often, the artist makes things for their own happiness like bel bootiyan [floral designs]. 


RN: There are various kinds of Chamba rumals we get to see. Could you tell us about the different styles of this artwork?

Heena: We have two ways of working in Chamba, the classical or miniature design and the folk design. In the folk style, figures are not well shaped but have only a basic structure like a circle for a face with a basic outline of the eyes where precision is not so important. Apart from this, the classical miniature style is where the figures are very proportionate like in the Kangra and Chamba schools of painting.

If we come to themes, then one category is that of classical poetry and literature and the other is connected with our local folk stories like Gaddi Gaddan, Rajwar wedding scenes, Ved Vedi [wedding pavillion/mandap]Til Chauli [black sesame seeds (til) and rice (chaul) form an integral part of it] which is our traditional dance by women during weddings where they dance and sing throughout the night. Rumals have also been made on our traditional festival, Minjar and there are innumerable themes. Themes of shikar [hunting] and godhuli [sunset] also exist along with mythological themes, devi-devta [god-goddess] themes—Chamba rumal encompasses it all.


RN: What is the role of tradition in Chamba embroidery?

Heena: While tradition plays an important role in learning and achieving a certain level of artistry, one should not be limited by tradition. An excessive imposition of tradition should be replaced by a more welcoming approach. If experiments are welcomed with open arms, the old and new can coexist so that art remains relevant and can carry itself forward with the times. While raasleela [divine dance of Krishna] can be a theme, a new-age theme like Chandrayan is also possible. If ashtanayika is a theme, then social issues women face could also be a theme. 

I would also like to create a series work in Chamba rumal because series works do not exist in the traditional format. I have also made bookmarks, worked on book covers, earrings, jewellery, dresses, blouses, shawls, dupattas, and even shirts. Those are a bit different from traditional Chamba rumal products which include mostly frames, shawls, cholis, and fans.

Further, [there are] symbolic approaches like stitching a flute for Krishna or drawing the Om symbol for Lord Shiva. I have made Chamba rumal based neckpieces and earrings which one will not normally consider. I like giving my own touch to traditional designs which I modify according to my own aesthetics to give them newness like I did for my version of the Vishnupaad [Vishnu’s feet].

So, these are little ways in which artists can be slightly different from traditional styles. Each artist has their own style which is how people identify an artist’s work and their artistic identity is thus created.


RN: How important are stories in the art?

Heena: We give lots of importance to stories because when we show something thematically, we want to depict something that reflects our history, culture, the tales heard over and over again from our grandmothers—and in doing so, somewhere down the line we preserve them through art. I can proudly say that this unparalleled creative art is probably the only one of its kind in the world, probably. This is why theme works are important. But artists often also embroider floral designs like bel-bootiyan [a floral embroidery pattern], trees and nature to simply make it look beautiful. My art is meant to voice, convey, and show something which is why the theme is important for my creations too.


RN: How many embroidery artists are there in Chamba currently?

IS: I do not know the exact number, but at least 50. People come to me to learn as well and 10–12 girls work for me. So, there are those who come to learn as well as those who come seeking a career. I instruct them when they come with the fabric, thread and equipment, after which they work at their homes and come back after 810 days to show me their work, take my suggestions or ask me questions about it.


RN: How is the fabric and thread sourced? 

RKN: In our time, the raw materials came from the government to our centre with which our trainees made the products for sale. Our threads used to be dyed by Prem Lalji, the master artist and designer. Colours fade easily from threads nowadays, they are different from the ones we used to have.

IS: We get some from Delhi, while some we find in Chamba itself. Nowadays, we face some difficulty in sourcing threads, which we call pat ka dhaaga [untwisted silk floss] as there is lack of quality threads necessary for our art, so we stock up every time we find threads somewhere in colours we need.


RN: What is a Chamba embroidery artist’s preferred fabric to work on and why?

IS: Muslin and khaddar are preferred by [embroidery] artists. I like muslin best because the colours and stitches come out very well on muslin which makes it really fun to work with muslin.

Pinky Sharma (PS): I like working on silk and muslin the most. I like light colours, so I choose fabrics which are not very dark, and I do intricate work on them. Previously, the Chamba embroidery used to be done in a single direction but now I like working in different directions. For example, a flower has different parts like its leaves. As a trainee I learnt weaving all in the same direction from above to below. As I have gained experience over the years, I can also experiment with directions in which I want to stitch.


RN: How long does it take for an artist to complete one rumal?

PS: Depending on the detailing it could take a few days to months. I currently have 15–20 orders which I am working on. If one rumal has 4–5in sized figures, it takes me a whole day or 7–8 hours. The themes we work on has so many figures, flora and fauna, hence it takes quite some time to finish a piece of work. Since I work more with intricate designs, they are more time consuming.


RN: Paintings can mix colours and create shades easily. Since this embroidery interprets paintings, how do you shade using threads?

PS: It is more difficult to shade using threads because all kinds of colours according to various shades have to be available as well. It cannot be done as in a painting, but I like shading in my works by using a mix of threads and playing with colours. For example, if I make a flower and want dual colours in it, I use one dark and one light thread to embroider two halves of it.


RN: What is the relationship between the embroidery artist and the miniaturist like?

Parikshit Sharma (PRK): If one has to make impeccable embroidery, the line drawing has to be equally good, which can be achieved by a miniaturist. These days many embroidery artists neglect miniaturists and trace paintings out on their own. The problem with that is that after the fourth trace it fails as the figure starts losing its sharpness. When I make rumals with Indu Sharmaji, ours is exactly like the old collaborative process between the miniaturist and embroiderer. I also like to then employ the old techniques like preparing the fabric using the rice-water process and so on.

IS: It is a collaboration; for instance, Parikshitji and I work together. For order work rumals, we already know what is to be done as per the given instructions by the customer. When I wish to make something of my own, I tell him what I need to be drawn. Ofttimes, when I do not know which colour to use, I seek his advice. Being a miniaturist, he is more knowledgeable about colours since miniatures have a greater focus on usage of colours and shades. When it comes to designing, I tell him what I want like the size of figures, the types of motifs, the style of painting, and so on. I like making unique works. Parikshitji and I made the piece on Manimahesh Yatra [a pilgrimage in Chamba], Vishnu’s dashavatar [10 incarnations] which have not been attempted like this before. We made it from our imagination, taking cues from books and the internet as well.


RN: What is the traditional technique of doing a miniature painting in this artform?

PRK: After dampening the fabric in rice water, it [the fabric piece] is stuck on a plain surface and left to dry. Once dried, the artist makes the first line drawing on it in sindoori [vermillion colour], after which a direct coat is made with black colour. The artist also ensures that the painting follows the requirements of embroidery and not a miniature painting. We use natural colours, mineral or vegetable dye. For example, we grind cinnabar and process it to get rid of the lead in it to remove the black and make it red. We make yellow and green from the flora here. The gold dust is made by a family in Jaipur through a special process. Both gold and silver are original.


RN: Would you say that revival of Chamba embroidery has helped women become financially independent by giving them an alternative career?

IS: Yes, absolutely. When I had started, I did not think that I would work till this stage, but I did. The catch is that this is a time-consuming art form and kids these days lack patience. One needs at least a year to learn the embroidery, after which, if they find a good teacher, they can find work as well on their own merit. Some come only to learn, and their journey is limited to that. Some come with the determination to carry on with it after having learnt it. The girls who come to learn from me, I give them work of the designers who are associated with me. So, I have two–four girls who come to learn and six–sevenwho are working as well.


RN: Keeping in mind the current arts scenario in Chamba, do you think there is a need for more miniature painters?

PS: The Chamba embroidery has been a joint venture since its inception. Hence, there is a need for more painters because the Pahari miniature painting tradition came to a standstill in the ’70s for 30 years when only Chamba Rumal drawings were made. Miniatures did not flourish as such because there was a lack of artists and old artists tended to keep the knowledge limited to their family. Hailing from a family of artists, our guruji took interest in art and his guru Dr. Vishwachandra Ohri encouraged him. Guruji’s father sent him to Banaras to train under Sharda Prasadji, when he was 13 years old. From then on, he trained under various artists from various places like Rajasthan and Kangra, and he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2012. Because of his initiatives, there are three–four artists in Chamba and some 20 in Kangra as well.

The government has recently taken up the revival of the Mandi school as well, so more artists will come up soon. When the number of artists reach 100, we can say the revival has come of age. This will be gradual since this art cannot be learnt in 10–15 days, it has to be achieved through the guru-shishya [teacher-pupil] tradition.


RN: What is your vision regarding the Chamba embroidery and its artists?

Heena: It would be nice to see innovations in themes depicting issues of the present to tell the story of contemporary times through embroidery. It is imperative for artists to be able to think independently, which is why education is very important. There is a lack of education, especially among women in Chamba, till date. Without education, artists cannot find the courage to raise their voices when they are undervalued or underpaid, which is something that happens frequently as middlemen take the profits, which is the case in almost every industry today. So, they need education to stand their ground and demand their due artistic respect. I myself used to be naive until I struggled which made me take up the decision of educating myself to assert myself as an artist. I used to be no different when I started out as a 14-year old. To this day, signing one's name in their embroidery is a concept that artists are yet to fully embrace as they feel it is unnecessary or because they are embarrassed. It should not be a case where one finds their names in G.I-survey lists but not on their creations. An artist’s value should never die, and credit should be given where due.