Stories are the most fragile and ephemeral of historical archives. I have always been enticed by the beauty of these generational documents. Some of my favourite passed on stories come embroidered delicately on the silk 12-inch squares of Chamba Rumals: they chronicle the mythological stories of Gods such as Vishnu in his many forms and even the stories which come passed down in the royal courts of the Mughals and Rajputs in India. However, these stories tend to leave the women, who are instrumental in catalyzing change and revolution, in the background of historical documentation.
These recreated Chamba Rumals are a re-telling of stories which bring to the foreground female voices and elucidate the intrinsic role that women played, and continue to play, in the Indian landscape.
Chamba Rumals from ancient India are small hand-embroidered handkerchiefs that were made in the village of Chamba, Himachal Pradesh. They are adorned with dophar embroidery, which can be viewed from two perspectives; thus, the back of the rumal has the same embroidery form as the front. They illustrate stories and epics of the time. Reminiscent of the dophar technique, these handkerchiefs draw a parallel with the way we see our history as well: from more than one perspective.
The first rumal: a recreation of the epic Ramayana, while a triumphant tale of emancipation, talks about the way a man saves his wife, and considers her impure after. In my iteration, the women in this scene are in fact saving the men, who, here, play the ‘damsel’ in distress.
Crossing the Palk Strait
After Sita was kidnapped by Ravana and kept in the sanctuary of his vast gardens in Sri Lanka, Rama (Sita’s husband) embarked on the valiant journey to cross the strip of water that separated the island of Sri Lanka from the mainland. The only way to do so was to fill the ocean with enchanted rocks which, instead of sinking, floated and created a path for Lord Rama to save his wife. However, why is it that Sita needed her husband to save her? In this iteration of the famous epic Ramayana, Sita is not being saved by the mighty Rama, but rather there is a role reversal which gives Sita agency and authority over herself.
The second rumal: a modern-day shikargah (hunting scene) shows women mounted atop horses and catching their prey, instead of the valiant man (for whom hunting as a sport was exclusively reserved).
Nur Jahan’s Tiger Hunt
One of the most enjoyed sports of the Mughal era, hunting was a leisure reserved for men. However, Nur Jahan, one of the most iconic women of the Mughal Dynasty in India—who was known for her keenness with politics and court matters; her love for architecture, poetry and botany; and her mighty fierceness on the battlefield—was one of the best hunters of the time. She was called the “tiger-slayer.” In a period when women were concealed behind the veil of submission, Nur Jahan was an idol who defied the confines of societal expectations and rose above the roles of domesticity and piety that were given to women. This shikargah shows Nur Jahan, the sole female hunter, in the midst of an ocean of male hunters, catching her prey with ease and grace—as is the nature of women in all fields of existence.
The third rumal: a mobile shrine of the eight Mahavidyas (the ten Mahavidyas, or Wisdom Goddesses, represent distinct aspects of divinity intent on guiding the spiritual seeker toward liberation) proudly exemplifies the manner in which women were worshipped, yet treated as objects of the patriarchy for the better part of Indian history.
Kali is the first of the eight Mahavidyas. She exemplifies the might and fury of a woman. However, she is not always known as the “Dark Goddess.” She is also an occult symbol of Mother Nature. The multiplicity of a woman character is exhibited here: a woman can be as fierce as she is nurturing. Kali is one of the eight reminders for us as a society that women can be—and are—beautiful, strong individuals, who deserve respect and celebration.
Yukti Agarwal is an artist, designer and social activist who is studying at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design. She started an NGO with her grandmother and dreams of seeing a day when each girl child in her country (India) gets the education she deserves.
Read more about these Chamba Rumals and her social initiative here: www.handmakinghope.com
One thought on “Tiny Tales and A Woman’s Way”
Resonates with Steadmsn’s The Tiny House, perhaps?