The diminishing handicrafts of Himachal


Write-up and photos by: Saroj Thakur

It is human tendency to take for granted what he gets easily. Perhaps this is the way it had been for me when it came to Himachali handicrafts, but not any more. This realisation struck me hard when I saw people from outside the state, coming to our Institute (National Institute of Technology, Hamirpur); searching for Himachali handicrafts to be taken back home as gift items and my general awareness in the field would not be any more than Kullu Shawls. I would think hard and would be bankrupt for any more information.

I was ashamed for not telling others about the culture and heritage of our state. Handicrafts of a state represent the peculiarities of the culture of that area. I thought hard and came up with so many items that I had taken so much for granted that putting them as items of handicrafts never occurred to me. I raked up my brain for all the stored information in this regard and suddenly memories came flooding to me.

The Kullu shawls were all time favourite and came to my mind in a flash. The love and care that my Ma poured to spinning of the fine Pashmeena thread would engulf me in its weave even while imagining about the shawl! But when I started to think about smaller gifts, to my amazement, there were such beautiful items contending with each other.

While coming back from school, I remembered standing outside the Himachal Emporium on the Mall, Shimla, and critically analyse the dolls depicting life from various parts of Himachal. We would stop and watch (window shopping was a term not yet in my vocabulary) for a long time the beautiful Kullu doll having a small lamb in her arms. I would wonder how someone could make such pretty dolls that seemed to be miniatures of the real damsels. The variety was endless! I am sure that these dolls can be exquisite gift items representing Himachali way of life.

Poolan: The perfect fit for your feet

Himachali Poolan, the slip-ons to protect one’s feet during the hard winters, is a rare example of beauty and utility. Made from the dried stems of the opium plant these Poolan are used to wear indoors where leather slippers are not allowed even today.

Their tops are made in colorful threads that surely must have been a designer’s pride to make. How ingenuously thought of and designed!

Poolan kept the feet warm during the harsh winter months and remain, even today, the only form of foot wear allowed to put on while working in the kitchen. The colourful designs make them all the more beautiful. A handicraft that needs to be promoted for its sheer beauty and utility.

Chamba Rumaals: Fit for frames
Then there were the beautifully embroidered Chamba Rumaals mounted on wooden frames and with a rotating base so that the embroidery could be seen from both the sides. The fine embroidery using various hues of silk threads made the figures come alive and the beauty was that both the sides of the cloth had the same embroidery. I used to think, “Don’t they knot the thread?”

My little mind could not think beyond as knotting the thread properly was the first lesson that my Ma taught me when I first handles the needle in my little hands! It was nothing less than a miracle for me to have a work of embroidery that had no knot on either side of the work and there was no right or wrong side of the embroidery. It was much later that I came to know that these Rumaals were considered auspicious and were gifted on sacred occasions to guests and relatives.

Binnas: Dry leaves to sit on
A recent visit to my village brought more of Himachali Handicraft, little known to the world outside, to my notice. I could see variety of things that some dexterous hands had made some year back and today they lie neglected! I was wonderstruck at the ingenuity of the women of the yore. How painfully would they find usefulness of all such things that we discard as useless today!

How environment friendly were all these hand made utility items! The women of olden times would make use of all the leftovers after the grains were separated from the chaff. The Binnas, made from the dry leaf-covers of maize corn would be used for sitting. I could not resist the charm of the intricately woven Binnas. There were some others mad from the dry leaves of Turmeric or even Date plants!

Chhadd: A basket for the groom’s clothes

The Chhadd, a kind of a basket made from the dry wheat stems, would be used during all auspicious occasions to carry anything that was sacred – be it the groom’s clothes! I thought about the burning of wheat chaff during the winnowing season and the harmful environmental pollution that it results in. I asked the village women, “Why don’t they make such beautiful and utility items now?” The answer was plain and simple, the wheat grain is separated from the chaff in the machines and the left over barn cannot be used in making such things. And moreover who had the time and the inclination as well? I looked around the rural homes and found foam cushions with rexin covers adorning the chairs. I was sad.

Katawain: A cut work by the Soods
The Sood families of the Paragpur area are known for making cut-work designs better known as appliqué work but known in the local dialect as – Katawain. The deep red cloth would be used on the off-white background and the cut-work designs would be intricate indeed. The hemming would be so fine that years of use would not displace one single thread! The style of hemming was known as – Tuppu.

Khandolu: Old clothes put to good use

I pity the young generation to be made to use plastic and foam from their infancy. The love and warmth of Khandolu, made by dexterous hands, using worn-out clothes can mever be replaced by foamed covers that wrap the young infants today.

The old worn-out clothes would be used to make Khind and Khandolu and would be adorned with red appliqués. So much for ingenuity! Paragpur’s Heritage village abounds in all such items that the women of the past would make to utilize the discarded objects and would turn them into beautiful objects to utilize in their life where every single thread, cloth or a weed was put to judicious use!

Embroidery fit for frame

A beautiful piece of embroidery that I got to see was about 80 years old but the love and care gone into the making of it still filled it with vibrant hues. My friend plans to have it framed and use it as a wall hanging which, perhaps, was a piece from the blouse of her great-grandmother!

Silken balls: Playmates for young brides

Another find from the old treasure house was small Balls made of silken threads. As girls would be married off at a very small age so their dossier would include some toys as well and these silk balls would be inseparable part of the trousseau of any bridal finery! The fineness of the embroidery tells an untold tale of the perfection that was the rule of the day. The beautiful balls looked so lucrative even today, lucrative enough for anyne to play with the. But did the young brides ever get any time to play with these after their marriage—remains a question to me!

Kajlottu: A space for kohl

There is another one of the rare find – the Kajlottu – a small doll like shape, made from silk cloth, that is used to store Kohl and it is a must to be given during the marriage ceremony. I am sure there could not be any better use of left-over cut-pieces in vibrant hues than what this is put to. One of my acquaintances has kept one such Kajlottu in her locker so that she could use it during her son’s marriage. This speaks for the importance that we still have for the traditions of our culture but unfortunately the means to keep this tradition alive are not being given importance.

I wish that some NGO would work to create awareness among village women to continue the tradition of handicrafts and the cultural tradition is kept alive. This could be a source of earning as well. I have observed that all traditionally made handicrafts are environment friendly. The Binnas, Poolans, Chhadds are made of parts of plants that are discarded these days. I feel sorry that rural living style has changed a lot and foam and rexin have replaced the traditional utility items. The plastic baskets in place of traditional Chhads make me sad. And the worst part is that these old items are brutally neglected and instead shining plastic products are proudly displayed!

The most interesting fact that I noticed was the creativity, ingenuity and the workmanship of women who had not learnt any art form in a designing school! The necessity and the creative fulfillment have been the only driving forces for such creative outpourings. If only the modern women had such quality, I am sure the modern machines would facilitate such skills, and can produce unparalleled results in creativity!

All pictures are copyright of Saroj Thakur

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