Car full of tourists flock to the town of Chamba as a part of their conducted tour in Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh. They roam around the places of tourist interest and return back without having the true taste of the tradition and culture of the historic Chamba District. During our visit to Chamba this summer, we got the real feel of what is Chamba when we had the opportunity to step into the famous Bhuri Singh Musuem.
Bhuri Singh Museum, Chamba
The museum has the rarest of the rare collections of historic and archaeological artefacts including historic manuscripts, Chamba paintings, sculptured fountain slabs from the 10th century, and the most amazing feat – the Chamba Rumal.
The Chamba Rumal
This was my first rendezvous with the Chamba Rumal delicately showcased in the museum. The Rumal looks very simple. But if noted carefully, it is an amazing feat of exquisite and delicate hand stitched (embroidery) colourful designs, collage and even an entire painting on a piece of cloth (Rumal). The base of the rumal could either be either simple cotton or a silken fabric. Yet whatever is the material, the end product is as graceful as the world famous Kashmiri hand-stitched carpet or Bengal’s “Katha-stitched sarees”. I was literally awe struck by the aura of the Chamba Rumal displayed in the museum’s showcase.
A Chamba Rumal (Courtesy: Ms. Siraj Begum, Firdaus Handicrafts, Chamba)
I did not watch that a lady was standing behind me for a quite long time. The spell was cut short by her polite and gentle remark “Sir, are you interested about the famous Chamba Rumal?” She was none other than the booking staff at the main entrance ticket counter. My reply was obviously and overwhelmed “YES”. She took out a visiting card from her wallet and politely told me, “Sir, if you are genuinely interested about this lost art, you must visit this lady, named Siraj Begum, who had tirelessly dedicated her life to keep our lost traditional art alive with her NGO named “Firdaus Hadicraft Centre”. Her workshop cum sales outlet is located a few yards ahead beside the city hospital”.
Way to Firdaus Handicrafts
We (My wife, my eight year old son and myself) hardly wasted any time. We took out our tablet. We googled and soon found the way leading to Firdaus Handicrafts. It was located hardly a stone throw distance from the museum. We took the sloped road beside the hospital and when we finally reached the shop, to our shock it was shuttered down. The shop was closed. We were seriously disappointed. My son was pleading me to return back.
Firdaus Handicrafts, Chamba (Courtesy: Siraj Begum)
I found that the shop or showroom was the extension of a humble mansion having an iron gate which was opened leading to a small courtyard. I took the courage to knock and get in. Seeing a stranger in me a house lady came out and gently asked what we were looking for. We introduced ourselves as tourists and showed her the card given by the museum staff and expressed our interests about the famous Chamba Rumal and its ambassador Ms. Siraj Begum. The lady gently asked us to wait at the entrance of the showroom and asked a boy from outside to draw the shutters up for letting us in. By the mean time she introduced herself as the famous “Siraj Begum” owner of Firdaus Handicrafts, whom we thought would be a lady of immense stature and personality. We could not just believe a person so humble, so down to the earth like a normal elderly person of our family could be “The great Social Entrepreneur and Figurehead – SIRAJ BEGUM”.
Siraj Begum, a social entrepreneur who had dedicated her life to her passion – The Chamba Rumal
When we stepped into her showroom, what took our immediate attention was the endless display of the innumerable awards, trophies, merit certificates she and her organization had won over the years. The next thing that mesmerized our eyes were her out of the world display of collections of Chamba Rumals (framed as well as unframed).
Exploring the wonders of the Chamba Rumal at Firdaus Handicrafts (Courtesy: Siraj Begum)
We didn’t ask her any questions. Probably she knew it quiet well what was the purpose of our visit to her workshop and she was very frank about it “I would show you what we do here”. She first took the pains to show us the best of best Chamba Rumals that were meticulously displayed in her showcases and explained us how much pain the creators of the Rumal had taken for days and months to give the final touch to a finished product so exquisite and so delicate like that of the Chamba Rumal. She showed us a photograph in the wall where we found that a number of young ladies were engaged in hand weaving and stitching the Rumal. Her organization was more of a NGO where she herself took the pains to educate, train and groom unemployed, needy ladies from the household and even Chamba-art lovers to weave and stitch the Chamba Rumals. Each product was priceless in terms of their quality and price tag. We found that the minimum price tag of a medium sized Chamba Rumal started from Rs 1000 and it went upto even lakhs of rupees per piece of a Rumal depending upon the size and the complexity of the designs hand woven in them. She pointed out that her mentees were not only from Chamba alone, they travelled far from other Himachal districts and towns like Bilaspur, Mandi and remote places of the Chamba district itself by sheer passion and love of the art. This was the greatness of Ms Begum as a social entrepreneur. Her charming personality, true passion and love for the lost Chamba art and her dedication to groom and train the next generation to make the art immortal was her real achievement. Empowering the new generation with a lost art which has immense potential for revenue generation is the magnitude of the social impact she had created by her tireless efforts.
Firdaus Handicraft’s collection of exquisite Chamba Rumals (Courtesy: Siraj Begum)
She explained that she was aware of similar arts in the country even that of Bengal’s Katha-Stitch saress. But the uniqueness of the Chamba Rumal lies in its “Two-sided embroidery” – commonly known as “Do-rukha” stitching that is hardly practiced by any similar form of art other than the Kashmiri hand carpet weavers. This unique feature gives the Chamba Rumal look the same from both sides of the fabric used for embroidery. She informed us that she her NGO had opened her training cum workshop in her house attached to her showroom. At present she is having more than 50 mentees who are being trained to become masters of the Chamba Rumal art.
Recognition and Awards
One of the major awards we saw at her showroom was the Himachal Excellence Award 2012, First position State award in Arts (1983), Best NGO of the year Award (Divya Himachal), Best Craftsman Award – International Minjar Fair, Awards for individual recognition from the Himachal Government to name a few.
Awards and Achievements of Firdaus Handicrafts (Courtesy: Siraj Begum)
We could not just restrict ourselves from having a sample of one of her Chamba Rumals as a memento. It would remain as an immortal testimony of meeting a great leader, social reformer, art-lover and a passionate entrepreneur we found in Ms. Siraj Begum.
How to Reach
Firdaus Handicrafts from Bhuri Singh Musuem
Hospital Road, Near Sadar Thana.
Mohalla Pakka Tala, Chamba,
Himachal Pradesh 176310
Written By and Photography: Indranil Mutsuddi
Snaps Courtesy: Siraj Begum