Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art

Rasamandal: In Indian Textiles

Pathak, Anamika


The Harivansha, Gita Govinda and Vishnu, Bhavata, Bharmavaivart Purana are a few important texts which talk in detail about Krishna’s life and his spiritual teachings. These teaching were propagated through religious teachers, priests and saints in different periods in their own ways. Various stories from Krishna’s life, his lilas (his deeds/performances towards the human being) became the source of inspiration for the artists to carve, or put in paint the life stories on stone, bronze, terracotta, paper or cloth, which became the most effective way to reach the common man. Interestingly, weavers and embroiderers also followed the path of other artisans and they made a number of pichhavais, Odhanis, dusbalas, coverlets, hangings etc. which illustrate various life-scenes of lord Krishna though weaving, printing and embroidery work. Krishna in textiles is usually represented in his famous posture of Venugopal through weaving. Episodes of Krishna’s life were illustrated in Kalamkaries through printing and painted techniques. The maximum depiction of Krishna’s life scene was done through the embroidery work of different regions. The most popular motif often found in textiles is the Rasamandal or Rasa through embroideries in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, painting on Nathadwara picchavais, and machine made lave pichhavai. Authors have discussed sculptures, terracottas and paintings at length but Rasa on textiles attracted little attention. Rasa as a subject, as a motif is difficult in weaving, but it is beautifully illustrated on embroidered rumals/coverlets from Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat; it has stylistic variations-painted and lace pichhavais.  There are few points in this context, which will be examined here.

Before going to the subject of Rasa in textiles in detail, brief explanation of the concept of ‘Rasa’ as discussed in literature is necessary. ‘Rasa’ or ‘circle dance’ of Lord Krishna with gopis (cow herds) on the Autumn Moon is one of the most passionate lilas of Bhagwan  Shri Krishna, Which is full of life, yet close to God. The most appropriate meaning of Rasa is that the ‘gopis’ are individual souls (jivatmas) and ‘he’ is the supreme soul. (Paramatma) their love is the longing of the individual for the divine. All impediments must be removed before the union takes place.

Artistic composition of such a highly philosophical subject is well conceived and transcribed by the Indian artists as reflected in various art forms. Artists had portrayed the subject as beautifully as narrated in literature. The usual depiction of Rasa as it appeared in different mediums is that of Krishna dancing, with the gopis in circle around the seated or standing image of Krishna who is sometimes with Radha. Musicians, drummers, plants, trees, birds, moon etc. are often portrayed around the Rasa  to give the ambience of forest. The whole composition is done within a square frame, which adds to the beauty and the artistic sense of the artist.

Any motif, when it starts from the temple (our temples have the credit of introducing most of the art motifs) and reaches the common man makes evident the real achievement of the artist. Almost a similar thing happens with the Rasa motif. Starting with stone sculptures it reached the hands of the women of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat who expressed it in the form of delicate embroidered coverlets which makes clear the popularity of the subject. As Rasa motif is often found in embroideries, and embroidery is considered to be a folk art so it is a real achievement of the artist that he had made the complex motif in such an easy way that it communicated even the spiritual meaning effectively. Carving of the Rasa motif in relief, on the plain surface of stone and terracotta, or making the colourful painting on paper is easy in comparison to weaving. First we will consider Rasa as it appeared on different textiles. The embroiderers of Himachal Pradesh generally exploit this motif by doing embroidery on rumal, better known as ‘Chamb rumal’. Apart from Chamba rumal this motif is quite often found on ‘Chaklas’, embroidered coverlets, of Gujarat. Two types of pichhavais are also found with the similar motif, one is painted pichhavai and the other is, the machine made lace pichhavai. Before the study of numerous Rasas on Chamba rumal, let us consider the Chamba rumals of Himachal Pradesh.

The most picturesque and colorful embroidery was done on Chamba rumals of Himachal Pradesh, which gained popularity around 18th -19th century. The best-known rumals are from Chamba,

probably they were made at Chamba and hence it got the name of Chamba rumal. Usually these rumals are embroidered on white hand spun muslin cloth (the use of coloured rumals is also attested, National Museum has red coloured muslin Chamba rumal) with colorful floss silk of untwisted threads. Double satin and chain stitches are the main stitches used for embroidering these rumals which give the effect of do-rukha or double sided. Sometimes it becomes difficult to identify the reverse side of the rumal, which is its beauty. These rumals were made for covering the gifts offered to bridegroom from bride’s side or vice versa at the time of marriage, or as cover to the offering made to God. ‘Folk’ and ‘Classical’ are the two types of Chamba rumals, which were found simultaneously during the 18th 19th centuries. As far as the patterns and motif are concerned. Depiction of the Rasa motif is most popular, other motifs are inspired by Krishna’s life-scenes, Siva, Rama, Hanuman, Hunting, Nayika-bheda and geometric designs.

The National Museum has several Chamba rumals  in its collection, which depict the Rasa theme both in folk and classical style. Both types of rumals beautifully illustrate the Rasa motif in their own way. It is very difficult to draw a line between the folk and classical style, still, by placing together and studying them thoroughly it can be said that there is a drastic contrast between them. In comparison to the classical style, the folk style of rumals often show the poor lines drawn in bright colours, even the embroidery work (stitches) is done in a very rough manner. After studying the folk style of Chamba rumals, few observations can be made about them.

Mostly, the folk style Chamba rumals (which are in larger numbers in comparison to classical ones) depict four or five pairs of Krishna and gopis, in dancing posture. These figures do not give the clear facial features; the human figures are done in folkish style. In some of the rumals it becomes very difficult to identify the figures of Krishna and gopis. Generally, Krishna is embroidered in the centre, but sometimes, the floral motif is also done in the centre. Most of these rumals are done on coarse cotton cloth embroidered with bright colour silken threads. The National Museum has several such rumals. One such rumal depicts four pairs of Krishna and gopis dancing around the Vishnu figure (PI. 1). Here the artist had made both the figures in similar fashion; both wear long tunic type langha, choli and patka. The blue colour of the face and crown indentify Krishna. The Gopis and Krishna are dancing, holding a flower in hand. The usual floral creeper borders is done in colourful manner. Depiction of animals and birds are around the Rasa and side borders. Double satin and cross-stitches are used for embroidering the patterns, while edges are worked in buttonhole stitches. Cotton cloth has been used for embroidery and interestingly there is a triangular seal, which reads, “FINLAY CAMBELL & Co. MANCHESTER” On the basis of line work, done in folk style, the embroidery work, and the use of bright colours, this rumal can be dated to the first quarter of the 20th century.

Some of the rumals are worked in the folk style but done in a relatively better way from artistic point of view. The National Museum has one such rumal which depicts four pairs of dancing couples around a seated Vishnu image within a circle (PI. 2) on the muslin cloth. Treatment of dancers and their facial appearance indicate that it was done in folk style, but the balance of colours and the beautiful costumes make it a rather good quality work. The pattern is embroidered with double satin stitch, which is of a good quality when compared to the earlier one. Cross and buttonhole stitches are also used –all this appears to be of the last quarter of the 19th century. So in folk style also rumals are done in the beautiful manner.

The second group of Rasa on Chamba rumals is of the ‘classical’ style, done in the most beautiful manner with good line work, soft subdued colours and good embroidery work. After studying the classical Chamba rumals depicting the Rasa subject a few observations may be made regarding its stylistic variation in regard to composition, movement and number of figures, colours, stitches, etc. These variations appeared because these were made in different periods and regions of Himachal Pradesh. The most common features in these rumals

is that the artists of Chamba rumals have generally used blue colour for the depiction of Krishna (same as n paintings), Kesariya  (yellowish orange) for depiction of Krishna’s dhoti. Gopi are portrayed in a colourful manner, usually in langha. Choli and odhani. Apart from similarity, some variations are also there.

First is the central figure in the rumals.  Usually Krishna is depicted either scated or standing on a lotus in the innermost circle, sometimes we get Radha also along with Krishna. Apart from Krishna the lotus is also found in the innermost circle in some of the rumals. So it can be said that the depiction of lotus is the symbolic representation of Krishna. Besides these, there is an interesting Chamba rumal in the collection of the National Museum that represents the sun symbol in the innermost circle (PI. 3). This rumal depicts five pairs of Krishna gopis dancing around the sun. The large circular sun having flames all around is depicted with eyes, hair, mouth and moustache. All the dancers are in motion and interestingly they are holding sticks and playing with it in a fashion similar to the Guarati community’s ‘Dandiya Dance’ during the Navaratri Festival. The broad border illustrates the heavily embroidered floral creeper designs and are worked in bright colours. Use of bright colours, style of gopi’s costumes ornamention, jewellery and

the use of double satin stitch (not with fineness) give the impression of its late workmanship, around first quarter of the 20th century.

The next important aspect that appears in the classical Chamba rumals  is the number of dancing couples in the circle. Four pairs of dancers is the minimum number and the maximum is eight pairs. Quire often five, six and seven pairs of Krishna and gopis are found in these rumals. Early rumals generally depict four or five pairs of dancers and slowly and gradually it increase up to eight pairs. The National Museum has a very early rumal which depicts four pairs of dancers; all are holding each others hands while dancing (PI. 4). These are embroidered on fine muslin cloth in fine double satin stitch with Chinese threads. Extremely fine line work and use of soft subdued colours for dancer’s costumes suggest its date to first quarter of nineteenth century.

In the number of dancers there is one rare and most important rumal in the National Museum collection (PI. 5). In this extremely rare Chamba rumal depiction of double circles of dancers around the seated Krishna and Radha figure, is noteworthy. Interestingly enough, seated Radha-Krishna is shown in the square frame instead of circular frame. In this rumal Krishna is dancing with gopis who had formed the two circles. This type of narration can be seen in some miniature/pichhavai paintings of Rajasthan. Loard Siva, Ganesha and Brahma are witnessing the dance of Krishna. Musicians, trees and peacocks are worked all around. Although the line work and style of embroidery are not of good quality and appear to be in folk style, still this type of double circle dance is rarely seen on textiles. It is an important work of art. The subject, narrative style, subdued coloured silk thread and stitches indicate its date around second quarter of the 19th century.

The third point is the dancing posture of the dancers. In most of the rumals the dancers are depicted in two different postures while dancing. In the first style the dancers are shown dancing and facing each other, while in the second style these dancers do not face each other, they are depicted dancing behind each other. Another observation is that in some of the rumals dancers are depicted facing the inner most circle and in some rumals they faced the outer side. Next is the dancing movement of the dancers in the rumals.

Usually, the steps of dancers are shown in movement, in rhythm, as if they are dancing on the fast music with full involvement. In a few early rumals dancers are shown in static form without any movement, as if they are dancing at one place only. It reminds the prevalent dance style of Himachal region where the movement of dancers is slow in comparison to Punjab areas, where the movement of dance is very fast.

As noted earlier, the folk style rumals do not care for line work and therefore fee hand work can be seen. On the other hand, most of the classical Chamba rumals are done with extremely fine line work, which indicates that this kind of work is definitely done by the experienced and trained artists. By examining the line drawing, composition, subject, embroidery work and the colours it has been found that there is a close affinity between the classical Chamba rumals and miniature paintings of this region. The use of soft and subdued colours, well balanced colour contrast and the subject composition all point towards the workmanship of professional artists who were actively working in the courts of Himachal Pradesh. By now most of the scholars have accepted that Pahari miniature artists had done the line drawing of classical Chamba rumals.

                in this context there is an interesting point to be noted regarding the subject of Rasa. This Rasa motif is not found in Pahari miniature paintings as prominently as in the numerous Chamba rumals. The reason could be that the Pahari miniature artists who were working for the court of Himachal Pradesh probably were not free to work accordingly to their own choice. Artists had to follow the instructions of their masters; usually they were supposed to paint the rulers or the court activities or whatever their masters asked them to paint. And while making the rumals these artists were free to depict the subject of their own choice, which means that the subject of Rasa was close to a Pahari miniature artist, and that is why this subject is found so often in Chamba rumals.

Apart from Chamba rumals, one more kind of embroidery, ‘Chakla’ of Gujarat, also illustrates the Rasa motif. ‘Chakla’ is the term used for square embroidered rumals, made of either cotton or satin silk base cloth and embroidered with silken threads.

These Chakla were popular among the kati communities in Katihawad region of Gujarat in and around 8th-19th centuries. The Indian tradition of re-cycling things helps not to waste things, but indirectly it is a loss of old traditional things, especially in the field of handicrafts and handlooms, therefore early textile pieces cannot be found.  Chakla is one such example, which was used for wrapping the gifts of bride often given to the bride by her mother. Later on these were used as hangings to decorate the bride’s new house or often converted into covers and stuffed with cotton. Usually, the Chaklas were embroidered with elongated darn stitches and a type of feather stitch. Later on, around the 20th century, mochi craftsmanship was introduced and Chaklas were made in the chain stitch also. Generally, mochi embroiderers were engaged in the service of Kathi nobility of the period. They were employed mainly for preparing the embroidered articles for the dowry of the Kathi brides. The ground cloth of Chakla is generally of cotton or silk in indigo, red, orange, yellow or green colour. For embroidery, the artists always used the silk threads and the bright colours like red, yellow, green, maroon, white and black. These Chakla usually depict vividly subjects or motifs such as geometric patterns, flora-fauna and the Rasa.

The National Museum has a beautiful Chakla that depicts the Rasa motif in the most colourful manner (PI. 6). Four pairs of dancing Krishna and gopis around the central figure of standing Krishna and Radha, is shown in the circle. All the four pairs are facing each other very passionately and with full involvement. Dancers are in full movement and they are holding, the stick in their hands. Around the Rasa there is the circular floral border and corners of the Chakla depict wrestling, a pair of peacock, parrot and monkey are on the other side. The Chakla is beautifully embroidered with close herringbone stitch and outlined with chain stitch on the yellow satin silk background, which has a purple border. This border depicts the floral creeper pattern in a colourful manner. An additional zari border is attached to the purple border which indicates that this Chakla may have been used for hanging after being used for wrapping gift. Its date appears to be around the first quarter of the 20th century.

It will be interesting to compare the Rasa on both the rumals as these have some similarities and some differences. Before discussing the similarities let us see the differences. The basic difference between the two rumals is the base fabric.

Muslin cloth had been used for embroidering the Chamba rumal while coarse cotton or satin silk has been used for embroidering the Chakla. It may be noted that double satin stitch is generally used in Chamba rumals and mochi stitch is frequently used in Chakla. Colours used for embroidering the Chamba rumals are soft and subdued, while Chaklas were generally of bright colours.

As compared to differences, there are more similarities. The first and the foremost similarity between both the rumals is their utility. Both rumals are for covering gifts during the marriage used. Next is size. The Chamba rumal and the Chakla are quite close to each other. The usual size of the Chamba rumals is 78×77 cm. and the size of Chakla is 79×80 cm. The third point is, that in Chamba rumals the floral creeper border is done to make the square frame that is used as the main pattern for decorating the rumal. This is the case of Chakla also. The subject of both the rumals also has a few motifs common to each other, such as geometric forms, ogee, flora and fauna and Rasa. Now let us look at the Rasa rumals. In both the rumals composition of Rasa subject is done in similar manner. Depicting the four pairs of Krishna and gopis within circular frame, movement of dancers, depiction of Krishna and Radha in the innermost circle in Chakla – all these are worked in the same style as in Chamba rumal. By comparing other things also it appears that there are ore similarities in composition, design and size.

It will not be out of context to mention the discovery of B.N. Goswamy regarding the original homeland of Chamba Miniature artists. Prof. Goswamy is of the opinion that some of the miniature artists of Chamba had come from Saurashtra as mentioned in the “Babis of Pandas” of Haridwar. If this theory is accepted then the reason of similarities in both the rumals is clear. Probably some Gujarati artists, who settled in Chamba, Combined their own traditions with the local traditions to produce the rumals.

Next are the two pichhavais (used as hangings behind the images of gods in the shrine),- the painted pichhavai and lace pichhavai. Painted, embroidered or woven, large (around 121 to 315 cm) pichhavais, were used as hanging at the back of the image. Sometimes these were used to decorate the temple and walls, especially during, the ceremonies, related to Krishna, which were the main features of the vallabhacharya had founded this sect. Usually painted on dark blue or white cotton cloth, these pichhavais were painted with white grey, blue-black, yellow and orange colours with touches of silver and gold dust. These large pichhavais depict vividly Krishna’s life and different festivals related to Krishna. Among a number of festivals (there are 24 main celebrations) depiction of Rasa or Sharda Purnima festival is the most popular one, which usually shows Krishna dancing with gopis in the grove. In some of the Nathadwara style pichhavais the number of gopis is more. There are groups of musicians around the Rasa. In some of the pichhavais, the border is quite broad. This border is divided into several sub-sections, which illustrate the life-scenes of Krishna. Painted Rasa pichhavais were very popular because of their colorfulness and good line drawing work.

Second, the lace pichhavais were made in Germany for export purpose. This type of work was very popular in northern Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries. At first designs were made by hand and later on these were woven with machine. These lace pichhavais depict several eposdes of Krishna’s life like, Dana Ekadashi, Nauka Vihar and Rasa. The National Museum has beautifully made cotton lace pichhavai depicting the Rasa (PI. 7). This pchhavai illustrates eight pairs of Krishna and gopis, but here the number of gopis has been increased. Instead of eight gopis with eight Krishnas sixteen gopis are depicted. Two gopis are standing on either side of Krishna, which is the style of Nathadwara painting. Radha and Krishna are dancing in the centre. All the figures are worked in Nathadwara style costumes and crown. Peacock and peahen are dancing while musicians are standing in the corner. The border depicts rows of cows and dancing peacocks. Usually these cotton lace pichhavais are made in white colour and to give a clear view, the artists took the support of dark colour cotton lining. Made by the foreign weavers on the basis of the patterns and compositions, which were supplied by the Indian artists, these pichhavais were very interesting.

Thus the subject of Rasa has been examined and found that the embroidered, painters and lace weavers mostly used this subject. But to articulate and transcribe the Rasa motif through weaving in traditional Indian textiles is very difficult, because weaving has its own language, chemistry and manipulation, which is a long, lengthy and complex process. Execution of a motif from the artist’s mind to a weavers loom is complex path. In brief, the first stage of crating the motif is doing the pattern with line drawing on paper, done by the artist. The second stage is the transformation of the motif form paper to graph, indicating the same colour scheme as depicted in the drawing. In the third stage the graphed motif is converted on gata (hard paper) by punching. Now accordingly this punched gata is tied with Naksha and jala is prepared. Once the jala is prepared the pattern comes out automatically, while weaving on the loom.

Now let us examine the case of Rasa motif in brocade textiles in the background of complexity of weaving, Indian has a tradition of brocade from very early days. The zari brocades that have ome down to us are from the 16th century onwards. As far as the patterns or motifs found on saris and odhani are concerned it is found that Indian weavers had woven the most figurative patterns onn loom. Baluchar of Bengal, Patola of Gujarat, Banaras, Gujarat and Kanchivaram brocade are the few best examples of Indian brocade textiles. These woven fabrics illustrate human figures on train, a number of persons riding on a train, a number of persons riding on a boat, horse rider, Nawab smoking a buqqa, flora and fauna, kalka, jala, buta, buti, etc. in spite of such a figurative depiction none of them ever illustrates the Rasa motif, although the illustration of the medallion in silk and zari weaving does appear in Banaras and Gujarat brocade of early 20th century. Char-bagh type Banaras brocade adhani depicts the beautiful medallion in four colours. These odhanis illustrate the floral creeper designs in between the medallions. Gujarat brocade sari depicts the medallion near the pallu, the end piece of a sari. Generally this medallion depicts the floral creeper, sometimes it depicts row of lions in movement (PI. 8). But they do not illustrate the Rasa motif in Zari brocade weaving. Probably this motif is very complex to weave as a pattern. To make a minimum four to five pairs of human figures in motion, that too within a circular frame and treatment of human figures facing each other is very difficult to create, since the usual practice of making the motif/pattern is one block of motif, which is repeated all over the fabric to create the entire design. And the entire pattern comes all over the fabric for the design. Probably it is difficult to create a pattern that has limitations in carrying out several figures within the circular frame.

Similar to brocade medallions there is one more variety of medallions found in the dye odhani of Saurashtra and Kachchha. Fabrics used for odhani were generally made of satin silk or cotton. Usually the entire Odhani is decorated with figurative designs, floral creepers, parrots, elephants and a medallion in the centre. The medallion generally illustrates eight dancing ladies instead of Krishna and gopis. The outer edge of the medallion has an enclosing band composed of two pairs of stems with small leaves. The entire ground of the field has a close pattern of peacocks amid sprays of leaves, outlined in spots of white, individual spots green. All these patterns were mad with small knots often of contrasting colours, which is the beauty of Gujarat’s textiles.

Inspired by the stone and terracotta sculptures, the Rasa motif was adopted in a few textiles. Since the weaver had the limitation. It was easy to embroider, paint, on machine made pichhavai. The more practical aspect of not finding the Rasa motif on saree, odhani or on any costume is that since Rasa is a motif where God is depicted, no one dared to use such a costume freely. Therefore the Rasa motif was restricted to coverlet or pichhavais, which became a very popular motif around 18th – 19th centuries. Especially from decoration point of view and, of course, the best way to communicate the spiritual message to the masses.


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IInd, pp. 46-47.

See pl. 6 and 4, both the rumals depict four pairs of dancers in the

See pl. 6 and 3, the movement of the dancers in both the rumals are similar.

See pl. 6 and 5, Radha Krishna pair is depicted in both the rumals.

Goswamy, B.N. “Genealogies of some artists families of chamba “ pp. 171-189, in V.C. Ohri and A.N. Khanna, (ed). A western Himalayan Kingdom History and culture of Chamba state, New Delhi, 1989.

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Krishna, R.A. and Krishna, V., cit., pp. 11-30.

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