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Unknown Masterpieces of Himachal Folk Art

Text excerpts and images from the exhibition titled "Unknown Masterpieces of Himachal Pradesh." Hosted by National Museum, New Delhi from June 7 to July 31, 2019.

An exhibit celebrating the 5000-year-old tradition of Indian art, persistent in an unbroken chain of continuity. With 230 objects on display from the personal lifetime collection of Late K.C. Aryan, the aim is to highlight the beauty of folk and heritage of Himachal Pradesh.

A panoramic view is strategically divided into sectionals to encompass wooden primitive masks, votive wood carvings, bronze icons and Pahari rumals. Artefacts no longer collected by anyone – as the curator B.N. Aryan says so himself. Apart from the tangible plethora of rural folk art nurtured by the natives from the earliest times, visuals of local culture and people of Himachal add a personal touch to the exhibit.

The Tilfi Team shares visuals of some of the exquisite pieces handcrafted in the local style on display.

Metal Icons & Mohras

Majestic life-sized metal icons are enshrined in the historic temples of Bharmaur and Chhatrarhi in Chamba district. A skill dating back to the Gupta Period is a testament to Himachal’s glorious tradition of classical style icons cast in metal. As widely believed across the country, images of the deity once enshrined within the temple are not allowed to be removed. The mohras, translating to a mask, casted in brass, copper, silver or gold are thus, used for religious processions. One of the most celebrated processions witnessed in Himachal is the Kullu Dussehra festival where as many as 365 deities travel from the villages in Kullu valley in wooden rathas.

An eight-armed Durga Mahishasuramardini (Goddess Durga Annihilating Denom Mahishasura)
Bronze; Kullu, Himachal Pradesh. 12th - 13th century

Ganesha Medallion (Elephant-headed Hindu God)
Copper sheet, Repousse; Kangra, Himachal Pradesh. Early 20th century

Mohra of a Female Deity
Bronze, Himachal Pradesh, 15th century CE

Folk Paintings

One of the most striking features of the exhibit includes a 3-walled end-to-end display of Folk Paintings. Warm lighting, vintage miniature paintings with subtle, complimentary tones with an equally fascinating and decorated ceiling – the curation is impeccable.

Miniature painting is said to have migrated to the area when Basohli painters settled in Chamba after Raja Prithivi Singh’s marriage with a Basohli princess, presumed to be around the mid- 17th century CE. The skill found a place of distinction in the local temples and royal palaces.

Embroidered Rumals

The Pahari rumals, widely known as Chamba rumals have been a part of prized collectibles and interest of scholars for decades. While most credit the court painters of Chamba for replicating the miniature paintings onto soft muslin by local women embroiders, few state otherwise.

“In our opinion, this kind of rumal embroidery originated much earlier than the 18th century in the hands of unlettered housewives residing in the urban and rural areas of Chamba, Kangra, Kulu, Mandi, Bilaspur in Himanchal state, besides Basholi and Jammu in their contiguity.”

- B.N. Aryan

Over time, influences from Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab due to matrimonial alliances and migration of skilled artisans led to varied interpretations of the craft form.

Depiction of Dancing Krishna on Rumal
Blend of cotton and silk with untwisted silk yarn, Chamba, Himachal Pradesh. 19th century

Depiction of Lotus Mandala on Rumal
Blend of cotton with dyed untwisted silk yarn. Chamba, Himachal Pradesh. 19th century

Depiction of Shiva and Parvati
Blend of cotton with dyed untwisted silk yarn, Chamba, Himachal Pradesh. 19th century

Chaupar (Dice Board)
Cotton, dyed untwisted silk yarn and mirror, Chamba, Himachal Pradesh. 19th century

Wood Carving

Famed woodcarving skill of Himachal Pradesh dates back to the 7th century CE. Shrines have stood the test of time having been constructed in insect-proof deodar wood, available abundantly in the region. Apart from carvings of Hindu divinities, the skill is seen through old architecture – doorways, windows, gables, the mandapa ceilings and pillars of the earliest wooden temples across the state.

Further, wooden and papier mache masks used for theatrical performances – for instance to celebrate the spring festival in Chamba by the Pahari rural folks offer an insight to their customs and culture.

A plague depicting an eight-armed Durga Mahishasuramardini
Wood, Shimla Hills, Himachal Pradesh. 18th century

Stylized bracket with a male rider from a temple entrance
Wood, Shimla Hills, Himachal Pradesh. Contemporary

Mask for the Phagli (February) Festival
Wood, Shimla Hills, Himachal Pradesh. 19th century

Stone Carving

While the prevalence of stone temples is not seen across the state, numerous stone panels are preserved within the temple compounds – the Dattaswami temple at Dattatreya, the Surya temple in Nirath amongst several others are witnesses of this age-old skill.

Durga Mahishasuramardini
Stone, Shimla Hills, Himachal Pradesh. 12th-13th century CE

Silver Ornaments

Himachali weddings are incomplete without heirloom silver ornaments. Traditionally, the bridegroom sports a silver crown with five-squares like components with figurines of Hindu deities closely associated with panchadevopasana (worship of five deities together) prevalent in the north-western and north Indian region. Similarly, a variety of silver ornaments are worn by Gaddi women – chaunk (conical head ornament), nose ring, zutti (a long silver ornament for braids), earrings and necklaces.

Bridegroom marriage crown engraved with figures of Brahma, Ganesha and Vishu
Silver, Himachal Pradesh. 19th century

Silver Enamelling, Mahasu, Himachal Pradesh

Forehead Ornament
Silver, Mahasu, Himachal pradesh

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