Indian art and crafts are truly fascinating; it is incredible how ancient practices and traditions have continued since time immemorial. Various traditions, rituals, geographic and climatic conditions, lifestyles and cultures have given birth to numerous styles and designs. It has gradually evolved with the evolution of the civilization. The geographic isolation of Himachal has allowed its people to evolve their own unique tradition of handicrafts. The extensive range includes fine woodwork, traditional embroidery, engraved metalware, beautifully patterned carpets and traditional woollen shawls. The embroidery of the Pradesh can be divided under two major heads that rumal embroidery and leather embroidery. The rumal literally means a handkerchief. It is not used as a handkerchief in the western sense of the world. It is presented during Chamba and Suni weddings and forms an important part of the bride's trousseau. Men drape these colourful embroidered rumals over their shoulders and the women use them as flowing veils. Today, Chamba rumal are also used as wall-hangings, door and fire screens, cushion covers while the designs have been adopted for table-cloth and bed-spreads. Generally square in shape, the rumal may also be rectangular, ranging from 2 to 6 feet in length. It is also known as "Kashida". The Chamba embroidery is same on both sides and the ground is usually cream or white. The embroidery silks are in vivid and striking contrast and the embroidery is done on plain fine cotton or silk fabrics. The whole work is carried out in the running stitch, with no gaps stitches. The space is adoritly filled in, so that the figures apear on both side of the rumal and the effect is almost the same as in the ancient frescoes on the wall of the princely palaces in Himachal Pradesh. It is almost as if the whole of the picture has been transplanted from the wall to the cloth and the resemblance between the rumal and frescoe becomes unmistakable. Suni embroidery is only one side and chiefly comprises of geometrical patterns.The art of leather embroidery in Himachal Pradesh, probably originated with the peasant class which has contributed the best specimens. It flourished under the patronage of the princes, rulers and the courtiers. Like other applied arts, embroidery reflects the cultural heritage of people.
Himachal Pradesh is the home of the Chamba and Kangra schools of painting - well reputed in the world of art for their excellent portrayal of court and romantic scenes blending of colours and minute details of figures. But there is yet another school of painting that survives in Himachal - the Gompa school. New local craftsmen have incorporated the Gompa art of painting into contemporary patchwork pictures. The themes of these paintings were derived from the love poetry of Jayadeva and Keshava Das. The painters with their exquisite taste and superb style changed the very look of hill paintings and arts. Thousands of paintings related to love stories of Radha and Krishna were produced.
Woodcrafts and Wicker works
Woodcraft is an ancient traditional art prized for its delicacy and detail. Evidence of Himachal woodcraft is to be found in old buildings-on seats, doors, windows and panels. Most notable was the Vice-regal Lodge at Shimla with its beautifully carved ceilings and panels. The present day wood work displays all the intricacy of the old. The main objects of work are fruit-bowls, beer mugs, wooden jewellery and carved images, both romantic and mythological in origin. All along the crystal clear streams of Himachal grow the bamboo and the willow. When winter approaches, the hill people strip the bamboo. And when the country-side is blanketed with snow they sit around cosy fires and fashion intricate and sturdy bowls, trays and baskets out of the dried bamboo. Oval-shaped lotus-shaped or egg baskets with tall graceful handles are some of the typical basket patterns of Himachal Pradesh.
Metalcrafts and Jewellery
Metalcraft is one of the most ancient and developed crafts of Himachal Pradesh. The traditional metals are pure copper and silver. Local craftsmenship in casting, ornamenting and engraving, show great skill, delicacy and taste. Legend has it that Sita, in the great Indian epic, the Ramayana wore jewelled butterflies and other precious ornaments in her hair and that these types of ornaments were made by the silversmiths of Himachal Pradesh. Jewellery is still a popular product of the Himachal silversmiths. And although the designs are still traditional, the ornaments are lighter and more practical. Modern innovations in the crafts include the making of intricately carved silver lamp stands, tea pots, wine or butter cups and metal sculpture.
Stone carving has been explored to the fullest in Himachal. Numerous shikhara (spired) stone temples dot the landscape. The Lakshminarayan temples of Chamba and the temples of Baijnath and Masrur in the Kangra Valley are some splendid specimens of the kind. Beautifully carved memorial stone slabs called panihars are also found in several places, especially near temples and fountains. The Shivalik hills around in fine sandstone which is eminently suited for carving and has displayed a vital role in perpetuating the stone carvers craft numerous stone temples still dot the Himachal landscape. Stone carvers in HP are hammering away at their blocks even today, producing several artefacts of domestic use widely available in the markets. These include traditional stoves (angithi), circular pots for storing (kundi), pestle and mortar (dauri danda), mill stones (chakki) and other things. The centres of sculpting in Himachal are concentrated mainly in Mandi, Chamba, Kinnaur and the Shimla Hills.
Shawls are a speciality of Himachal Pradesh. Raw material, that is wool, is available locally and worsted yam is imported from outside. The Spiti area is well known for Pashmina wool. Wool of the wild Himalayan sheep and ibex is also used in certain areas. These wild animals, with the onset of summer, shed the fine fleece, which grows beneath the rough outer hair by rubbing themselves against throny shrubs and rough rocks. The shephards visiting high altitude pastures in mid summer collect this high grade fleece to be converted later into fine yarn. The exquisite shawls of the Himachal are both plain and designed. The colour of these, largely depend upon the wool, is mixed. The right mixture can result in beautiful greys, blues, mustards and blacks. If the designs of the Himachal shawls are varied, so are also the methods of wearing them. Every district has improvised its style of drapping the shawl, the most popular styles being 'Dhobroo' and 'Pattu'. Similarly, tweeds and blankets are woven throughout the Pradesh.