Once Hyderabad aristocracy's favoured weave, how 'Telia Rumal' gained new lease of life post-Independence
Hailing from a family of weavers in Puttapaka, Gajam Goverdhana has dedicated 50 years of to the Telia Rumal and filed for the recently secured GI tag in 2015.
In the rich portmanteau of weaves which originated in the handloom clusters of south India, the Telia Rumal (Telia means oil, Rumal means cloth) holds a special significance. The Telia Rumal (a square piece measuring around one metre square) belongs to the larger tradition of handkerchiefs which were created to meet specific purposes during the 18th and 19th century. While some wore it around the neck, others used it as a headscarf.
The distinguishing characteristics of the Telia Rumal when it was created was its confinement to three colours (red, black and white), the typical geometrical patterns and the unique practice of using castor oil as finish in the dyeing process. While it was coveted by the masses and collected by the aristocracy of Hyderabad, it fell out of favour post-liberalisation (in the mid 1990s) due to changing tastes and the increased use of power looms.
The Puttapaka Telia Rumal, however, finds itself under the spotlight after recently receiving the coveted Geographical Indication (GI) tag, which enthusiasts hope will bring it to the notice of designers and newer clienteles, thereby encouraging weavers to take up the technique in a big way.
The origins of the weave
The history of Telia Rumal goes back to 19th century. A double ikat weave, initially it was widely woven in the Chirala village of Andhra Pradesh. The geometric designs of the Rumals were appreciated in the Middle East and were exported to West Asia, East Africa and Myanmar in the east.
It found patronage in the Hyderabad state when it was identified as the Rumal used by the Patels (government officers) of the Telangana state who used to wear it over their shoulder or wrap around their waist over a dhoti or a lungi. As it was treated with castor oil, it kept the mosquitoes away and its usage became widespread in the early 20th century.
Telia Rumal was used at the dargah of Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan as an offering by devotees, and the Nizam of Hyderabad took to it in a big way. Beautiful Rumals which were were embroidered with shadow work and embellished with gold threads were commissioned. Textile collector Lakshmi Rao notes, “The royalty of Hyderabad fell in love with the weave and commissioned exquisite pieces, so that it was grand enough for their tastes. In fact, a lot of beautiful pieces in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal’s museum are from the Nizam’s collection, including a rare indigo one which is the only one I’ve seen in that colour from that time period.”
Telia Rumal is different from other weaves because of its intricate double ikat weaving, because of which the weaver needs to maintain the precise coordination of warp thread and weft thread each time making it extremely challenging.
Palakshi Dass, an artist and member of Crafts Council of Telangana who teaches History of Art at PS Telugu University calls the weaving technique particularly complicated as it demands passion, skill, patience, hard work, time and effort. “It’s basically a slow process weaving technique,” she explains, “Firstly, the oil treatment takes a long time, then the tying process starts according to the design after which it is dyed in red colour. Then, the red portions need to be tied according to the design and is finally dyed in black. After it dries properly, they arrange the yarn in the loom.”
The basic three colours of Telia Rumal are red, black and white. They follow the lengthy process of the yarn dying technique. Before dyeing, the cotton yarn is soaked in the oil preparation, which is used to prepare the red and black, then mixed with clay, lime and sheep dung and roughly washed and dried. This process is repeated for one to two weeks.
Then, the thoroughly washed and dried yarn goes for another dyeing session before it is soft and ready for the next process. Finally, the yarn goes for Alizarin dyeing for the red colour, and indigo dye for black.
Motifs and its smell
The layout of a typical Telia Rumal comprised geometrical grid-like patterning with borders all around, thereby creating small squares at the four corners. The motifs ranged from geometric forms and lines to square and rectangles when it was restricted in the Muslim community. The earliest Rumals used more than 100 nakshas in varying combinations of these forms and were renowned for their finesse.
In the 20th century, weavers adopted simple curvilinear forms like birds, animals, stars and moon in order to cater to the export market. In the works of master weaver Gajam Govardhana, different styles and motifs like sun, swastika, florals and leaves can be seen.
Rao explains, “In the 1940-50s a lot of unique designs came about. The motifs catered to popular figures of imagination of the day: trains, aeroplanes and cricket bats. But the old specimens were masterpieces as they were very difficult to weave and boasted of very intricate patterns and designs.”
The most distinguishing factor of a Telia, however, is its smell. As the yarn is treated with the ash of castor seed pods mixed with oil (mustard or sesame) for 21 days, it has a unique smell. Rao recalls a story when the Last Nizam of Hyderabad sent a trunk full of Telias to be sold as the women in his household couldn’t take the smell and refused to open it. “There were about 200 exquisite Telia Rumals in it,” she recalls, “It fell upon a Nawab to sell them as they literally stank!”
But it is also true that the oil helped one to cool down in summer. Because of its oil treatment, the Rumals contained a cooling property which appealed to many men and women in Telangana, who found it useful and preferred to cover their heads to protect themselves from the sun in the dry, warm weather of Telangana. Das adds that it was also known as fisherman’s cloth. “When the fishermen went to the sea or riversides wearing the Rumals as lungis, the stinky oily smell attracted the fishes to come out on the top of the water. Another way it helped them was by keeping the cloth dry for long time.”
After independence, with the efforts of the doyenne of Indian handlooms, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, the chairperson of All Indian Handicrafts Board, the craft shifted to saree and other materials. Furthermore, Weavers' Service Centres also worked for the development Telia Rumal and its designs.
But the fillip to its popularity comes from master weaver Gajam Goverdhana, who has dedicated 50 years of his life to the Telia Rumal. Hailing from a family of weavers in Puttapaka village in the Nalgonda district of Telangana, he gave the weave a fresh lease of life with his continuous innovation. He even filed for the GI tag in 2015.
On a visit to Chirala in 1975, while working with the Ministry of Textiles, Goverdhana noticed that the looms producing the Rumals were near extinct. He then decided to revive the craft in his village and infused new life into an archaic tradition.
His efforts bore fruit in 1980 when the czarina of culture, Pupul Jayakar, then advisor to Indira Gandhi came to meet him with a proposal. “She was very knowledgeable about weaves,” he reminiscences, “she was putting together a list of Indian handlooms which could be showcased at an upcoming event she was planning and encouraged us to create different patterns. She even got us [some] government funds to set up bigger looms (upto 100 meters) to make sarees.”
That event, called Festivals of India, turned out to be a successful marketing blitzkrieg, showcasing unique Indian art and its diverse skills to the world. Govardhana showcased his designs at the festivals in France, UK, United States and Japan to much acclaim and later at the Vishwakarma exhibition in New Delhi in 1987.
A Padma Shri awardee and a recipient of the UNESCO Award of Excellence, Govardhana made the weave popular by introducing new motifs, teaching the art of Telia weaving to over 500 weavers and improvising the craft. He toured the weaving clusters in Japan and Thailand and captured popular imagination when he supplied upholstery with Telia designs to the While House during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Shyam Benegal’s 1987 movie Susman, starring Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, was inspired by his journey and highlighted the struggle of handloom weavers.
His designs are exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as well as France’s Textile Museum. He says that the evolution of weaves is very important to garner new customers. “We created new patterns, especially in sarees, where the border and pallu is full of design while the body is plain. Adding new colours was important and we introduced many tones in blue as well as shades of orange. Adaptability is key so we made bed covers, wall hangings, and table mats.”
Future of the Telia Rumal
Today, the Telia Rumal is at a crossroads, a state akin to many other Indian handloom fabrics. While a sari costs from Rs 15000-Rs 30000, cheap knockoffs come at a fraction of the price. With designers taking to the weave and rising interest in connoisseurs, one remains hopeful that an indigenous and local weaving tradition will last for many years to come.
One of the few cotton weaves, the Telia Rumal may not have the pull of a Patan Patola or the richness of the Banarasi silks, yet its intricate weaving process and rich history make it an intrinsic part of our collective heritage. As Goverdhana puts it, he hopes that one day Indian fashionistas would vie for it the same way they would for an Hermès scarf.
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