Also known as chowka and Asia rumal, the telia rumal is a square cloth whose name translates to “oily kerchief” and derives from the oil-based solution with which the cotton yarn is pre-treated before being woven into fabric. Today, the double-ikat technique of producing telia rumals is practised primarily in the state of Telangana, where the village of Puttapaka is a hub of production.
Like ikat weaving, the origins of the telia rumal have not been precisely dated, though historians believe the technique has been practised from the mid-1800s onwards. The rumal typically comprises two uncut pieces, where each individual piece measures between fifty five to seventy five sq. cm. It has a wide, single-coloured border around the main field – which is divided into a grid with repeating geometric motifs – and features fine checks on the corner fields. The traditional colour schemes of the telia rumal were black, red and white, as well as shades of brown, all of which were achieved using plant or mineral-based dyes.
The process of creating the telia rumal begins with the pre-treatment of the cotton yarn. In this technique, the yarn is first steeped in a slurry of water and goat or cattle dung for twenty four hours. It is then treated in a solution of gingelly oil (also known as Indian sesame oil), or sometimes castor oil, mixed with the ash of castor-seed pods. The yarn is submerged in small quantities of the oil-ash mixture, worked on for fifteen minutes, squeezed and then sundried – a process which is repeated once a day for sixteen days. Once this process is completed, the yarn is washed and dried. It is this process that gives the telia rumal the distinct texture and smell from which it derives its name. This step also acts as a form of mordanting, allowing the yarn to better absorb the dye.
The next step is the preparation of the warp and weft yarns. The yarn is wound onto cylindrical cones and taken to a warping mill, which enables the correct length of the warp yarn to be wound in the right sequence. The weft is similarly prepared on a semi-circular frame. Prior to the use of the warping mill, the weft preparation would be done by hand on semi-circular wooden frames with pegs – locally known as asu – or on poles in the streets.
The telia rumal uses the double-ikat technique, in which both the warp and the weft are resist-dyed before weaving. The complexity of the technique requires the design to first be mapped onto a graph. The weaver then estimates how many threads will be woven in a square inch, depending on the thickness of the yarn, and based on this estimation the warp yarn is divided and tied off into units. The warp yarn is then folded to enable the tying of eight to ten rumals at a time. The design is traced onto the yarn units with the help of a guide string. The parts of the warp and weft yarns that have been marked to resist dyes are tied with string or rubber ties. The weft yarns are dyed only after the warp has been set on the loom. After being wound on the asu, stretched, marked and dyed according to the design, the weft yarns are bound onto bobbins for the weaving process. Traditionally, a fly shuttle pit loom is used to weave the telia rumal.
In the past, red pigment was derived from organic alizarin mixed with alum. Aal, a dye extracted from the Indian Mulberry plant, was also used for red. Brown was derived by adding iron filings to this mixture. Black was derived by mixing alizarin and alum with the plant dye known as erakasu, or through a fermented mixture of iron filings, jaggery and water. In contemporary practice, synthetic dyes are used, including naphthol dyes that do not require the yarn to be pre-treated.
In the past, these rumals were exported to regions such as East Africa, West Asia and Burma, and were used locally as lungis by fishermen and cowherds. They were also used as turbans by men, and the oil from the dyeing process was believed to protect the head from heat and dust. Telia rumals woven in finer fabric were worn as dupattas by princesses in the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad and often embellished with embroidery or khadi work. The most important production centre was the town of Chirala, near the Andhra coast, from where the technique spread to Pochampally and its neighbouring villages, including Puttapaka. The motifs also underwent a change between the 1920s and the 1930s, when geometric patterns expanded to include figurative patterns, and even some contemporary motifs such as an aeroplane and gramophone. By the middle of the twentieth century, production of the telia rumal died out in Chirala as the result of a decline in international trade, but it has continued in Puttapaka and, to a lesser extent, in Pochampally.
Today, the telia rumal has evolved from its traditional form into a design language that is used on sarees, dupattas and stoles – a transition that began in the 1950s. While cotton yarn is still used in telia rumal weaving, mulberry silk, tussar and mercerised cotton are also used. Telia rumal weaving received a significant boost through the efforts of revivalists such as Suraiya Hasan Bose and Martand Singh, and master weavers such like Gajam Govardhana, who exhibited his hand woven pieces internationally at the Festivals of India in the 1980s and the 1990s. Govardhana had also filed an application for a Geographical Indications (GI) tag on behalf of the weavers of Puttapaka, and the telia rumal was recognised with a GI tag in early 2020.
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