28 Mar Phulkari Embroidery of the Women of Punjab
If there is any embroidery that is solely in the realm of women, it is phulkari, and that too the women of Punjab. Translating to ‘flower work,’ it is vital in the history and culture of its state of origin, steeped in its history, its customs, and rites of passage ceremonies. More than any other embroidery of India, it is significant- less for commercial reasons and more for the insight it offers into women’s lives historically.
History of Phulkari Embroidery
The origin of Phulkari is steeped in mystery. It could have originated in Persia where a craft called “Gulkari” existed, or it could have traveled to Punjab through the marauding troops coming from Central Asia. It may have been born in Punjab. Nobody knows for sure because being a craft practiced by women for personal use, its history was never documented, knowledge being passed down through generations. The Punjabi folklore tale Heer Ranjha by Waris Shah mentions it in the 17th century, the first mention historically.
Though it is now associated with Sikh heritage, it was practiced by all religions in Punjab. Peshawar, Sialkot, Ludhiana, Patiala, Multan, and other cities were centers. It came to signify, like gold, a kind of stree dhan or the wealth of women and was similarly handed down from generation to generation.
With the coming of English rule, women began to wear phulkaris fashioned into coats. Sadly the Partition in 1947 dealt a terrible blow to the craft. Since entire communities were displaced, this lead to much destruction of product and, worse, of the heritage. Vintage pieces are a potent and comforting reminder to older Punjabi women of an era that is gone.
Usage of Phulkari Embroidery
Phulkaris are worn as head coverings and shawls at rites of passage like marriage and birth. They are used in interiors, too, such as bed coverings, wall decoration, dowry chest covers, and as an offering to gurdwaras. There are several genres under the main head, depending on the usage and the time of life of the wearer.
Types of Phulkari Embroidery
Baghs or a garden are phulkaris with all-over embroidery covering the entire fabric. Baghs are highly valued since they are the most complex and time-consuming.
Chope generally carries border embroideries in single colors and is part of the gifting ritual between a bride and her grandmother.
Darshan dwars carry architectural motifs and are used for gurdwara presentations.
Thirmas are embroideries on plain white material and are worn by widows and older women.
Sainchis tell a narrative story, often showing village life. The motifs on these are fascinating, often depicting animals, professions, and means of transport.
Vari da Bagh is associated with ritual gifting to brides from in-laws and is always in gold/orange.
Bawan Phulkari signifies an embroidery with 52 patterns and is often treated as a sampler for the art.
Process, motifs, and materials of Phulkari Embroidery
Phulkari is traditionally embroidered on hand-spun cotton, using silk floss embroidery threads in yellow, gold, orange, red, green, and white. Motifs can be from the natural world: mustard flowers, butter gourds, marigolds, jasmine flowers, or fauna such as peacocks, domestic animals, and birds. Women often wove their emotions into the embroideries using the language of the motif. For instance, a peacock with a dropped plumage could signify a failing marriage.
Phulkari historically was executed on the wrong side of the base fabric, counting the threads of the fabric without drawing on a pattern, using long and short darning stitches. Though strictly this is the correct way, most Phulkari is executed after printing on the pattern using wooden blocks. The old way is now considered too time-consuming and challenging.
Phulkari Embroidery in current times
Sadly, Phulkari has fallen prey to rampant commercialization, with poor execution, synthetic fabrics, and garish colors. Because it is being ordered in huge quantities by western markets, much production is mechanized. Is this Phulkari at all? I don’t think so.
Fortunately, women in Punjab in certain pockets continue to practice the old ways, and there are enough efforts by those committed to the craft to keep Phulkari going in its unadulterated form.
I see Phulkari being used extensively in home decor, footwear, bags, apart from its traditional use. Manish Malhotra used the craft form for a special collection a while back, using velvet and silk as base materials. All promising developments in keeping this most remarkable and historical of crafts relevant and contemporary. I love that the Philadelphia Museum of Art showcased an entire exhibition in 2019. Called “Phulkari, the Embroidered textiles of Punjab,” the exhibition drew on the museum archives, as well as the Bonovitz collection, to present Phulkari as a unique gateway to the stories of women in Punjab. We need more initiatives like this one in India.
Mira Gupta is a well-known curator and designer in craft-based luxury. She has had working stints with Fabindia, Good Earth, and Ogaan to promote the cause of craft. She is deeply interested in art, travel, architecture, and culture.
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