- Ladies in dazzling head-cloths amidst vast expense of blooming mustard flowers is all that comes to one’s mind while thinking about Punjab. The most easily recognizable textile and one that has become over the years the identity of Punjab and its culture is the embroidered phulkari and bagh. In the past, every woman would sit and embroider these richly covered textiles in their leisure time, for their wedding trousseau and personal use. This explains the presence of a large number of these textiles, mostly head cloths in various collections and museums in India and the world, in some of the most delightful patterns and themes. SS Hitkari in his monograph, ‘Phulkari: The Folk Art of Punjab’, mentions the words of the great Guru Nanak (1469-1539 CE) from the Holy Granth Saheb,
“Kadh Kasida Pehreh Choli, Ta Tum Janoh Nari...”
It translates as “Only then you will be considered an accomplished lady when you will embroider yourself your own blouse”.1
Today, these words may contradict many viewpoints and also may seem like too restricting and cliché in terms of forming gender roles, but in the past women did embroider their clothes at a personal level. With changing times, ushering in various new ways of living, embroidery as a means of past time and making one’s own clothes has been abandoned. The demands for these textiles are now commercially met, with new materials, design and formats.
The word, ‘phulkari’ literally means flower-work. In a very poetic way the word itself has lent its idea in the nomenclature of this genre of textile. If one considers the blank cotton (khaddar) cloth as a plot of land, and silk flowers are embroidered on it, it is called a phulkari. When the same cloth is completely filled with flowers and vistas, with no ground left blank, it becomes a garden, bagh. Hence, beautiful flowers adorn the cloth such as marigolds (gendha) and sunflowers (surajmukhi) or the produce of their beloved kitchen garden such as cauliflower (gobi), chilli (mircha) and wheat (ghehun).
The Partition divided the geographical area of the craft into two broad regions. The places that fall in present day India which are mentioned as East Punjab and the places across the border, in Pakistan as West Punjab. Although, the practice of phulkari can also be seen in neighbouring Haryana, the erstwhile North West Frontier region, especially those embroidered by the Hazara groups and also reminiscence in some form to be seen in Saurashtra. The products of all these areas are easily recognizable as they reflect the local flavor and spirit of its people. The phulkaris of Haryana also incorporate mirrors (shish) and are more fluid and spontaneous compared to the ones from the heartland Punjab. The colour palette of East Punjab examples are brighter with magenta, green, red and yellow as opposed to the ones from West Punjab where gold, white and other subdued colours were more popular. The vari da bagh is a good example of a bagh which is completely covered with golden yellow silk threads.
A thick cotton fabric (khaddar) was used as a base fabric where the embroidery was done. This was because of many reasons. The first and foremost reason is that it was cost effective and easy to source. Locally woven by the weavers (jullahas), the women could buy them easily in the local market or vendors visiting their homes. The embroidery which was always done from the reverse side without any aid of a frame (adda) or a blue-print (khakka), the texture of the fabric helped the women in counting the boxes and executing the patterns. Another very important reason is the practicality of the handspun and hand-woven fabric for Indian climate, such as khaddar which has special insulation properties. It is soothing to the skin in the scorching heat and warm in a chilly evening weather. In most cases, a coarse khaddar was used, but in special ones a fine cotton textile called halwan can be seen.2 The khaddar is generally dyed with varying shades of red, as it is considered an auspicious colour and connected to marriage and fertility. Brown, beige, indigo and black are also used. Green is rare but there are examples available in some collections.
The various types of phulkari and bagh are named after the pattern they are embroidered with. The first type which falls in this group of textiles but is completely different is the chope. The chope is a wrapper in a red khaddar embroidered with Holbein stitches with a pattern representing the dangling bridal accessory worn with the bangles called kalire. It is generally gifted to the bride from the maternal side. Then, there are phulkaris and baghs embroidered with motifs such as the moon (chand), kitchen roller (belan), sunflower (surajmukhi), boxes (dibiya), labyrinth (bhulbhulaya), peacocks (mor) and so on and are named after the motif they represent. There are baghs which are in the form of a design directory, supposed to be embroidered by a young girl practicing various motifs, often fifty-two (52) in number, called a bawan bagh. The thirma, another prominent type of phulkari and bagh is done on a white khaddar and sometimes over a halwan. They are generally worn by the elderly women of the society.
In the figurative group, some of the most popular baghs are mor bagh (peacocks) and sainchi baghs. The sainchi baghs are art in their own right depicting compositions of people together with their animals engaged in different day to day activities. The entire village will be depicted on the cloth and sometimes even a train brining in a circus can be seen. Another example is the bagh embroidered with the doors of a scared shrine with devotees often given away as an offering, is known as darshan dwar.
These baghs and phulkaris are a pure delight to the eye. Within this perfect vision, the women who created them would incorporate an imperfection, called a nazar buti. The belief was that perfection was only reserved for God and anything created by mere mortals will have imperfections. Therefore, to ward off envy little imperfections were infused to these wonderful textiles.
1 S S Hitkari, Phulkari: The Folk Art of Punjab. (New Delhi: Phulkari Publications, 1980), 13.
2 Ibid, 19.
About the Author:
Sushmit Sharma is an Art historian, and associated in various capacities with museums in New Delhi, working on the documentation of their decorative arts, textiles/costumes, arms/armour and folk/tribal art collections. He has also co-authored the catalogue, titled, "Divyambara: Masterpieces of Costumes from the National Museum Collection" together with eminent historian, Late Dr. Lotika Varadarajan. He is also trained as a Fashion Designer in National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, creating collections for various high end brands.
To read more about Indian Arts and Crafts, visit Sushmit’s blog: www.livingwithart.blog