Phulkari Embroidery of Punjab

Embroidery has for centuries been part of the education of every well brought up Punjabi girl. The Granth Sahib, the religious book of the Sikhs, says “Kadh Kasida pehreh choli, Ta Tum Janoh Nari” (Only when you have yourself embroidered your choli will you be considered an accomplished woman).

The phulkari embroidery is the glory of the Punjab . The word meaning “flower working” at one time meant any embroidery, but later came to be restricted to embroidered odhnis, long sheets for covering the head and shoulders. Worked in silk floss on cotton cloth the phulkari and bagh (as the more profusely embroidered pieces came to be called) became, over a period of time, an integral part of the life and tradition of the people. By the middle of the 19th century, the accomplishment of a bride and her mother and the affluence of the family were judged by the number and elaboration of the phulkaris and baghs that she received as part of her trousseau. Ceremonial pieces, especially made for the occasion, would cover a punjabi girl at various times of her life during the wedding, after the birth of her children, during festivals and ceremonies and at the time of her death.

Other pieces would be used as curtains, wall hangings, cushions and bed covers.

The phulkari work was done entirely by punjabi women during their leisure hours and was meant exclusively for personal use having no commercial value. The care and attention bestowed on it was, therefore, unlimited. Since the women vied with each other in producing the best pieces each one became a canvas for the maximum expression of imagination and skill.

The phulkariembroidery for the Punjabi girl’s trousseau began almost as soon as she was born. Appropriate ceremonies and prayers, followed by distribution of sweets and prasad, marked the beginning of the embroidery by the child’s mother or grandmother.

Sometimes the cloth was woven at home, at others it was bought from the village weaver. The looms being small, the width of the cloth ranged between 45 and 60 centimeters. Two or two and half pieces would, therefore, be joined lengthwise to produce the required width. The coarser the cloth the easier it was to do the work, for the basic structure of the embroidery depended on careful counting of threads of the base fabrics. A material in which the threads were very fine required great skill, patience and time to embroider. The coarser material had to be selected with care for if it had too many uneven threads the quality of work would suffer. The sturdy material used had lasting quality and the labour involved in the embroidery would not be wasted because of the fragility of the material. Covered with the silk floss of the embroidery the odhni was not only beautiful but also provided adequate protection against the cold northern winters.

The material  for phulkari embroidery of Punjab could be dyed at home by the women themselves or commercially by the village dyer. The most favoured colour for phulkari embroidery was red in its various shades. Brown, blue, white and black were also extensively used. Green was rarely used and a green phulkari in the Calico Textile Museum at Ahmadabad is unusual. Dark shades being more practical were preferred, although white cloth was preferred by elderly ladies for their own use.

Soft, untwisted silk floss called “Pat” used in the work came from Afghanistan, Kashmir and Bengal and even China and was dyed in different places in the Punjab. The most frequently used colors were yellow, red, crimson, blue, white, brown, orange, violet and green. Apart from the silk, cotton and even woolen threads were used, sometimes in conjunction with the silk threads and sometimes alone.

The phulkari work was done with a single thread which, being fluffy and liable to break had to be handled very carefully. As the work progressed the part that was completed had a white muslin cloth placed on it and was rolled up and tied in a clean white cloth to prevent soiling. The work would continue on the remaining portion.

As in Kathiawar embroidery, the Phulkari derives its richness from the use of the darning stitch placed in different directions —vertical, horizontal and diagonal.

Phulkari differs from bagh. The bagh, literally garden, is so named because it takes its inspiration from nature. They are named for various vegetables— kakri (cucumber), mirchi (chilli), dhaniya (coriander), gobhi (cauliflower) and so on. Others are named after well-known gardens laid by Mughal and other rulers— Shalimar, Charbagh, Chaurasia—attempt to depict their layout. Still others are named after cowrie shells, waves (Lahirya) and light and shade {dhup chhaon), the cypress (sara), river (dariya) and so on. The number of colors used also suggests names­Pachranga and satranga—five and seven coloured. The Darshan Dwar, meant for presentation to temples and religious institutions after one’s wish is fulfilled, has an architectural design. Tall gates face each other while numerous humans and animals pass between them.

The phulkari embroidery of Punjab are much less sophisticated but extremely interesting. They reflect the daily life of the Punjabi people and have articles of daily use such as combs, toys, fans, various pieces of jewellery, animals, birds and folk motifs embroidered on them. The depiction can be either naturalistic or stylized. Punjabi Women can be seen churning curd, winding yarn, grinding corn or just walking. Men are shown with ploughs tilling fields, riding a horse or just lying around. When men and women appear together, sometimes the man beats his wife, at others she offers him a glass of, perhaps, lassi and once in a while quarrels with him. Morality is registered by an adulterous couple being bitten by snakes from all sides. Progress is not forgotten and the railway train chugs along belching smoke with passengers looking out from each window.

Occasionally mirrors were inserted into the work giving it a glittering appearance. The sheeshadar Phulkari, as it is called, was extremely popular in parts of Haryana. Sometimes, though very rarely, small pieces of silver would be introduced to enhance the value of the piece.

Superstition being an integral part of the life of an Indian it is natural that those practising the crafts cannot be immune from it. As a device to ward off the evil eye the embroiderer would make a magnificent piece of work less perfect by introducing some imperfection—a small corner done in a different pattern or left plain; the use of some coloured thread at odds with the general colour scheme; an animal or bird outlined and not filled in; a small “Om” embroidered in a corner or just leaving a thread hanging to indicate that the work was not completed, were other ways of keeping off evil spirits.

Once in a while one or more names can be found embroidered in a corner. They may be the names of the women who have worked on the piece or may be the name of the owner and another member of the family.

From the end of the 19th century, when there was economic distress, phulkaris and baghs became commercial commodities but they were still mainly retained for personal use. In 1947 when refugees poured into India they were sold in great quantities to bring in necessities of daily life. Now they are manufactured only commercially since changing conditions and tastes have, more or less, eliminated their traditional use.