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Phulkari Blooms Again


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Phulkari blooms again
Rachna Bisht-Rawat

It’s only a stitch done with a silk thread that creates intricate floral patterns on cotton cloth.

Phulkari — phul (flower) kari (growing) — is a traditional embroidery art form from Punjab. It covers its base material so densely that you cannot see the cloth underneath and it transforms a simple, plain cloth into a baugh, which means garden in Punjabi. In Punjab, it is believed that even if you don’t want to wear jewellery, you can still adorn yourself with phulkari, which is equally ornamental. No wonder it is likened to growing flowers.

Created with an unspun silk thread called pat, the colours of phulkari revive the magic of emerald green rice fields that you can still find scattered around rural Punjab and smiling yellow mustard fields trembling in the winter breeze, wafting in from neighbouring Himachal. Besides all the paeans sung to its rustic beauty, the phulkari also acquires a divine sanctity as an art form because it forms the canopy over Guru Granth Sahib, the religious book of the Sikhs.

While the origin of phulkari has never been traced, it has been immortalised in poet Waris Shah’s epic poetry that recounts the romantic story of Heer-Ranjha, the doomed lovers of Punjab, who have also inspired Sobha Singh’s paintings and the sweet and sentimental folk songs of Asa Singh Mastana and Biwi Surinder Kaur.

While some say that the embroidery was brought to Punjab by Gujar nomads from Central Asia, others insist that the alabaster-skinned, sharp-nosed Persians, who settled in Kashmir, are responsible for it. It is believed that the embroidery became famous in the 15th century, during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. But it was not for sale at that time. The art form was passed on from mothers to daughters in households just like any other skill or family heirloom. Women used to embroider these dupattas at home for themselves, and they were an integral part of the bridal trousseau.

Traditionally, each of the marriage ceremonies in Punjab is connected with wearing a particular type of stitch. A baugh or phulkari, therefore, is not only a beautiful art but a part of culture and tradition, which makes it really special. By the 19th century, the accomplishment of the bride and her mother as well as the affluence of the family were judged by the number and finesse of the phulkaris that she received as a part of her trousseau.

Phulkari is traditionally done on handspun khadi cloth with simple darning stitches using the unspun silk floss yarn called pat. Single strand threads are used for the purpose. Horizontal, vertical or diagonal stitches are used to impart shading and variation to the design. Technically, phulkari consists of long and short darning stitches. It is a unique method of embroidery that is worked entirely on the wrong side of the cloth and the pattern takes shape on the other side. The design is neither drawn nor traced.
A variety of phulkari styles are used for different occasions and purposes. Chope is the phulkari done on a red cloth with embroidered borders. It is presented to the bride by her grandmother before the wedding. Vari-da-baugh (garden of the trousseau) is a pattern of golden yellow flowers done on a red cloth to symbolise happiness and fertility, ghunghat baugh has a small border on all four sides while bawan (52 in Punjabi) baugh has as many geometrical patterns on it.

After long being ignored, phulkari is once again being promoted in Punjab. Hand-embroidered phulkari works from villages like Thuha are making it big on foreign shores. A few years ago, a cluster of 12 villages, under the Patiala Handicraft Workshop Co-operative Society Industry Limited, in collaboration with the Khadi Village Industry Commission, launched a project on phulkaris aimed at women’s empowerment. Today, they are exporting the phulkari to China, France, England and even a few Arab countries. Phulkari is blooming again in the land of mustard fields.


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