Textiles and embroidery have been a part of Indian culture for centuries. Different types of these have written references from more than 1,000 years ago. In this article, we will be focusing on Phulkari in particular. It is a folk embroidery prevalent in the state of Punjab and an intricate part of their culture both in India and Pakistan. Phulkari refers to Phul (flower) + Akari (work). For a long time, it was never intended to be fabricated for sale and was therefore used for fulfilling domestic requirements. Every embroidery was a reflection of the rural lives of women and was unique.
It portrays a significant role in a girl’s life in Punjab. With the birth of a girl child, the grandmother/mother commences her work for creating the future to be the bride’s trousseau that is worn by the bride during her wedding ceremony. Therefore, it is considered a part of the household chore. Similarly, during the birth of a boy child, Phulkari is worn by the mother when she goes out after delivery for the very first time. It was embroidered to be worn in local life during religious festivals, weddings, birth, primary functions, etc. It is known to be made in districts of Peshawar, Jhelum, Amritsar, Ambala, Ludhiana, etc. A plain cotton fabric (referred to as Khaddar) was dyed, spun, and loomed manually and it was on this that the embroidery was made to form different designs. Khaddar of various colors was available but red was used significantly for auspicious occasions. Earlier in the days, 11-101 Baghs and Phulkari’s were given as dowry. Bagh represents a variation where patterns of flowers cover the entire cloth and is reflected as a garden with flowers that could take months to even years to complete.
The exact origin cannot be pinpointed to a particular year. Several theories circulate, whereby few historians believe it was initially prevalent throughout the country around 7th Century CE but survived only in Punjab. Others believe that it originated from Persia or Iran and is similar to a craft called “Gulkari.” A distinct group also believes that it came somewhere from Central Asia with the Jat tribes who moved to Punjab later on. The key reason behind improper tracing of history is the lack of documentation that can be attributed to word of mouth sharing of knowledge and experience for centuries in local communities. However, there are references in the biography of 7th Century Emperor Harshavardhana of embroidering leaves and flowers from the reverse side on the cloth.
The documentary evidence of the word itself can be traced to the 18th century in Waris Shah’s version of famous folklore Heer Ranjha (famous Punjabi love tragic story). In English literature, it can be traced back to 1880 where Flora Annie Steel described various styles. Women in Punjab learned and loved the art of embroidering becoming experts over time. With the arrival of Britishers in the 19th century, Phulkari started commercializing and demand began to rise from parts of American and Europe. Bulk orders of bed linens, curtains started which forced sellers to use machines, synthetic threads, and frames thereby reducing the price and diluting the craft. Patterns started modifying to appeal the western taste and demands. Today Khaddar is no longer used. With this, the essence of the individuality of each piece has declined, but its attractive designs have gained international popularity due to online markets. Traditional handcraft is slowly dying, and machine-made form has covered the market like never before.
Imagine Phulkari embroidery this way, women sitting in small groups under a tree on a sunny day telling stories and creating marvelous embroidery on scarves, shawls, ordinary clothes with expertise. Young girls try to copy their mothers and learn with time. The embroideries made represent an accurate reflection of women’s life. Things they see, observe, imagine, etc. This is how this art form was transferred for generations. This highlights how it is embedded deep in the cultural relationships of family and society. Today with advancement, fears of the old original art being forgotten are growing. While it was earlier used only for Odhani and shawls, today it covers a wide range of sarees, churidar, Kurtis, etc.
In 2011, following a five-year-long legal battle, it was given Geographical Indication (GI) status allowing makers to preserve the heritage of the unique art. With this only registered manufacturers and traders are presently able to use the term and a logo or hologram is issued by Punjab State Council for Science and Technology to distinguish the product. It continues to be an integral part of the wedding in the Punjabi culture even today. The essential characteristics of Phulkari represent the use of darn stitch on the reverse side of Khaddar. Bright-colored threads on a dull hand-spun coarse cloth leaving no gaps. Khaddar (coarse cloth) reflected the tough and colorful life of women. Wearing a furnished piece added to the personality, delicacy, and grace of women. Numerous types of Phulkari are Thirma, Bawan Bagh, Chope, Kaudi Bagh, Satranga, Meenakari, etc.
Although this embroidery took a hit during the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, it sprang up soon after that. But with synthetic styles, only a few credible traditional sources are available. Handicrafts, textiles, and embroideries mark the existing nature of one’s traditional culture and occasion. Phulkari holds a salient place in the history of handicrafts. Punjab’s cultural history is represented through the exceptional handicrafts which are considered to be a rich and delicate textile technique in the sub-continent. Up to the present time, the phulkari is one of the most valuable embroidery pieces in museums, private collections, and auction houses. Over time, designs and techniques have advanced according to contemporary textiles. With this handicraft changing over the centuries, attempts to revive it are of utmost importance. Hopefully, people of Punjab and elsewhere can identify new opportunities to sustain this handicraft for following generations that are deeply rooted in their culture.