Phulkari: Threads of Memory

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In this short article I aim to introduce the reader to an exquisite form of embroidery known as ‘Phulkari’ which originating from pre-Partitioned Punjab, India. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, these textiles were primarily created domestically by women to be part of a girl’s wedding trousseau. They held great importance within wedding rituals and as family heirlooms. Although they continue to be a part of many Indian Punjabi weddings, they are also commercially popular textiles adapted as wall decorations, bedding, shawls and fashion accessories. 


Figure 1. A mid-20th century phulkari

Phulkaris were most commonly embroidered in the most dazzling of oranges, yellows, pinks and golds on a thick ground cotton base of earthy reds or indigo blues. The designs were often perfectly repeated geometric patterns created using untwisted silk thread in a simple flat darning stitch, changing direction within each motif. A remarkable feature of these embroideries was that they were worked from the back of the fabric through a counting thread method. The backs of the embroideries revealed only a glimpse of what lay on the other side. 


Figure 2. The back of a mid 20th century phulkari

Phulkaris had their heyday in the mid 19th to early 20th century and there are many accounts from colonial writers in Punjab of women coming together after the birth of a child to start the first phulkari, young women learning the craft from their elders as well as richer families commissioning skilled craftswomen to create them for their families. Under colonial rule they were also commissioned to show in overseas European exhibitions as examples of exceptional Indian craftmanship. However, with industrialisation, came the availability of cheaper, lighter fabric in new prints and colours. This, along with the impact of partition and the labour intensive work of creating phulkaris, saw their decline as embroideries created for domestic use.  


Figure 3. An early 20th century pulkari baagh.

My personal interest in these textiles is because of their connection with women and my own cultural heritage. Traditionally, women, across religious and caste boundaries, would painstakingly create them over years and months to become a precious part of a girl’s wedding trousseau. Most importantly, phulkaris passed through the generations as symbols of love, lineage and memory. As a personal example, prior to my own marriage in 2001, my paternal grandmother quietly ushered me into the family home’s storeroom and opened up an enormous steel trunk. Out came two phulkaris that her mother had made for her marriage and which she was now passing onto me. I never knew of these phulkaris nor had any inclination that they were being saved for her first granddaughter’s wedding. All I knew was these were the most precious gifts I could have ever asked for and that the connection of love, lineage and memory wasn’t just for the history books and museums. I used mine on many occasions during my wedding ceremony. Sometimes it was draped over ritual objects,  acted as a head covering or a floorspread during the wedding ritual itself.  

This experience deepened my curiosity and I began to ask family and friends about their family phulkaris. Many from my grandmother’s generation had memories of their mothers and other female relatives doing the embroidery, but had never learnt themselves. Some had repurposed them into decorative quilts or passed them down to their household help. A very stylish family friend had cut hers up to make clothes in the style worn by famous movie actresses of her generation. Only a very small handful had kept them to pass onto future generations. During my research, my great aunt showed me a phulkari given to her as a young bride by her in laws, another recounted using old ones as domestic bedding and my grandmother recalled seeing them adorn a village marquee to welcome local colonial dignitaries. These are just a few examples amongst many.   


Figure 4. A modern waistcoat made from a 1960’s phulkari.

Soon I learnt that there was another style of phulkari known as ‘sainchi phulkari’. These embroideries told social stories about the everyday lives. Some depicted women engaged in household chores, men wrestling, people quarrelling, a whole host of animals and birds alongside key changes from their times such as trains going through the countryside or British soldiers. Some are glorious riots of imagination and skill whereas others have reoccurring motifs indicating commercial production using a standard set of designs. 


Figure 5. A replica of a traditional sainchi pulkari.

I now use my personal collection of phulkaris to deliver talks and workshops so other people may have an opportunity to explore the topic in some depth. The questions and observations that arise from the audience always increase my connection with and understanding of these wonderful textiles. My only gripe is when some people disparagingly refer to the sainchi phulkaris as being clumsy or childish i.e. lacking naturalism, perspective or depth. My only response is that these are deeply western ways of looking at art and a very different lense in required to enjoy the fullness and complexity of these embroideries. In sainchi phulkaris, birds, beast and people occupy the same universe and do not have to be placed in a hierarchy of importance. Myths, memories, domesticity and architectural features all coexist and can be viewed from multiple angles. Realism is replaced  by a boldness of shape and design, a sophisticated understanding of colour, multiple perspectives, playfulness and an exceptional expression of their craft. 

These sainchi phulkaris have since become the source of my personal artwork. Although I do not create large scale quilts as the scale feels overwhelming, I use and adapt many motifs and stylistic properties to express my own stories. I recently created an exhibition exploring my experience of having a daughter with severe autism and used phulkaris as the basis of my art. The underlaying grief of not being able to pass on my phulkaris to my older daughter meant that I stitched traditional motifs into my work. These included fairies, wedding jewellery, a mother peacock shielding her offspring as well as small decorative details. Even though they are distinctly different from traditional phulkaris, creating these textile was my way of expressing my love for my daughter, just as so many mothers have done in previous generations. These textiles for me are not just antique textiles or symbols of heritage, but deeply loved objects of love, memory and storytelling created by women for women. 


Figure 6. My work inspired by traditional sainchi pulkari - Mother and Daughter.

Resources

If you wish to explore these textiles in more depth, then please refer to the list of articles, books and resources below. Please note that the Instagram accounts listed often include Phulkaris within their posts, but are not exclusively about them. 

Books

Mason, Darielle, ed. Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab. Philadelphia: Yale University Press, 2017.

Crill, Rosemary.1999. Indian Embroidery. London: V&A Publications. 

Gill, Harjeet Singh. 1977. A Phukari from Bhatinda. New Delhi: Department of Anthropological Linguistics. 

Michelle, Maskiell, “Embroidering the Past: Phulkari Textiles and Gendered Work as “Tradition” and “Heritage” in Colonial and Contemporary Punjab”, in The Journal of Asian Studies 58, no.2 (May, 1999), pp 361- 388.

Sontag, Susan, ed. The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms. London: V&A Publications, 1999.

Online resources

Instagram 

@karuncollection

@kutcharts_textiles

@mapbangalore

@indianarts_textiles

@heritagecraftsindia

@melaphulkari

Online tutorial

Hand Embroidery: Phulkari stitch
Please note that although this is in Hindi, the instructions can easily be followed. 

Saima Kaur is an artist and educator specializing in Indian hand embroidery. She has an MA in Museum Studies and worked in the arts and museums sector for ten years before starting her freelance work. She now runs a range of community hand embroidery workshops, delivers talks and workshops on Phulkaris and creates her own artwork inspired by this textile tradition. You can find her work on Instagram @sewsaima or contact her via email saimakaur@outlook.com