Phulkari is an embroidery technique originating from the Punjab – its direct translation Phul – flower, Kari – craft means flower working and was once the word used for the term embroidery. Popular since the 15th century, over time the word Phulkari became restricted to embroidered shawls and head scarfs. The ceremonial garments that cover the entire body are known as Baghs (garden), and scattered work on the fabric is called adha bagh – half garden. This embroidery is traditionally created using silks on a cotton fabric. Today a wide range of synthetic materials are also used. These beautiful, colourful garments are worn by women across the Punjab during marriage festivals, and other special occasions. Traditionally they were embroidered by women for their own use or as gifts to other family members, a purely domestic art passed down from one generation to an other. Brides are given Phulkaris and barghs at the time of their marriages.
Using a darn stitch on the wrong side of coarse cotton cloth with coloured silken tread, innumerable designs and patterns are created – backing cloths vary from different areas, for instance in western Punjab the base cloth is finer than that of central Punjab. The key to the embroidery’s success is the manipulation of the stitches by the embroider. traditionally shades of red are favoured as red is an auspicious colour. Phulkari emblems are not concerned with religious subjects or durbar scenes, but feature life in the villages instead. Geometric patterns inspired by objects of everyday life and motifs including wheat and barley heads are common.
Phulkari is highly prized, although a bit of a dying art. Pieces can command high prizes across Indian, particularly amongst those with an interest in the arts.
During my visit to Chandigarh Government Museum & Art Gallery, I had the opportunity to view their textile collection, including a group of Phulkari embroideries from the 19th & 20th century. My primary interest was to see this work being created – and to find out how we could replicate this at the museum. Seema from the museum told me that they had a modern piece by a lady called Daya Tuli, who lived in a village not far from Chandigarh. As luck would have it, that evening I was introduced to Jasvinder Kaur, a textile researcher working on Punjabi textiles from the 18th, 19th and up to mid 20th century. Jasvinder offered to accompany me to the village of Daun, to see if we could find Daya or any other embroiders.
Daya proved relatively easy to find and equally welcoming. She was very happy to show us her collection of historic Phulkari and the work she and her fellow embroiders are producing today. Daya has 300 embroiders working for her, they are all from families who pass down their skill and therefore are actively keeping this art form alive. Modern intervention has come in the type of materials used and the use of the internet to market goods. Unfortunately we were unable to visit one of families, but hopefully Jasvinder will be able to in the future. In the mean time Daya not only showed me her work, but also allowed me to film her technique. I’m hoping that armed with this information, Stitch in Time at Ancient House might be able to reproduce some samples, including one to send to the Chandigarh Museum and Jasvinder.
Daya is holding a traditional Phulkari, c 20th. The motifs come from rolling pins used for bread. The entire front surface is covered by individual stitches, all hand sewn. The reverse is as interesting as the front, you can see where the beginning and end of each stitch starts and finishes. On some of the pieces, a pre-marked pattern was visible as a stitching guide.
This is a modern piece which took almost 1 year to complete, it has been sold in pieces. This piece would cost in the region of R 80,000. The close up images shows you an image of a western husband and wife, the wife is holding an umbrella.
On this piece, the rows have been divided up using colour to create a diagonal pattern, a single black thread brings definition to the white border between in stripe. Again the entire surface is covered by individual stitches. The stitches remain regimented to ensure the pattern is successful. Phulkari c 20th
Daya is shown here demonstrating her stitching technique, the needle is about 4 -5 cm long. This allows a succession of stitches to be pulled through quickly and effectively. Some patterns are more tightly stitched than others, especially modern versions. The entire length is thread is used in one go,working from the inside of the pattern to the outside edge.
I’m really looking forward to having a go at Phulkari once I return to England. Specialist equipment is minimal, only the long needles. I also saw examples where the ground fabric was a crepe, and the embroidery included sequins. Sparkly additions are definitely modern additions, although proving to be popular in the market place.