BY VISHNU MAKHIJANI
New Delhi– Close your eyes, utter the word ‘Phulkari’ and you will be instantly propelled into a VIBGYOR world of Punjabi embroidery that formed an integral part of a woman’s trousseau, work on which began virtually from the moment a girl was born, a time considered to be most auspicious. Today, while retaining its original form, Phulkari has also found use in a variety of applications ranging from dresses to stoles, sari borders, bed covers, hom furnishings and everything in between.
“The vibrant tradition of embroidery of Punjab is reminiscent of its rich cultural heritage. It also tells a tale of diligence, dedication and desire for accomplishment and elegance that Punjabi women have exhibited for generations. What makes embroidery from Punjab stand out is the unique craft of exquisite Phulkari-making,” Anu H. Gupta, with a Master’s in Clothing and Textiles and a doctorate in Social Anthropology from Panjab University; and Shalina Mehta, with a doctorate from Delhi University who has taught Social and Cultural Anthropology for 40 years at Panjab University’s Department of Anthropology, write in “Phulkari from Punjab: Embroidery in Transition” (Niyogi Books).
Although Phulkari loosely translates into floral art, its designs include not only flowers but also cover motifs and geometrical shapes. Its main characteristics are the use of a variety of stitches, the most common being darn stitches (rows of straight-running stitches near each other), on the wrong side of coarse cotton cloth with coloured silken thread.
The book details how Phulkari formed an integral part of a woman’s ‘dahej’ or trousseau, how much of cultural and ritual value was attached to it, how the girl’s status in her in-laws house depended on the number of Phulkari she brought et al.
Tracing the creativity that went to an art to make each piece stand out as a masterpiece, it also delves into the decline of the art during the British period, largely due to the exploitation of the art and the artisan and examines the revival efforts by true connoisseurs of the art like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to bring Phulkari back to its present form.
For more than a century, the book says, the popularity of Phulkari has been sustained by its association with Punjabi weddings. Custom and rituals dictate that during a wedding, both in the case of the bride and the bridegroom, relatives from the mother’s side – the mamas and nana-nanis, i.e. the maternal uncles and grandparents – bring Phulkari embroidered ‘odhanis’ (a kind of dupatta), in addition to the other presents, gifts and clothes for the wedding. This was the ceremonial Nanak Chak (mandatory gifts from the maternal extended family).
A quintessential part of every bride’s trousseau was her set of garments that had dresses with
matching Phulkaris and muslin dupattas. Every bride generally received 11 to 21 sets of dresses, but affluent families would gift anywhere between 31 or 51 such ensembles. This meant that for 21 sets there had to be 21 matching Phulkaris and 21 muslin odhanis and 21 ghaghras.
Phulkari was also used as a canopy during pre-wedding rituals like the ‘mehendi’ ceremony (where the bride’s hands and feet are adorned with henna), ceremonial ritual tour of the village prior to the wedding day by women wearing Phulkari odhanis and carrying mustard oil lamps on their heads (jago), filling of an empty pitcher from a nearby sacred place for purification of the bride before the wedding (ghara gharoli), the bangle wearing (chooda chadhai) ceremony where red ivory bangles are slipped on to a bride’s wrists and forearms.
Likewise, a Phulkari canopy was also mandatory for pre-wedding ceremonies for the bridegroom, the book says.
The book also traces the evolution of design from the traditional to the contemporary and highlights how the creative urges of women were expressed through the medium of Phulkari using
everyday objects and flora and fauna encountered by them in their day to day life as also as an expression of desires and dreams.
“Needlecraft from Punjab also demonstrates the intense understanding of the ecosystem and its complete internalisation by the women of this region. Motifs showing birds, animals, flowers and nature are witness to it. They imagined their ecological surroundings even if they hardly ever had the occasion to interact outside the home given the restricted mobility that tradition imposed on them,” the book says.
The writing of the book, the authors say, “is not only to document the journey of Phulkari but along with it the journey of the women who have been associated with it, since its beginning… Their stories help us recreate a world that is alive with the agonies and ecstasies of the lived craft of Phulkari”.