Traditionally Punjab is consisted of three culturally and physically distinct zones –
the hardworking but impoverished Malwa region,
the comparatively rich and urban Majha region
the Doaba region inhabited largely by the occupational class
The crafts of the region are more utilitarian than ornamental.
Embroidery has for centuries been part of the education of every well brought up Punjabi girl.
The Granth Sahib, the religious book of the Sikhs, says
“Kadh Kasida pehreh choli, Ta Tum Janoh Nari”
(Only when you have yourself embroidered your choli will you be considered
an accomplished woman).
Phulkari, a rural tradition of handmade embroidery, literally meaning ” flower work “,
was perpetuated by the women of Punjab (North-west India & Pakistan) during the 19th century
and till the beginning of the 20th century.
In this style the embroidery covered every inch of the entire base material so that
the cloth was completely invisible.
Embroidery work was invariably made on a plain cotton fabric (khaddar) whose thread was manually spinned, loomed and dyed with natural pigments.
Its quality was evaluated according to the fineness and regularity of its surface.
Khaddar could be of four colours,
white being given to mature women or widows while
red was associated with youth and was by far the most widespread tone.
It is noteworthy that the most ancient fragments of red dyed (using madder) cotton fabric
were found in Punjab and
would date back to Harappa Civilization (Age of Bronze).
Black and blue colours were kept for everyday worn shawls as they prevented from
revealing stains and dirt.
The complete khaddar was always made of two or three stripes
which were approximately 50cm wide.
Depending on the region, these stripes were sewed before or after the embroidery work.
A phulkari was at times made by one woman and at times by several ones
who could even work simultaneously on different parts or stripes of khaddar.
As written before, these pieces were usually made by the family of the bride. However, as in the rich families a dowry could include
several dozens of phulkari,
some professional embroiderers were occasionally employed.
The choice of patterns was partly driven by the social class of the bride.
For instance, some flowers designs in cluster stitch
were only worn by the low class families
while the high class would prefer flowers made with darning stitch.
Most of the time, patterns to be embroidered were not drawn on the fabric beforehand, the embroiderer had to count each thread of the khaddar
with meticulous care to build her designs.
It is important to realize that a shift of one thread in the counting would have a visible impact on the final result.
As it was easier to count the threads of a light coloured khaddar
than of a dark one, it happened sometimes that the fabric was dyed
only after the embroidery work was achieved,
thanks to certain preparations that would colour cotton but not silk.
As in most of the oriental countries, the embroidery work was always
done pointing the needle’s tip to the opposite of the embroiderer.
This gesture, as well as the energy that was injected into the work, had to come from
the heart and go towards others.
When the embroidery work was covering the whole surface of the khaddar the phulkari
was called a bagh (“garden”).
The making of a bagh was requiring so much talent and patience
(sometimes more than a year) that it was kept for very special occasions.
Furthermore, the quantity of pat needed to achieve such a piece
was implying big expenses and thus was a way for families to display their wealth.
From a historical point of view, it seems that bagh only appeared after the time people became passionate for phulkari in the second half of the 19th century.
Bagh could be considered as a technical culmination in the art of phulkari fabrication.
Pat’s most commonly used colours in the making of bagh were gold and silvery-white,
these tones being a reminiscence of Punjab’s wild flowers
and cereal fields
but also of the jewels women were wearing under their bagh.
From the end of the 19th century, when there was economic distress,
phulkaris and baghs became commercial commodities
but they were still mainly retained for personal use.
In 1947, when refugees poured into India they were sold in great quantities
to bring in necessities of daily life.
Now they are manufactured only commercially since changing conditions and tastes have, more or less, eliminated their traditional use.
Credits for this post:
Handmade in India (Book)