Phulkari Embroidery – The Traditional Fabric Art of Punjab

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Phulkari-Embroidery
Image-Regan Vercruysse/Flickr

The term Phulkari is a Punjabi term is obtained from two words: ‘Phul’ and ‘Kari’ meaning ‘flower’ and ‘work’ and so the word Phulkari translates into ‘flower work’ or ‘floral work’. The Phulkari embroidery first began in Punjab in the 15th century by the women of Punjab. It is the rural handmade embroidery tradition of Punjab and is also known as the folk embroidery of Punjab. Even though Phulkari means floral work, the designs in this embroidery comprised not only flowers but also included various motifs and geometrical patterns and shapes. The Phulkari embroidery is overall very bright, vibrant and it brings color to people’s lives. The Phulkari embroidery is very popular worldwide. It was made by women and it celebrates womanhood.

Suggested Read – Embroideries of India – Showcasing the Skills of Regional Artisans

Origin of Phulkari

Phulkari-Embroidery-Origin
Image – Wikimedia

There are several theories about the origin of Phulkari. It was believed that the Phulkari embroidery was prevalent in various parts of the country but it only survived in Punjab. Another theory is that the Phulkari embroidery came from Iran. There it was known as Gulkari, which also means floral work. Nevertheless, it was noted that the Phulkari style of embroidery and the Gulkari style of embroidery is different and distinctive from each other. Some even say that the Jat tribes brought this embroidery to India when they migrated to India and settled in Punjab, Gujarat, and Haryana. On the other hand, the word ‘Phulkari’ has its earliest reference in the 18th century in Punjabi literature.

This is in Waris Shah’s version of Heer Ranjha, a legendary Punjabi tragic romance, where the wedding outfit of Heer, the female protagonist, is discussed and they talk about several items of clothing and outfits with Phulkari embroidery. There is also the reference of Phulkari in the Mahabharata, the Vedas, Guru Granth Sahib, and some Punjabi folk songs. Nonetheless, it is believed that no matter what the origin of this embroidery is, it will always be very different and unique to Punjab.

History and Traditions of Phulkari

History-and-Traditions-of-Phulkari
Image – Wikimedia

In ancient times in Punjab, the birth of a girl child in the family was considered very auspicious and so, as soon as a girl was born in a family, the mothers and grandmothers would start embroidering Phulkaris. This is because they believed that the girl child would be the creator for the forthcoming generations and also because these Phulkaris were to be given away at the time of her marriage. This was a tradition that the parents of the girl child, according to their status, would give a dowry of 11 to 101 Baghs and Phulkaris.

Traditionally, Phulkaris was done using real flowers, and Silk and Mulmul fabrics were used because of their purity and durability. It was also believed that the Phulkari was made according to and depending on the morality, righteousness, qualities, and character of a woman. Earlier, the Phulkaris were embroidered by the women for their own and other family member’s use. They were not for sale and the women in Punjab used to wear these Phulkaris in weddings, festivals, celebrations, and occasions. The Phulkari embroidery was a domestic art for the women to show their creativity and also to bring color into their daily life. This folk art offered complete freedom of creativity. The Phulkari is still a very integral and vital part of Punjabi weddings. There is even a Punjabi folk song that celebrates this folk art,

“Ih phulkari meri maan ne kadhi, iss noo ghut ghut japhiyan paawan” – “My dear mother has embroidered his phulkari; I embrace it again and again with affection”.

The Revival of Phulkari

Phulkari-Embroidery-Revival
Image-Regan Vercruysse/Flickr

The Phulkari style of embroidery met with a tragedy and faced some very difficult times. Whereat some point in time, around 52 types of Phulkari existed; there was also a time where this form of embroidery almost disappeared. This happened during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. However, it soon launched back up and now almost 70 years later, it is an evergreen style statement. The revival of Phulkari resulted because after the partition in 1947, due to the refugee crisis, the organizations encouraged women to make Phulkaris so that they could earn enough money to survive. Traditionally, Phulkari was embroidered by women using their own hands but now, the Phulkaris are embroidered using machines and modern techniques and materials.

The Making of Phulkari

Phulkari-Embroidery-Making
Image-Sheebamadanloewinger/Wikimedia

The Phulkari not only includes flowers but also consists of various motifs and geometrical designs, shapes, and patterns. The Phulkari embroidery is done with the use of a darn stitch on the wrong side of coarse cotton cloth known as ‘khaddar’ with colored silken thread. This is the main characteristic of this type of embroidery.

In earlier times, the phulkari style of embroidery was restricted to only shawls and Odhani. But in today’s time, this embroidery is done on large canvases like sarees and chudidaar kameez. In this Phulkari embroidery, the stitch used is the darning stitch which is the most important stitch used here. Other stitches like the herringbone stitch, buttonhole stitch, and running stitch are also used. These stitches were used to create an unusual motif or to border the khaddar. These designs and motifs are generally stitched and embroidered from the back of the cloth and the narrowest the stitch was, the finest the piece became.

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The motifs were thread by thread created in a geometric grid and the motifs in Phulkaris were evenly distributed with fine borders embroidered. The long and short darn stitches were used to create horizontal, vertical, and diagonal thread work. The coarse khaddar fabric was woven in widths and the fabric was stitched lengthwise to make the wanted width. The khaddar cloth was thick and coarse and so, to get the delicate silk floss through and forth was an important task. They were very prone to knots and tangles and because of this; the embroidery had to be done very carefully with focus and dedication. The thread used in this embroidery is called ‘pat’ In Punjabi and this floss silk yarn is glossy and gives the embroidery and the whole work a polish. The only tools that are used in this Phulkari embroidery are an embroidery frame and needles.

As the Phulkari embroidery consists of symmetrical designs, the person doing the embroidery has to count the number of stitches on each side and then proceed with the design. Hence, this whole traditional process of making a Phulkari is very long and tedious and it requires a great amount of effort and time. With time, people have moved on to different techniques and different fabrics like chiffon, georgette, silk, and regular cotton to make their Phulkaris.

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The use of colors was a very important part of the Phulkari. Traditionally, only four colors of khaddar fabrics were used and each color had its significance. The white color was used for old women and widows, the red color was used by young girls and brides-to-be and the blue and black colors were for daily use. Other than this, the red color in phulkari embroidery is very common and it represents youth and excitement. The orange color represents energy and the white color symbolizes purity. The green color epitomizes fertility and the blue color symbolizes tranquillity.

Motifs in Phulkari

Phulkari-Motifs
Image-Sheebamadanloewinger/Wikimedia

The motifs that the women used in their embroidery were taken from anything. They were anything from their imagination, their surroundings, their environment, nature, gardens, or just a mother and a daughter talking. Using these motifs, women expressed their emotions ad their creativity. Some common motifs used in the Phulkari embroidery are belan (rolling pin), kakri (cucumber), chandrama (moon), and Satranga (7 colors). Other commonly used motifs in this embroidery were taken from immediate surroundings and environment like animals, flowers, trees, birds, etc.

Different Types of Phulkari

Some types of Phulkari in India are:

  1. Thirma: unique trait of Thirma is its white khaddar. Usually worn by elder women and widows. It is a symbol of purity.
  2. Darshan Dwar: this type of Phulkari is made as an offering to thank god. It is made to give to the Gurudwaras after a wish is fulfilled. Darshan Dwar translates to “the gate to see God”.
  3. Bawan Bagh: Bawan meaning “fifty-two”, this type of Phulkari refers to the 52 different patterns that are made on this phulkari. This phulkari is very rare.
  4. Vari-da-bagh: this is given as a gift to the bride by her in-laws when she enters her new home. A distinctive feature is that it is always made on orange-reddish khaddar fabric and only a single golden or orange-colored pat is used for embroidery. The chief pattern of this phulkari is a group of three or four small concentric diamonds of growing size.
  5. Chope: this Phulkari embroidery is made by the bride’s maternal grandmother (naani) when the bride was born. The Holbein stitch is used in the chope phulkari and so, both the sides of the phulkari contain the same design. Chope is used to wrap the bride after her ritual bath on her wedding day. The chope is embroidered with one color and it is monochrome.
  6. Surajmukhi: the main pattern of this type of Phulkari is a sunflower.
  7. Panchranga Bagh: Panchranga means ‘five colors’ and so, this type of phulkari is decorated with chevrons of five different colors.
  8. Satranga Bagh: Satranga means ‘seven colors’ and so, this bagh is embroidered using seven colors.
  9. Meenakari Bagh: this bagh is usually made with gold and white-colored pat and it is decorated with small multicolored diamonds.
  10. Sainchi: this type of phulkari depicts and narrates the village life of Punjab. This phulkari was done in very few areas like Firozpur and Bhatinda. The motifs were local animals, birds, farmers, wrestlers, weavers, trains, circuses, etc.

It is crucial to keep traditional handicrafts alive, but it can be done only if a need exists for them. The solution comes in recreating the embroideries in styles that look current and follow classic processes. Today, this vibrant style has been reborn and used not just on shawls or odhnis, but also by leading designers like Manish Malhotra on Kurtis, jackets, sarees and bandhgalas. From a mere domestic art form, it has earned a place on couture collections of international designers! Interest in the realm of Indian Fashion indicates only that brighter days for phulkari embroidery are around the corner.

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