Phulkari — Rich art, poor artisans
The evolution of products and art forms in a region are a direct representation of its changing culture, history and design techniques since ancient human civilizations. Art is an expression that can take a form of painting, sculpture, embroidery, etc. Embroidery is an age old skill with rich cultural past that finds its mention in the historical scriptures.
‘Phulkari’, an exquisite style of embroidery has its roots in Punjab. ‘Phulkari’ literally means flower crafting. Apart from floral designs there are geometric and more intricate patterns with motifs of sarson fields, parrots, peacocks which give a glimpse of the culture and village life of Punjab.
The origin of Phulkari is not fully known as the information available is fragmented and does not match with the different sources. But it is believed that its origin dates back to the 15th century, when a kerchief / rumaal was embroidered by Shri Guru Nanak Dev ji. It finds its mention in the Guru Granth Sahib where Shamla, a ceremonial costume of the fifth sikh guru was done with phulkari, and also in “Heer Ranjha”, the legend written by Waris Shah which dates back to 15th century, the era of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s reign. Phulkari was brought to Patiala district of Punjab by the craftsmen who migrated from Bahawalpur, near Multan in West Pakistan.
Phulkaris are worked on with darn stitch in various directions — horizontal, vertical and diagonal, with bright coloured silken thread giving it an effect of light and shade. Embroidery is done from the reverse side of fabric which has very minute stitches while successive stitches are on the front side. Primarily, home-spun, locally woven and dyed khadi material was preferred as the base since it was strong, longlasting and cheap. The course weave helped in counting of threads during embroidering the piece while the thickness of cloth helped in working on it without a frame. It began to be made on a shawl or dupatta which was initially a winter garment due to its thickness. Later it came to be made on different materials for different purposes like curtains, bedcovers, sarees, suits, etc. Sometimes, small pieces of cloth were embroidered separately and then joined to form a big piece which helped in speeding up the work as many women could work on it simultaneously.
Phulkari is considered auspicious, hence it finds its presence in products and fabrics used in various ceremonies. Traditionally, the older woman in the house used to embroider phulkari to gift to their daughters at their marriage to be worn on festivals and other occasions. It is made in bright and vivid colours where each colour marks its own significance. Red colour carrying an auspicious and religious significance was draped around brides while performing various wedding rites. Golden yellow, the colour of happiness and harmony, the colour of basant, colour of fertile earth is most dominant among the rest of the colours. According to number of colours used in a single phulkari, it is called ‘pachranga’ meaning five colours or ‘satranga’, meaning seven colours.
The phulkari for wedding purposes is of two types — Chope and Suber. Other types of phulkaris based on flowers, birds and rural life of Punjab are Chamba, Mor or Tota, Mirchi, Sanchi phulkari and the one which has mirrors inserted in them is called Shishedar.
More complex, heavily embroidered pieces are known as ‘bagh’. Different types of Baghs as characterized for different wedding ceremonies are Vari da bagh, Ghunghat Bagh or Sari pallu and Baawan Bagh.
Phulkari has not just survived, but also evolved over the years in terms of design, style and workmanship according to the changing nature and lifestyle of people to whom it caters. Improvisation and innovation is introduced in the craft in its design, threads, colours, cloth materials and style. To keep the craft relevant in the modern world, more wearable designs are made, which are less detailed and less time consuming due to lack of interest of the people working on it. The designs are geometric and are no more a reflection of the rural village life. This not only gives them a contemporary look, but also helps in reducing the expenses. Synthetic fast coloured threads are used. Traditionally used vivid colours are replaced by subdued strains which look more attractive in today’s world. The embroidery is now done on the cloth from the top, rather than from the reverse side. Now with time, and with changing pace of the world, even rural women practicing the art don’t have much time to work out intricate details in the designs, so some of the attractive designs are adopted for textile printing.
The blend of the traditional phulkari motifs with modern fashion is acting like a ray of hope for keeping the exquisite art alive over the generations. Phulkari is in great demand in foreign countries, hence is a source of foreign exchange for the state and adds up to the economy of the country as a whole. The irony lies here that though Phulkari is a booming business in Punjab, despite of that the artisans who have devoted themselves to the craft and look upto it as a source of their livelihood, are hardly getting paid for it due to the intermediaries. While all the profit is earned by these agents, the embroiders hardly get one sixth of the amount at which the finished product is sold in the market.
A few steps are taken by the local Government to promote the art. Exhibitions are held showcasing phulkari fabrics and products where people who seek traditional work buy some of the products. Punjab Small Industries and Export Corporation (PSIEC) is a recognized export house which markets handicrafts through a chain of emporia ‘PHULKARI’. Their basic aim is to help artisans market their produce and help them in forming their self help groups. Training centers are running in Patiala and Hoshiarpur by PSIEC to help rural women learn and practice the art so that they can become financially independent and add up to family’s income, and to income of the state as a whole.
But the Government, after taking all these steps should also ensure that the efforts get more fruitful for the craftsmen involved. Economic aspect should be considered and amended to keep these embroiders motivated. The art shall be converted into a beneficial business by marketing it through proper channels. It is essential for its survival which is challenging in the era of technology where handicrafts are witnessing a steep decline.
Journals and Articles:
- Harjeet Singh Gill, A phulkari from Bathinda, published by Punjab University, 1977
- Phulkari — The Folk At of Punjab, Phulkari Publications, 1980