Phulkari art from Punjab-India

From the land of the Punjab come the beauteous phulkaris. With their delicate and dense patterning, the creations are closely associated with many festivals and rituals.


phulkari artA robust joie de vivre! Speak of Punjab and the canvas instantly springs to life – hard working people who celebrate their festivals with equal zest. A canvas which is as colourful as the art of phulkari.

in social and ceremonial gatherings, the piece de resistance of a woman’s attire is her phulkari, an embroidered length of cloth that may be draped as a shawl or head-cover. The term phulkari stems from phul, which means flower, and kari, which means work. So the name translates as flower making. The embroidery done with untwisted floss silk threads simulates the effect of brilliant, coloured flowers. The large drape of the phulkari, upto about 50 inches by 100 inches is spangled with motifs. Often detailed borders and end-panels define the textlile.

phulkari1With time phulkari beecame increasingly elaborate and decorativc. This led to the evolution of the special ceremonial bagh phulkari. Bagh literally means garden, and the term distinguishes the flowered phulkari from this densely worked textile where the embroidery is so profuse that the ground colour is no longer visible!

phulkaris and baghs have traditionally been embroidered by the older women in homes for their children, to be gifted to them during their weddings as well at other ceremonies. Interestingly, though the embroidery is also worked on different textiles, over generations, its style has come to be identified with the embroidered textile gifted to the bride during her wedding. Thus, both the embroidery style and the head-cover are called phulkari. These beautiful textiles are draped by the bride during the wedding rites, and continue to be worn by her during festivals and ceremonies throughout her life.

Rituals, followed by the distribution of an offering of a food preparation and sweets, traditionally marked the start of the work on phulkari embroidery by the child’s mother or grandmother. The elaborately worked vari da bagh is embroidered by the paternal grandmother of a baby boy to be gifted to his bride; while the chope embroidered by the bride’s maternal grandmother, is worn by the bride during rituals preceding the wedding. Its lack of borders along the breadths symbolises unbounded prosperity for the bride. The suber, worn by the bride during the ceremonial wedding rites,bears five stylised, eight-petalled lotuses, a flower that traditionally symbolises purity in India.

phulkariMost phulkaris and bagbs are worked with geometrical patterns and have no upper or lower ends. The sanchi phulkari bears figural motifs including scenes from everyday life. Another interesting unidirectional phulkari the darshan dwar, embroidered on red cloth with a representation of the entrance to a holy shrine. These profusely embroidered textiles bear human figures standing at the portals of the shrine, along with other motifs, and are offered to the temple on the fulfilment of a vow.

Most Phulkaris are worked with the darning stitch, placed at different angles – vertical, horizontal and diagonal. Light falling on the glossy, single colour silk threads makes the embroidery appear multi-hued. Occasionally, small pieces of mirrors are embroidered into the phulkari for a decorative look. The embroidery is worked from the reverse of the fabric by the careful counting of threads, without any pattern being traced on the cloth. On the main surface the stitches are about quarter to half centimetres long while they are very minute on the reverse, and successive stitches on the bagh are only one thread apart. The advantage of working on thick cotton is tbat it aids the counting of threads. So it has to be ensured that the cloth has an even weave for a perfect result.

As a part of the Phulkari finished, it is rolled and wrapped in a cloth to keep it clean. With the juxtaposition of two or more colours in motifs and the variation of the angle of the stitch, the phulkari stands out for its simplicity of slyle and attractiveness. Worked in the linear darning stitch, the embroidery is infused with an overall geometric and symmetrical effect. Motifs such as the peacock, stars or flowers, take on a stylished contour because of the straight darning stitch. The choice of colours adds to the striking effect of a phulkari – golden yellow, white, orange and pink are the ccolours generally worked With, and green and blue may be used on the border. However baghs are sometimes worked in only two colours. phulkari designs are guided only by the embroider’s skill and imagination, without any paper pattern or reference books.

phulkari art from PunjabAs the women embroider, they draw on varied factors around them as sources for motifswith the same source being interpreted differently by different women. Birds, especially the peacock, streams of water, the moon, flowers and traditional Indian ornaments are popular motifs. Some motifs spring from the kitchen, which give the Phulkaris their names such as, Dhania (coriander) Bagh, Mirchi (chilli) Bagh, Gobhi (cabbage) Bagh and Karela Bagh (bitter gourd) ! Names are also derived from the number of colours used. A Pancharanga is a five coloured Phulkari, while satranga is a seven-coloured one.

With ample potential for individual expression, each Phulkari reflects the women’s sense of aesthetics and expertise, so much so that during the 19th century Phulkaris crafted by a young girl and her mother were a reflection of their talents. Further, the affluence of a family was gleaned from the number and beauty of the Phulkaris that formed the bride’s trousseau.

In the absense of paper patterns, motifs are passed from mother to daughter and within families. An interesting method of preserving motifs was expressed on the Bawan Phulkari. In a Bawan Phulkari, Bawan meaning 52, the cloth was divided in 52 squares, each of which was filled in with a different motif. As Phulkari embroidery is done with a single thread, and the stitches are relatively long, the enbroidered textile has to be handled carefully or the work gradually wears away. In this context, these sample Bawan-Phulkaris were very important in preserving patterns.

The result of Phulkari embroidery is inevitably dazzling with bright, lustrous coloured threads shining on a red background. But, on close inspection, one may find a small unworked or unfinished area on the most profusely worked textile or a patch with a different pattern, setting it apart from the rest of the piece. The embroiderer, most poignantly, introduces this apparent imperfection, as ruse to ward off the evil eye that may cast itself on a beautiful piece of work, seeped with sentiments and effort. For the same reason the auspicious word Om may be embroidered on the textile.

With a change in lifestyles in the later decades of the 20th century, there has been a decline in Phulkaris embroidered at home. Once done to be gifted to brides, and never for commercial sale, Phulkari embroidery now thrives as a cottage industry. It is worked on curtains, bedspreads, cushion covers, wall hangings, chiffon saris, kurtas or shirts and dupattas or shawls. But many beautiful old Phulkaris and baghs continue to be passed down from one generation to another. Their beautiful and dense patterning convey the love, care and sheer effort that went into crafting them, and take us back into another time.

See also : Phulkari article from Marg Magazine