Here is the tale of a fascinating art, a formidable craft tradition of India- which managed to live through centuries and is embedded as a special feature in every celebration, every festivity in the land of Punjab- the Phulkari & Bagh…. ‘A once dead and then reborn’ art of India….Dr. Neha Miglani explores the world of Phulkari, the ups and downs of its journey and discusses the standpoints with veterans in the field……
In 2013, when Manish Malhotra used Phulkari in his costumes for Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, worn by celebs Jacqueline Fernandez and Esha Gupta, and suddenly the media went schmoozing about Phulkari- the magazines, the newspapers even fashion curators began highlighting its elegance.
The craft traditions, naturalness, Indian textiles, and the Indian cultural traditional at large has so much to offer to the world of fashion. Phulkari (and Bagh)- so much Indian and with such deep traditional connection with Punjab, has risen from ashes, managed to survive through the journey and is no longer a dying art of India! However, it still manages to endure the conflicts of modernity and originality of hand work. It continues to be an integral part of the Punjabi festivity- blending both the traditional and modern sensibilities.
Some say it got revived, few others lament the onset of ‘computerized work era’ which marred the real hand-made Phulkari art and its true recognition, and still others are attempting to revive it like crusaders. Incidentally, certain women from Punjab cities like Patiala continue to do this art work themselves even today and serve orders to special customers only, therefore contributing significantly in keeping the art alive with ‘taste’ rather than need.
However, ground realities of artisans are sad and remain unsatisfying. Quest for innovation among new age designers and a stimulating marketing strategy, we concur (after having spoken to a wide spectrum of stake-holders in the field), can do the trick of giving this art form a true place in the world of fashion!
Here is an attempt to capture the world of Phulkari and Bagh and to lighten up your interest in this fascinating Indian (Punjabi at heart) art form…
Phulkari (literally meaning ‘flower work’!) is a rather interesting art, infact what makes it even more enticing is the fact that it was thought to be the costume of Heer (of Heer-Ranjha) in our ancient history. Thankfully, the Indian movies have helped in a way to revive the interest of audience and fashion lovers in this art and this itself has much to do with recreated interest in Phulkari by the fashion world.
Phulkari, it is quoted, was a word originally used for embroidery but steadily it became restricted to embroidered shawls and head scarfs. While the embroidered odinis (the head scarf), dupattas and even shawls are called Phulkari, the garments that cover the entire body and the ones with larger dimensions, (used for special and ceremonial occasions like weddings and birth of a son), the fully covered cloth, are called Baghs. The work was done originally with white or yellow silk floss on cotton Khaddarh and starts from the centre of the fabric called ‘Chasm-e-bulbul’, spreading to the whole fabric gradually.
From the outlook of an Art Historian
Dr. Alka Pande, an ace art historian, has been a strong advocate of Phulkari and Bagh preservation. She is responsible for curating several significant and perceptive exhibitions in India and abroad, and giving a name to some of the most upcoming and influential artists, photographers and sculptors. She is currently engrossed as the Consultants Arts Advisor and Curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. She also has expertise in art advisory services on art procurement and investment. She shares her thoughts on the current situation and how it can be brought to the main arena in the fashion world…….
How do you rate the contemporary condition of Pulkari in India?
Phulkari outside Punjab is still not that well known, as are other works like chikankaari or gujrati mirror work. Organisations like SEWA and Dastaar have done a lot for the promotion of these two forms of embroidery. Chikankaari has also been promoted by the very fashionable, literally haute couture gifted designers like Abu and Sandeep Khosla.
Good exquisite Phulkari in its very fine form needs to be seen by connoisseurs and fashionistas. Phulkari is still limited to the areas of Punjab, majorly in Patiala, and to some extent in Haryana. Till it does not catch the eye of the fashionable elite it will still be seen as a rural and local craft and will not be able to get its due.
Does it still struggle to survive?
I think the struggle to survive is lesser than before. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) did a beautiful project on Phulkari. Jasleen Dhamija- the noted textile scholar has done significant work and promotion of Phulkari as has Chotey Bharaney, the well-respected antique dealer and collector. The stunning collection of Phulkaris by Chotey Bharaney was shown at the Gallery Art Motif in New Delhi and Jasleen Dhamija executed a brilliant curation of the show. Jasleen Dhamija has written extensively about Phulkari in a most sensitive and insightful manner. But sadly, beyond Delhi Phulkari is still an obscure art.
Are there any efforts being made (in your notice) for its revival?
Yes, the workshop ‘1469’ (write it in capitals if it’s a proper noun) in Delhi has been working consistently in reviving Phulkari. The husband-wife duo of Harinder Singh and Kirandeep Kaur have held a unique event ‘Mela Phulkari’ at The India Habitat Centre a few times and are now planning to bring out a major publication on the subject in a couple of years. Documentation and work is in progress. Meanwhile, the banner of Phulkari is thriving and blooming at their outlets in Chandigarh and Janpath, New Delhi.
Preserving Bagh & Phulkari- A life dedicated to it….
Jasleen Dhamija, 83, is a veteran Indian textile art historian, crafts expert and a former UN worker. Based in Delhi, she is best known for her pioneering research on the handloom and handicraft industry, particularly about the history of textiles and costumes. She has remained a professor of Living Cultural Traditions at the University of Minnesota. Over the years, during her career as a textile revivalist and scholar, she has authored several books on textiles, including Sacred Textiles of India (2014).
A major exhibition on Bagh and Phulkari was curated by Jasleen Dhamija for Gallery Art Motif, New Delhi in 2012. The gallery is now about 20 years old, set up by Mala Aneja in 1996 at A1-178 Safdarjung Enclave, Fourth Floor, New Delhi.
The gallery showcases contemporary Indian art, with a focus on abstraction; and also holds exhibitions on textiles, one of which was the ‘ Bagh and Phulkari’ exhibition.
The journey of Mela Phulkari
Here is a piece from the diary of 1469 founders……
“In our journey with 1469, a conceptual brand, that showcases Panjab and its products, the beauty and character of the Baghs that were embroidered as a part of their daily chores by the women of Panjab, was discovered by us. Over the years this characteristic experiential craft which had an emotional and social connect with the people dwindled into a commercial embroidery technique of Phulkari.
We decided to work with a two thronged approach to preserve and proliferate this craft. One was to collect and preserve whatever old pieces we could get hold of. Patterns on these pieces were clicked and saved digitally. On the other hand, we took up the task of uplifting the quality of the existing technique of making phulkari in the hinterland of Punjab.
We brought Phulkari, in fashion, by making accessories using this embroidery. The traditional dupatta gave way to stoles, bags, potlis, kites, cushions and the likes. At 1469 we create an ambience of ‘real’ Panjab with the flavor of our products. Phulkari in its current and original form was a part of this range. 12 years ago we started our project to collect all patterns used in phulkari work in the form of Baghs, chaddars, dupattas in various fabrics. The patterns and designs on the Baghs had significance to the ocassion they were made for. The vari da Bagh was made for a newly wedded girl. The surajmukhi Bagh was presented at the birth of a son. The sainchi, thirma, baawan, chope all had a story to tell. We were delighted to discover and wanted to share our elation with the world. All this painstaking hand craftsmanship with such vibrant breathtaking results had to be shared with more audience. When we shared our collection of Baghs and passion for Panjab and its distinct culture with Dr. Alka Pande (an art historian) she wanted to curate an exhibition of the same in the Visual Arts Gallery at IHC. Thus began this venture called ‘Mela Phulkari’. With her guidance and encouragement we got an opportunity to reach an audience who would appreciate the creativity in this predominantly-agriculture- based state of Panjab. When we say Panjab we say and mean the undivided Panjab. We have done three editions so far on Mela Phulkari.”
-Harinder & Kirandeep Kaur, Founders- 1469 (who founded the concept of Mela Phulkari at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi along with art historian and a veteran in the field Dr. Alka Pande).
All about the ‘Mela Phulkari’ initiative
As its founders quote- “‘Mela Phulkari’ is a movement, a celebration of the art, craft and culture of Panjab in its true essence and spirit”. In ‘Mela Phulkari-1’ (first edition) the rich craft of phulkari was introduced.
In the second ‘Mela’ the duo along with Dr. Pande started thread of collaboration with other designers and design students. The third edition of the ‘Mela’ was a continuation of these efforts. In 2016, more and more people joined in creating a unified Panjab through the common thread of Phulkari. ‘Mela Phulkari-3’ (third edition) used Phulkari as a pivot to reinterpret stories about Panjab. Phulkari is a tool which signifies various connotations – past and present of Panjab. Phulkari is used as a metaphor for women empowerment, social bonding, narratives of life, tributes to Panjab’s institutions, movements’ and heroes, places and people. It also cognate the inclusiveness of family bonding, primarily women, through tambu created with Baghs. Similarly, khulla sher is a collaborative effort where women in Sangrur are encouraged to create embroidered patches, their interpretations of Panjabi culture suggesting a motive or a poem.
“Phulkari workers have taken up other part time jobs dreading the damage to their eye sight in later age”
“Now the entire work has been computerized. It is cheap and also that now the workers are performing badly. The ladies could not deliver on time. Handwork is very rare- the real Phulkari. The work of the Muslim artisans, in comparison, is very neat. Although the work is expensive by there is an appreciative customer base for such pieces. The quality of the handwork, its neatness and finesse has waned drastically. Earlier, it was the home-makers or the unlettered ladies who used to do this work at home. Now that the awareness of being educated has spread long and wide the present generation does not like doing this work. Also the drop in the virtue of patience and shortage of time has further marred the interest in this art form. Compared to the efforts they put by straining their eyes and devoting long hours of labor, they get insignificant results and profits. Computer work is cheaper and therefore the customers go in for that. I used to travel in villages and connect with women and acquire bedcovers from them. Even the workers employed under me have taken up part time jobs because they fear that after 50 years of age their eyes will become weak.
Even movies show Phulkari which is computerized. Punjabi movies are being promoted but not the culture of the state. To boost the art and the artisans and for better results both appreciation with better remunerations will help this art from descending. “
–Anmol Sarkaria, from Patiala is among the first ones to bring Phulkari to bedcovers in Punjab with the help of her artisans. She has decades of experience in the art of Phulkari and runs her own fashion brand ‘Anmol Boutique’
“Very shoddy work is done in some areas of Punjab which is nowhere near the beautiful Phulkari art”
“Though the situation in Punjab is leaning more towards computerization and more usage of machines, I am still continuing with the authentic hand work. I have been doing the art for 20 years and I am convinced to keep the art work alive. I am sad about the machine work since it has ruined the art. It is such a neat way of working with hand, but computerization of designs. I am doing Phulkari totally on orders. It takes three months to complete an order. It is deplorable to see that there are a lot of others in Punjab who are producing shoddy work. I still possess the Phulkari of my great grandmother, what a piece of art it is! Even my wedding Phulkari was made by those original workers. Those original clans of workers are no longer interested in this art. I am trying to create the work for the modern world, also with embellishments, without sacrificing on the sanctity of the original delight. Maharani Parneet Kaur, Mrs. Badal, Mrs. Manmohan Singh are some people who own my Phulkari. When Camilla Parker Bowles came to India, she was presented the very Phulkari that I had made. There are hosts of NGO’s working for restoration of Phulkari. We really need to preserve this work since it is a beautiful art. “
– Simran Harika, an ace Phulkari artist, who creates Phulkari herself for specialized clients under the brand ‘poppyharika’
“Experimentation and fusion can be a different kind of strategy to preserve this art”
“We need to improve a lot on this handicraft. Lack of finances coupled with exploitation of artisans is doing the real damage. So we need to add something new to it. Those who wish to preserve this art need to give it a new twist to create interest for art connoisseurs and even common people who appreciate art. I am adding some innovations to Phulkari, while preserving the art in its traditional manner. It has slow growth when it comes to Phulkari as a business. The work available in the market is not up to the mark. Shopkeepers are exploiting workers and they are forced to make a lot of pieces in a single day which is nearly impossible if the beauty of it is to be kept intact.
-Lily Dhaliwal, is experimenting with Phulkari by creating new designs and adding stitches to it. She believes in blending it with modernity to match the new -age tastes.
“High quality hand-work is still in demand. Government needs to promote artisans more.”
“We have been conducting training programs in Phulkari since a long time. There are a lot of females working in this area even now but they should get their due and better and adequate payment for their hard work. I assume, there are more than 2 lacs women in Punjab who must be involved with this art. Lack of profits has demotivated them. With the onset of computerized Phulkari, thick threads are being used and market has got affected badly. Computerized phulkari is being sold for Rs2500 while handwork is being sold for Rs4000. Also, a lot of females get discouraged when shopkeepers do not pay them on time for their hard work. The former can be hand-washed and still in favorable demand but the Bagh dupattas are not in such a vogue. Hand work that we are promoting has a great demand especially in overseas market. If the government supports more and market pays better labour, then Phulkari artisans will get promoted as well. For the artisans, getting into a new field is also tough. They will be happy if they are paid well, they will stay on. High quality hand work is still in demand even today. In Delhi, when exhibitions are conducted, Phulkari work is sold for Rs 12,00,000 in the span of 15 days. So there is still scope and revival is happening.
-Rekha Mann, founder of Patiala Handcrafts Society, has been working in the area of Phulkari preservation for more than 20 years and has trained more than 50,000 ladies in Punjab.
Straight from grandmother’s wardrobe to digital library!
“Literature and art has been the focus of Punjab Digital Library. PDL has been digitizing documents from 2003 and the thrust was on manuscripts and books. About two years back, we thought of starting Phulkari digitization as well. We developed a machine. It took a year to complete the work. From the last 6-7 months we are in the process of digitizing Phulkari. The purpose has been to preserve and keep the art live for future generations to see and admire the ethnic art form. Once Phulkari designs are digitized, it will be easy to reproduce it by art lovers (whether for self-use or commercial) and it will remain alive. It is important to preserve the old designs. Generations in future would know what their great-grandmothers and what grandmothers wore. There are two sources through which we are gathering these old Phulkaris. We gathered several of them from a number of grandmothers also met and interacted with a lot of elderly people at their homes. Second way was through the collectors who have them in abundance. There are people who have 100-200, all distinctly different, collections of Phulkari and we are in constant touch with them for more original designs and art to preserve.
-Davinderpal Singh, Co-founder of Punjab Digital Library (PDL). Punjab Digital Library, a non-profit organization was started by a couple of youngsters from Punjab to keep its tradition and culture alive.
The Outfit of Love– The costumes of Heer were known to be largely Phulkari. That is how historical notes have described her appearance to be.
Marriage Eligibility– During earlier times in Punjab, a bride’s eligibility and credibility was judged on the number of Phulkari’s she had made. Often the groom’s side would pop this question to measure the quantum of skill and tenaciousness of the girl.
Phulkari & the Punjabi Weddings
According to the Punjab wedding customs, which are followed till date, the Punjabi bride is brought to the wedding mandap under a beautiful Phulkari Chaddar/Dupatta, usually escorted by her brothers who hold this cloth over her head. Earlier, this cloth for the bride used to be woven by close family members.
The Sad Tale of Exploitation Continues
Experts on Phulkari opine that the artisans continue to face exploitation at the hands of the shopkeepers, even rich and affluent ladies, particularly those who (on the pretext of promoting Phulkari) use labour and eventually sell off the material at high prices. Some others blame computerized designs imitating Phulkari as the real culprit of downgrading the real, traditional art.