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Relic of resonance

Silk threads in vibrant colours sewn into intricate patterns on handspun khaddar made for a priceless wedding gift for the traditional Punjabi bride. The Phulkari remains timeless, even though its spirit is in duress. By Nanki Singh.

brunch Updated: Sep 01, 2013 15:09 IST
Nanki Singh

It was to be a part of legendary character Heer’s trousseau, though she didn’t get to wear it as a bride. The Phulkari finds a mention in Waris Shah’s epic poem Heer Ranjha, and in the Guru Granth Sahib, making it at least six centuries old if not less. The origin of the rural embroidery art, however, is shrouded in mystery. Some scholars believe it to have originated in Iran, where it was called ‘gulkari’, while others believe the Jat tribes from Central Asia brought it with them when they migrated to Punjab.

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ETCHED IN HISTORY

Derived from the words ‘Phul’ (flower) and ‘Kari’ (work), the Phulkari is exclusive to Punjab and certain regions of Haryana. Since more than 700 years, it has been a tradition in Punjabi households to gift a Phulkari to the daughter at the time of her wedding. The elderly women of the house would spend years patiently sewing geometric patterns on khaddar to ready the Phulkari in time for the girl’s marriage.

Affirms Gursharan Kaur, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wife, who inaugrated an exhibition called Phulkari—From the Realm of Women’s Creativity, at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), Delhi, earlier in April this year. “We had trunk loads of Phulkaris as it was a tradition to give the bride a Phulkari at the time of her marriage. My grandmother, whom we called beji, said girls could embroider Phulkaris in the moonlight. It takes me back to my childhood,” she smiles.

Originally, the Phulkari embroidery was done on a handspun cotton base cloth or khaddar, using pure silk floss called ‘pat’, which was also handmade and dyed in vegetable colours. The base cloth’s colour was chosen with special care, each hue having its own significance. For instance, white was mostly preferred by old women, red and bright colours such as saffron by young girls and brides-to-be, and blue and black kept for daily use. The darning stitch was the most commonly used technique to make Phulkari, and the quality of a piece could be gauged by the size of the stitch—the smaller the stitch, the finer the piece. What was unique about the embroidery was that shading was done not by use of different colours, but by using the same coloured thread in diagonol, horizontal and vertical stitches to give the illusion of different colours. The motifs represented life as the women saw it, depicted by certain animals, flowers or vegetables.

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In commercial zone

The first commercial use of the Phulkari, it is believed, happened in 1882 when Maharaja Ranjit Singh signed the export contract of Phulkaris. The garment was now
no longer meant for personal adoration alone.

According to the president of IGNCA, Chinmaya Gharekhan, presently there are nearly 3,00,000 women employed in making Phulkaris in Punjab and Haryana. In modern day Punjab, there remain only a handful of pockets where embroiders—mostly women—continue to make Phulkaris. These are mostly in and around Patiala, where families from Bahawalpur near Multan (in Pakistan) settled after the Partition. The Tripuri market in Patiala is the main hub to source raw materials for the Phulkaris, a place frequented by designers, wholesale dealers and boutique owners. Though the Phulkari’s commercialisation has meant employment for thousands of women and a revival of the art, it has also led to a degradation of its quality. It is tragic that the traditional artisans now earn a pittance for their expertise.

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“We earn about R40 per suit. If I work on a dupatta alone, it takes me almost a month to complete it, for which I earn R350. But, I know that it will be sold in the market for over R2,000,” complains Jasmeet Kaur, 35, an embroider in Tripuri. But why don’t these women demand a better price from the shopkeepers? “We are a dispensable commodity in what was once an art form fit for the maharajas. If we don’t accept the market rate, we can easily be replaced by another woman who may or may not be as good,” laments Surinder Kaur, 40, another embroiderer who works for a Phulkari emporium in Tripuri. She further adds, “I learnt this art from my grandmother. If I were to make a Phulkari in the traditional way, it would sell for at least R15,000. But now, any sorry excuse for embroidery is being passed off as Phulkari work and for far cheaper.”

In the old times, it used to be one woman working on a piece. So fine used to be the work, that not a stitch was out of place. A ‘bagh’ (a shawl covered completely by design) could take up to a year to make and a dupatta could take as many as three months. But, with industrialisation looming over them, there are now as many as four women working on a piece. They say it affects the quality of the work, but how else does one compete with machines?

Until five or six years ago, another area in Punjab—Sunet, in district Ludhiana —was the hub of Phulkari embroiders. Working in large numbers, they supplied pieces to the most exquisite boutiques in the country. But, a recent visit to the place revealed not a single Phulkari maker. Worse, nobody knows where they went.



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Custodians of the art

However, all is not lost to commercialisation as some still manage to keep it in the family. In Tripuri market itelf there is a shop called Guru Nanak Phulkari House, whose matriarch Lajwanti Chhabra has been felicitated with a Rashtrapati Award for her efforts in keeping this art alive. What makes the place even more rare is the presence of her son Amit, 29, who is wholeheartedly involved in the making of Phulkaris, quite a surprise in this world of women. “I am proud to be helping my mother with her work and I love what I do,” says he with pride shining in his eyes. “We used to be cursed by people and told we are no better off than banjaras. Then my mother won this award and as expected, people were singing a different tune. Suddenly, we were the presevers of a lost art,” he says.

The entire Chhabra family is involved in making Phulkaris, including Amit’s two sisters who are also government awardees. Though the family is based in Tripuri, Lajwanti shuttles between different cities to sell her products. “There is no help from the Punjab government to craftspeople like us. If I travel to Chandigarh and sell a Phulkari piece for just R25,000, how much profit am I left with? In Delhi, people genuinely give our work’s due,” she claims. Nevertheless, the children are determined to stay in the trade. “This is what our maternal grandmother taught our mother, who taught us and now even my little niece is learning,” adds Amit, his eyes shining.

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Finding Ground

Honi Sandhu, a Chandigarh-based boutique owner whose Phulkaris have been featured in various magazines and dailies across the country, believes that in today’s world you need to be commercially viable to survive, but that there’s a fine line between revival and overkill. “Originally, a real Phulkari wasn’t for daily use but for special occasions in a woman’s life. It was about a mother embroidering her love for her daughter onto the cloth,” says Sandhu, who gets Phulkaris made in Patiala in the traditional way by artisans who have been with the family for almost two generations. A dupatta at her boutique can cost anything between R10,000-R20,000, depending on the work.

The Patiala Handicraft Workshop Cooperative Industrial Society in villlage Thua near Rajpura is an exercise started by Rekha Mann in 1997 to empower the women of the area without compromising on the quality of the work. "My husband’s relatives laughed at me when I started in a broken down garage with hardly any money to my name. With the rare exception of my mother-in-law, not even my own husband thought I would succeed," says Rekha. But, with the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) shortlisting the women for Scheme for Regeneration of Traditional Industry (SFURTI) in 2006, there has been no looking back.



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With a government grant of over R20 lakh and panchayat land in this village, the society runs a common facilitation center with 14 villages under them. “We have orders coming in from Canada, England and Bahrain from not just NRIs but also foreigners,” claims Rekha. Field officer Vijaylakshmi personally goes from house to house to talk to the women and convince them to stand on their own feet. Her’s is the story afflicting most rural women: a drunk, abusive and out-of-work husband who wouldn’t let her work. “It makes it easier for the girls I talk to, to relate to me. They see in me someone who managed to break free from this cycle of abuse and make a life for herself and her children. They see a chance to start over,” she says.

Over the years, the pure cotton base cloth has made way for mixed polyester, silk threads for synthetic floss and machines have taken over the labour-intensive craft. Yet, the Phulkari has regained its popularity, most recently in fashion designer Manish Malhotra collection. All it needs now is a supportive government and loyal patrons.

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