Phulkari and Bagh-Embroideries of the Punjab

Hopes & Dreams - Phulkari and Bagh from the Punjab

This article is an introduction to the embroidered covers and hangings of the Punjab known as phulkari and bagh, which are worked with mainly geometric designs in floss silk on hand-woven cotton. It has been extracted from a more comprehensive German language monograph circulated privately during the mid-199os. The author collects and deals in tribal textiles, and his collection contains more than a hundred prime examples of these colourful folk embroideries.

The folk embroidery tradition runs deep in the Punjab. At the end of the 15th century, the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, wrote: "Thou art not a worthwhile woman until thou hast embroidered thy own blouse". Village women still practice the craft, also stitching bed and cushion covers and a variety of other cloths, but the art probably reached its zenith in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Phulkari in Punjabi literally means “flower work” and was originally used to describe all types of embroidery. In time, however, the term came to be used only for an embroidered head cloth or shawl, some 1,40x 2,30m in size, also known as an odhini. Together with a narrow blouse (choli) and long skirt (gaghra) this formed the traditional dress of Punjabi women. Such embroi¬dered cloths were also used as wall hangings and covers, in particular east Punjabi pieces with figural representations of scenes from daily life. Today, densely emb¬roidered cloths for special occasions and ceremonies are called bagh  (Hindi/Farsi: garden), while more sparsely embroidered cloths for everyday use are called phulkari.

The major distinguishing feature between baghs and phulkaris relates to the amount of embroidery. In phulkaris, the motifs are more or less regularly divided over the whole cloth, and large areas of ground fabric are visible. As a rule, the ends have quite different patterns from the centre and are often much more richly worked. The motifs on a bagh, on the other hand, are embroidered so close to each other that the ground cloth shows as just a thin line around each motif. Also the ends of the bagh almost always pick up the motif of the main field.

Little is known about the true source of this textile art. Tools such as bronze needles, as 3well as sculpted and painted representations of textiles, enable us to trace back the Indian embroidery tradition at least to Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilisation. Some of the fabrics depicted in the early medieval paintings in the Ajanta Caves are very similar in design to phulkari embroideries (see John Irwin &Margaret Hall, Indian Embroideries, Ahmedabad 1973, p.1). However, apart from a small square chamba style rumal reputed to have been embroidered around 1500 by Guru Nanak's sister Debe Nanaki, and an embroidered shawl (shamla) dated to 1580, we know of no extant Punjabi embroideries that can be attributed to the 16th cen¬tury or earlier. Both these textiles are preserved in Sikh holy places in the Punjab, at Gurdaspur and Jalandhu respectively.

Embroidery was probably intro¬duced to the fertile plains of the Punjab by virtue of the re¬gion's character as a gateway to the Indian Subcontinent, and a place of settle¬ment for migrants from Iran and Central Asia. It is thought that either cattle-breeding nomads from the northwest, or Scythian-descended Jars, brought the tradition with them. Phulkaris and baghs are associated with the areas of Pesh¬awar, Hazara, Rawalpindi, Sialkot, Multan and Jhelum in west Punjab (now Pakistan), and Amritsar, Jullundur, Ludhiana, Ferozpur and Patiala in east Punjab (now India), as well as neighbouring parts of Haryana such as Ambala, Rohtak and Hissar. While the best pieces are sometimes thought to come from Hazara and Chakwal in north¬west Punjab, the present settlement area of the Jats, in the Haryana districts of Hissar, Sirsa and Rohtak, is often con¬sidered to be the real heartland of the phulkari tradition. In 1913 Ananda K. Coomaraswamy wrote "The original art stemmed from the rural Hindus (Jars) from Rohtak, Gurgaon and Delhi, while in Hazara a more artistic and developed form is found." In this he partially echoes Mrs Flora Steel, who, in the Journal of Indian Art in 1888 noted that "The art in its most original form is found today among the small farmers of Rohtak, Hissar and Gurgaon."

Before partition in 1948, the Punjab was populated by Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, but phulkari and bagh embroideries are pre¬dominantly the work of the first two communities. Originally the women made them solely for personal and domestic use - young girls produced their dowries, mothers and grandmothers worked for daughters and granddaughters. Commercial work only began in 1882, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh agreed the first export contract for phulkaris.

Demand grew towards the end of the 19th century, around the time of the Punjab Exhibition of 1881 in London. During the same period, a severe drought in the Punjab forced many families to sell their old embroideries. Thereafter, an even greater market was found in the West for baghs and phulkaris and objects decorated in this style, among them purses, curtains, and assorted covers. New patterns and colour combinations were developed, including the so-called `Man¬chester' and `Jubilee' baghs. To obtain faster and cheaper production a coarser and looser style of embroidery was employed. This, along with other advances saw an abrupt decline in the handiwork tradition - in 1888 Flora Steel also complained about the decline in handwork, the use of aniline dyes and the poor quality of the silk, as well as the use of foreign patterns.

  • 10-4-2009


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