A Speculative Craft

Teaching traditional phulkari techniques

In 2008, I had the opportunity to start working with women in villages of Nabha, Punjab in India. The Nabha Foundation was keen on an income generation and women’s empowerment program for these women in the embroidery known as Phulkari traditional to the state of Punjab.  As a purist, working in the field of crafts for over 25 years, it was clear in my mind, that I could only be involved if the embroidery was done traditionally.  I was told the women were already skilled, so I was engaged as a designer, to create a product line.

However, the ground reality proved to be very different.  The women had done a little embroidery, very coarse and clumsy work, but on a synthetic georgette fabric on which the design to be embroidered was traced or printed.  Phulkari embroidery was always done by counting the threads on homespun handwoven fabric, khaddar as it was known in Punjab.

We started the training, but we did not have the very basic requirement, someone trained in this traditional skill, but the woman who was employed as a trainer initially knew how to embroider.  Within a short span of time, it was clear to me, that this was not going to work and dejected I started getting templates and blocks made to trace and print the designs on the fabric. 

I was advised against this.  The reason was thought-provoking, the embroiderer would follow the traced or printed design and not engage with the fabric. I decided to push on, although the women did some work with the design laid out on the fabric.

They say if you think of something ardently, the Universe conspires to make it happen, and I would dream of finding someone who was conversant with this traditional skill. One day out of the blue, an old woman walked up the stairs of the home we were practicing the embroidery. She claimed she had done a lot of Phulkari work in her younger days. I quickly handed over a piece of fabric, needle and thread, and she started to demonstrate, slow, sure stitches from the reverse side of the fabric, all the while telling us her eyesight was so poor.  Fortunately, I had my camera on hand and although she could not embroider for long, all of us present felt a change.

That was perhaps the turning point of this project that by then was in its third year! In the following group that received training, it became clear there was a new understanding of the embroidery, and the motifs were comparable to those we see on old phulkari pieces.

Phulkari translates as “flower work” and its canvas,  khaddar,  is visible through the embroidery.  The more elaborate Bagh covers the fabric almost completely.  The darn stitch is used in Phulkari. The most prevalent use of Phulkari has always been as a wrap (odhani and dupatta as we call them) although in this age of “innovation” all kinds of usages are being found for it. 

There is a lot of “Phulkari” embroidery available in the markets of Punjab, but the work is too commercial.  On the other hand, this project is the first revival of Phulkari as it was done traditionally.

Unfortunately, very little is known about the provenance of Phulkari embroidery. For every story one hears, there is an opposite one told as well. Did it come to Punjab as a ‘transfer of technology’ through invasions and settlers or travel and trade over centuries past or was it an indigenous textile art?  We can only speculate.

Phulkari: The Song of Flowers is organized by the India International Centre with the support of the Nabha Foundation. The exhibit will run through September 23rd at the Art Gallery, India International Annexe, Lodi Estate, New Delhi, India.

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