Famous for its scenic landscape, fertile lands and cultural diversity, Punjab, in the North Western region of India has seen tumultuous times across centuries. Placed at a strategic geo-political location Punjab has had to face off with countless foreign invaders like the Persians, Greeks, Scythians and Kushans that came into India through this gateway. Some stayed, some plundered the lands and left; however, each community that entered Punjab, left an indelible impression on Punjabi culture that enriched and enhanced it.
A visit to Punjab feeds the soul with its rich, storied history, its cuisine, architecture and music. But to soak in the true spirit of the land one would have to acquaint oneself with its rich handicrafts that have through a cultural osmosis absorbed influences from other cultures as well as lent its own quintessential elements to others. Bearing witness to this give and take, Punjab's famous handicrafts like Phulkari, woodwork and leather crafts add a swathe of color to its rich historical tapestry.
The word 'Phulkari' means 'flower work', done on coarse handwoven cotton fabric and is a richly embroidered fabric, used usually as a 'dupatta' or a traditional drape or shawls. Though the origins of Phulkari embroidery are unclear, it is often linked both to the Gujjar nomads of Central Asia and the 'Gulkari' embroidery of Iran. It remains a folk treasure, more art than pure textile, celebrating culture and life. An exquisite, visually arresting craft, Phulkari probably started sometime in the 15th century and was once a ubiquitous part of a bride's trousseau.
“phulkari meri maan ne kadhi, iss noo ghut ghut japhiyan paawan”
(“My dear mother has embroidered this phulkari, I embrace it again and
again with affection”) – Traditional Punjabi song
Handcrafted with a simple needle using multi-colored raw silk thread, a Phulkari uses 'resham' or silk threads to fill up traditional floral and geometrical motifs, creating a densely embroidered texture. But the craft was not exclusively meant for women and there are instances of Sikh scriptures being kept wrapped in phulkaris as well. The craft today is being favored by designers for contemporary usage, giving it a sturdy road ahead to flourish.
Punjab's leather craft, especially the 'juttis' or soft leather shoes is a beautiful product, the specialty of which is that there is no distinction between the left and right foot's fit. These light slip-ons which are always flat-soled were traditionally embroidered in gold and silver thread but are now embellished with colored threads. Construction of one pair of juttis involves people from different communities: the Cobblers, who process raw hides, the Rangaars, who color them and the Mochis, who assemble the pieces together and do the final stitching and embroidery.
The jutti evolved from a shoe style with a curled up pointed toe called 'mojari', worn by the wealthiest male citizens during the Mughal Empire in the early 16th century. At that time, this style of footwear was known as Salim Shahi Juttis, named after a Mughal prince of the 1600s. Mojari continues to be worn at weddings and other special occasions in India.
Wood carving is another craft that influenced the original Punjabi style to a great degree. Using techniques like Inlay work, an import from Central Asia, skilled Punjabi carpenters craft durable and visually attractive furniture with beautiful carvings, like the wooden bed with a backrest fitted with mirrors and colorful legs called pawas. Various Mughal-style motifs of animals, birds, natural scenery and geometrical patterns are used for carving on these beds which were once a part of a bride's trousseau. Skilled carpenters in the state also make 'Peeras', decorative boxes, Pidhis and wooden toys with ivory inlay work.
Along with a rich heritage of handicrafts, Punjab has also absorbed influences in its cuisine and architecture making it flavorful, abundant and interesting...and that is the hallmark of a people who will thrive and prosper despite hardships.
This article first appeared in www.jaypore.com.