Patterns of Punjab

Floral Craft

Patterns of Punjab

The other day, I decided to wear a Phulkari stole bought in Patiala’s Adalat Bazaar (Punjab). A red poly-cotton fabric embroidered with bright orange, ultramarine blue and turquoise green, paired with brown knit trousers and a black T-shirt, offsetting the neutral tones with its colourfulness, it looked quite stunning. 

Phulkari and Bagh are colourful, embroidered shawls worn by the women of Punjab that were enormously popular from 1850-1950 AD. It is thought that the tradition came to India with the migration of the Jats from Central Asia. The word Phulkari (literally meaning flower-work), first appeared in Punjabi literature in the 18th century, and Waris Shah’s Heer Ranjha describes Heer’s trousseau enlisting items of Phulkari. But there are no surviving pieces from before the 1850s.

Traditionally, Phulkari was done on thick, almost coarse, cotton fabric known as khaddar where each colour had its own significance. The embroidered shawls that are fully covered, where you barely see the fabric beneath, are known as Bagh. Embroidered with silk threads, this was essentially a domestic activity done by the women of the household and the odhani’s or chaddars were made for personal use.
Today, especially in Patiala’s Adalat Bazaar, there is no dearth of colourful Phulkaris, embroidered on georgette crepe and poly-cotton fabrics. Fluorescent yellows juxtaposed with turquoise blue and emerald green, or electric blue rubbing threads with vermillion, nudging lime-green into purple, the exotic Phulkaris of the new millennium are rich in colour.

Most of the women who do this work today no longer do it for the love of the art, but out of majboori. I once met one who said that if she had the money, she wouldn’t do Phulkari work, but would spend her money buying Phulkaris, as she had seen wealthy, urban women do. I found it odd that someone who had the gold in her hands would prefer to relinquish this, and buy it from the market.

But I realised that the idea of this work as underpaid and undervalued made her feel she would be better off if she could afford to buy it, rather than be the one to make it.

Driving through Punjab, there were miles and miles of green on either side of the road. The crop was mostly wheat that had been flattened by the rains. Sitting inside the car, in the pelting rain, contemplating the mowed down, destroyed ears of wheat, I recollected a 19th century Thirma from the north-west region of Punjab, which I had seen at an exhibition in Lado Sarai, Delhi.


The entire surface of this odhani had been embroidered, with a lozenge structure on finely woven, off-white cloth. The silk threads created a glistening crimson-pink field. At the centre of each lozenge, two motifs depicting the ear of the wheat plant were embroidered with green thread. Traditionally, these wheat ears represented blessings for fecundity and wealth. The Thirma, made exclusively by Hindus and Sikhs, was an essential part of a Punjabi girl’s wedding trousseau.

It was wet and cold as we walked into the Balran centre in Sangrur district. I found about a dozen young women bundled up in woollens, their heads bowed in concentration over needle and thread, singing in plaintive voice. It was a song they had heard their mothers and grandmothers sing, daydreaming about the groom to whom they would soon be married, as they stitched colours of this dream onto the fabric they would carry with them into their new homes, possibly in an another village, far from their own family home.

This plaintive verse had been handed down through generations, but not the art of Phulkari. I asked why they continued to sing this particular song, since they were not making odhanis for their trousseau, but comparatively miniscule keychains for 1469, a chain of stores that sold all things Punjabi. I was told that they associated the song with Phulkari work.

The original Phulkari were made by counting the threads of the woven structure of the cloth. Typically, stitches were made at right angles so that the embroidered patterns reflected light, according to the direction of the stitches. The basic stitch is a darning stitch. The other stitches are employed for outlining motifs and edging the piece. It is said that there were 52 stitches that made up the Phulkari repertoire, of which but a few survive. Untwisted skeins called pat were used to embroider from the back of the fabric, with the pattern unfolding on the other side, unseen.

The girls at the Balran Centre were using mill-made, rayon threads and not working from the back of the fabric. The designs were imprinted by pressing a mixture of neel and kerosene oil through perforated paper onto fabric, thus transferring the design. With the imprinted design, there is no need to count the threads, and the auspicious sacred grid is ignored.

The Chandrama Bagh, which is one of Phulkari’s most exquisite designs, is a fine example of the use of the sacred grid where the warp and weft is the basis of the grid, upon which multiple squares, within squares, create a rich and powerful pattern. The varying, directional movements of the stitches create a lustrous effect, bringing to mind the luminous glow of a full moon. This sacred grid is the base upon which places of worship and traditional townships were created. In the midst of the large expanse of a glowing white, a solitary, dark motif is often inserted. It is for nazar — protection from the evil eye.

Worshipped weaves

The Sainchi Phulkari is another kind closely linked to the mother goddess, locally known as Sanjhi, associated with agriculture and worshipped during the Navratri. The Sainchis depict daily village life with its trials, tribulations, joys and aspirations. Unlike the other embroidered chaddars from Punjab that are geometric and abstract in their imagery, the Sainchi is figurative in its expression.

The geometrical designs seen in the Baghs are primarily associated with Muslim communities, which reflect the Islamic restraint on figurative work. Hindu and Sikh Phulkaris (like Sainchi) incorporate human figures, animals, flowers and birds, presenting a rich repertoire of designs. They depict scenes of everyday life. These are interspersed with stories of epics, myths, personal aspirations and desires.

For many who do this work today, it is not about embroidering their garden of dreams, but the means for earning a meagre livelihood. It is important for craft traditions to be kept alive. But can they thrive if there is no personal investment or a sense of creativity and joy in the doing? Well, that’s a million dollar question.

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