Phulkarian embroidery technique from the Punjab region (divided between India and Pakistan) literally means flower working, which was at one time used as the word for embroidery, but in time the word “Phulkari” became restricted to embroidered shawls and head scarfs. Simple and sparsely embroidered odini (head scarfs), dupatta and shawls, made for everyday use, are called Phulkaris, whereas garments that cover the entire body, made for special and ceremonial occasions, are known as Baghs ("garden").
Phulkaris and Baghs were worn by women all over Punjab during marriage festivals and other joyous occasions. They were embroidered by the women for their own use and use of other family members and were not for sale in the market. Thus, it was purely a domestic art which not only satisfied their inner urge for creation but brought colour into day to day life. In a way, it was true folk art. Custom had grown to give Phulkaris and Baghs to brides at the time of marriages. Some best Phulkaris and Baghs are known to have been made in Hazara and Chakwal, areas of Northern Punjab in Pakistan.
Some scholars feel that the art of Phulkari came from Iran where it is known as “Gulkari”. Some feel it came from Central Asia along with Jat tribes who migrated to India and settled in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat. There is reference of Phulkari in Vedas, Mahabharat, Guru Granth Sahib and folk songs of Punjab. In its present form, phulkari embroidery has been popular since the 15th century.
The main characteristics of Phulkari embroidery are use of darn stitch on the wrong side of coarse cotton cloth with coloured silken thread. Punjabi women created innumerable alluring and interesting designs and patterns by their skilful manipulation of the darn stitch. The base khaddar cloth used in Western Punjab is finer from those of Central Punjab. Black/blue are not preferred in Western Punjab, whereas white is not used in East Punjab. In West Punjab, 2 or 3 pieces of cloth are first folded and joined together. In East Punjab, they are joined together first and then embroidered.
In Phulkari embroidery ornaments the cloth, whereas in Bagh, it entirely covers the garment so that the base cloth is not visible. The end portion of pallav of Phulkari have separate panels of exquisite workmanship of striking design.
The most favoured colour is red and its shades, because Bagh and Phulkari are used during marriage and other festivals. Red is considered auspicious by Hindus and Sikhs. Other colours are brown, blue, black, white. White was used in Bagh by elderly ladies. Silk thread in strands came from Kashmir, Afghanistan and Bengal. The best quality silk came from China.
No religious subject or darbar scenes were embroidered. Phulkari encompassed life in the villages. Creative ability of Punjabi women has produced innumerable and intricate geometrical patterns. However, most motifs were taken from everyday life. Wheat and barley stalk with ears are a common motif.
Revival and modern applications
Traditionally, phulkari garments were part of a girl's wedding trousseau, its motifs expressive of her emotions and the number of phulkari pieces defined the status of the family. Over the years, government has been working towards promotion of phulkari embroidery, by organizing special training programs, fairs, and exhibitions. Since most of women artisan creating phulkari are in the unorganized sector or work through agents, they do not make much money compared to an actual market price of their product, to avoid this lacuna Punjab Small Industries and Export Corporation (PSIEC) has formed women self-help groups and cooperatives to sell directly and make more profits.
Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) acquired a collection of selected phulkari for its archives in 1994. Some modern fashion designers are incorporating this embroidery into their garments, and its use has spread beyond salwar kameez and dupatta to objects and garments as varied, as jackets, bags, cushion covers, table-mats, shoes, slipper, juttis, and kids garments.
In 2011, after a five-year long legal case, Phulkari was awarded the geographical indication (GI) status in India, which means that after that only registered traders and manufacturers, from Punjab Haryana and Rajasthan states would be able to use the term for the traditional craft, and the patent information centre (PIC) of Punjab State Council for Science and Technology would issue a logo or hologram to distinguish the product.
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- Shailaja D. Naik (1996). "9. Phulkari of Punjab". Traditional Embroideries Of India. APH Publishing. ISBN 8170247314.