thread the needle

How the Partition almost killed the glorious tradition of Punjabi phulkari embroidery

'This was the canvas on which women expressed their desires with a needle and thread.'

The first major American exhibition of Punjabi phulkari textiles has opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection showcases 19 embroideries donated by Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, a Philadelphia-based couple, to the museum, together with phulkaris from the museum’s own South Asian collection. These exhibits span the period from the mid-19th century until the Partition of India in 1947. The exhibition examines the devastation caused by the Partition on the phulkari tradition of Punjab, and the contemporary haute couture which features phulkari embroidery, suggesting a powerful revival of this textile art.

In Punjabi, phulkari means flower-work, and refers to the Indian textile folk art of silk embroidered patterns and motifs on naturally dyed, hand-woven cloth or khadi. The embroidery tradition of phulkari is deeply rooted in Punjabi culture and was originally carried out by women in their homes. Traditionally, women would learn the art of embroidering from their mothers or grandmothers – a young girl would create embroideries for her dowry, which she would take with her to her new home on the day of her marriage. Grandmothers and mothers would also lovingly make phulkari shawls for their granddaughters and daughters as wedding presents, or on the birth of a child. The hand-made process of phulkari is very labour-intensive, a single shawl can take up to twelve months to make.

Dr Cristin McKnight Sethi, co-curator of the exhibition, said: “These works serve as a way to map a family’s or a community’s history. They are canvases upon which a woman could express her desires and worldview through needle and thread. By looking closely, we can study just how deeply these makers valued their cloth and how they invested them with meaning.”

Handspun cotton plain weave with silk embroidery, unknown artist, Punjab, 20th Century. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Handspun cotton plain weave with silk embroidery, unknown artist, Punjab, 20th Century. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In certain instances, wealthy patrons employed skilled embroiderers in their households to make fine phulkaris. The finished product was never intended to be bought or sold in the bazaar. Instead, these exquisite embroideries would be worn by female members of the household on special occasions or presented as gifts on auspicious events. Fine phulkaris served as a symbol of wealth and status for an affluent Punjabi woman.

Both the finer and everyday varieties of phulkaris are displayed at the exhibition, which presents a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour. Phulkaris ornamented with geometric and abstract, floral motifs and patterns suggest they were made by Muslim weavers. In contrast, embroideries that feature lively folk images of daily life, with kushti fighters, dancers, birds and animals were made by Hindu and Sikh weavers. One is struck by the sheer imagination of the designs which imply a creative spirit and passion. Textile experts believe phulkari designs were inspired by the harmony of nature and everyday life, there were no pattern books to work from, no carefully curated Pinterest boards to copy.

Handspun cotton plain weave with silk embroidery, unknown artist, Punjab, 20th Century. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Handspun cotton plain weave with silk embroidery, unknown artist, Punjab, 20th Century. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The events of the Partition of India led to the tragic death and displacement of millions of people in what was to become one of the greatest migrations in history. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, young and old, caught on the wrong side of the border, had to take what little they had and leave. There was no time to take cherished belongings, most families had to leave everything behind. Coming from communities which had coexisted for centuries, migrating Indians were suddenly confronted with chaos, confusion and sectarian violence. This was particularly felt in Punjab as armed vigilante groups, organised on the basis of religion and incited by local politicians, carried out murder, abductions and rape.

Phulkari production virtually ceased because trade routes carrying raw materials for the craft had been completely disrupted. The displacement of over 14 million people also saw a large shift from rural areas to urban centres, as newly migrated Indians searched for work to sustain their families. The women, who had once carried out phulkari embroidery, were too traumatised by the events of Partition to continue this work. Phulkaris, once cherished heirlooms and a reminder of happier times, seemed lost forever.

Handspun cotton plain weave with silk embroidery, unknown artist, Punjab, 20th Century. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Handspun cotton plain weave with silk embroidery, unknown artist, Punjab, 20th Century. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In the year that India and Pakistan celebrate 70 years of independence from British rule, this exhibition is one of few in the West which addresses the chaos and disorder that the Partition created in the lives of the ordinary Indian. The exhibition features videos which examine the political and social upheaval, rather than glossing over the episode for the consumption of a Western audience. The curators, Dr Cristin McKnight Sethi, Dr Darielle Mason and Dilys E Blum, have selected each aspect of the thoughtful and timely exhibition.

“This exhibition, which examines the artistic, cultural, and political significance of phulkari is long overdue and will certainly delight visitors who may be unfamiliar with this remarkable art form,” said Timothy Rub, the George D Widener Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Today textile traditions in both countries are going through a revival as a new generation of designers look back at India’s traditional craft as a source of inspiration with a dose of nostalgia. To demonstrate the continuing influence of phulkari on contemporary Indian couture, designer Manish Malhotra’s work is also on display. Malhotra created a vibrant phulkari based couture collection, Threads of Emotion, for his Autumn/Winter collection in 2013 which was a success in India and outside it.

The world-class collection of unique genre of Indian textiles on display in Philadelphia are testimony to the creativity and ingenuity of their makers. These vibrant textiles hold immense historic significance – they are original art forms that document a bygone era and deserve to be seen.

Handspun cotton plain weave with silk embroidery, unknown artist, Punjab, 20th Century. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Handspun cotton plain weave with silk embroidery, unknown artist, Punjab, 20th Century. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building from March 12 to July 9, 2017.

The writer is an art historian with a special interest in the textile traditions of India and Pakistan.

Central Exhibition. Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Central Exhibition. Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Art Museum.
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