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It takes the impartial eye of an outsider to a appreciate things that the locals ignore and take for granted. We take a closer look at the art of phulkari – created by nimble fingers that lend such vibrancy and decorative touches to a functional item.

Phulkari, literally means flower-embroidery – a form of craft that became synonymous with dupttas or shawls which were embroidered over in a sparse and simple design. Where the design was worked over very closely, covering the material entirely, it was called bagh (a garden of flowers).

Phulkaris and baghs were commonly worn by Hindu and Sikh women all over Punjab mainly during festivals, marriages and other celebrations. These were embroidered by the women themselves and as a purely domestic art-form became an integral part of their lives. Grandmothers and mothers especially designed and embroidered these for the daughter’s trousseau. At times the start of a special bagh would be made after appropriate ceremonies and prayers and the distribution of prasad (sweets) offered to the Gods.

The origin of phulkari could well be traced back to the 15th century – as even the holy book of the Sikhs mentions: “Only then will you be considered an accomplished lady when you will you – self, embroider your own blouse.” The best phulkaris were known to have come from Punjab and parts of Haryana.

The embroidery of phulkari and bagh is done in long and short darn stitch which are created into innumerable designs and patterns. It is the skilful manipulation of this single stitch that lends an interesting and characteristic dimension to this needlework. The cloth primarily used – and preferred by the women, was the home-spun, locally woven and dyed khadi. It was strong, long-lasting, cheap and served the purpose of keeping the wearer warm during the cold winters in the north. Another reason was that the embroidery involves the counting of threads while doing the straight darn stitch. Thus, the coarse weave made this task easier. In addition, the thick cloth did not pucker and pull and could be worked upon with out a frame. Usually, pieces of small width about 45 centimetres to 60 centimetres were worked on separately and the two or three strips were joined together to form the required size.

The threads used were invariably of a silk yarn called pat. It is fluffy to touch and is a soft, untwisted floss which clings to the fingers, especially during the summers, so needs to be handled with utmost care. It s colours are not fast, and tend to run when washed. Going back well into the past, the silk threads were brought in from different part of India, like Kashmir and Bengal and from beyond its borders, Afghanistan and China. The last mentioned was reputed for is superior quality silken threads. Dera Ghazi Khan in Amritsar was the centre where all the threads were dyed and then distributed from. Bright colours were always preferred and among these, golden yellow, red, crimson, orange, green blue, shocking pink etc., were the popular ones.

For the embroidery, only a single strand was used at a time, each part worked in one colour. Shading and variation were not done by using various colours of thread. Instead, the effect was obtained by the dexterous used of horizontal, vertical or diagonal stitches. This resulted in giving an illusion of more than one shade when light fell on it and when it was viewed from different angles. The stitches which go in a straight line are worked on from the reverse side of the cloth and vary from one to three centimeters. At times, depending upon the design, outlines in green thread are given to the pattern either as parallel lines or a square.

To keep the embroidered part clean while working on the cloth the finished portion was rolled and covered with a muslin cloth. Specially created designs varied from village to village or region to region in Punjab and were given suitable names descriptive of their form. While phulkari was used to ornament cloth, the bagh ensured that not even a square inch of the base cloth was visible

These embroidered pieces were an integral part of bridal trousseau and many were created specially for occasion pertaining to the wedding. The bagh was considered a symbol of marriage and among the wealthier, sometimes up to fifty-one pieces of various designs were given to the bride. She, in turn, wore them for auspicious and ceremonial occasions. In some parts of Punjab it was customary to drape the new mother on the eleventh day after the birth of the child when she left the maternity room for the first time. It was also placed on the pyre of woman (not a widow) who had led a full life.


The Chope, usually presented to the bride from her grandmother during a ceremony before the wedding, is embroidered with straight, two-sided line stitch and appears the same on the reverse. Only the border is embroidered and the centre is left plain. It is usually red in colour and worn as a veil.

Vari-da-bagh (bagh of the trousseau) is also on a red cloth with golden yellow embroidery symbolizing happiness and fertility. The entire cloth is covered in a lozenge design with smaller ones within the border and is again intricately worked in different colours.

Ghunghat bagh or sari-pallau (covering for the head) has a small border on all four sides. In the centre of each side which covers the head, a large triangular motif is worked.

Bawan bagh (fifty-two in Punjabi) has as many geometrical patterns.

Darshan dwar (the gate offering a view of the deity) is usually for presentation in temples or to adorn the walls of the home when the Grantha Sahib (holy book of the Sikhs) is brought to a house. The gate motif has been inspired by the arched verandahas of the temples. It is again, always on a red cloth. The architectural design depicts two outer panels of all gates with arched tops. The bases face each other with motifs of humans, animals, birds, flowers etc., giving the impression of passing through a crowded street.

Suber is a phulkari worn by the bride during the time of the marriage rites in front of the fire or the Granth Sahib. It comprises five motifs, one in the centre and one each in the four corners.

Chamba is a hybrid phulkari having a series of wavy creepers, stylized leaves and flowers. It came into vogue earlier this century.

Besides this, designs inspired by various day to day items, fauna and flora around us also found their way into this craft.

Surajmukhi (sunflower) is a cross between a chope and ordinary bagh in brilliant yellow which creates a stunning effect.

Mor or tota is one that has a peacock or parrot motif.

Mirchi, as the name suggests, has chillies in red, orange or green usually on brown.

Belan and parantha symbolize the rolling pin and leavened bread.

Ikka or ace of diamonds has been inspired by playing cards.

Satrang is a seven coloured phulkari.

Jewellery items like bangles, earrings, etc., are also embroidered apparently as un unfulfilled desire of the women ornaments that the rich had. At times, a snake was embroidered, guarding her treasure. Another variety popular in Haryana, was the Sheeshedar where small, round, matt-dull mirror pieces were included in the embroidered motifs.

Traditionally, the phulkaris and baghs were never sold in the markets as they were only woven by the women of the house for their personal use.

The Punjab Government’s Emporium, Phulkari, boasts of the best collection of this form of embroidery in the country. Their sizeable assemblage of a variety of these original pieces have been garnered from the villages in the state of Punjab. Many of these are found being exported, especially to the mid-east countries.

A new form of phulkari is being embroidered. It is not as detailed or time consuming as the older variety. Using a range of different fast colored synthetic threads, it is embroidered from the top of the cloth rather than on its reverse. “It is very popular for embellishing bed covers, wall hangings, cushion covers and makes for a fashionable array of saris, dupttas and salwar kameeze sets,” says designer Rakesh Sanghvi.

Using it in an entirely contemporary context, this young designer, whose collections sport the Rocky S. label, is fast gaining popularity and recognition among the leading ready-to-wear stores in the city and in the export market.

“I use it as a fabric to accessories my clothes. The vibrant colours make it just the right choice for evening wear. For more formal occasions a touch of gold zardozi highlights and beads add the right embellishments. The overall effect is rather stunning yet totally feminine,” he enthuses. Not wanting to deter from the bright colours of the phulkaris and baghs, Sanghvi prefers to use primarily blacks or whites as his base material and the choice of fabric is crepes and silks. For the western look it could be a phulkari jacket with a mini skirt which he finds looking as attractive as the use of this form of embroidery on Indian ensembles.

He is very particular about the use of the original embroidered pieces only and doesn’t find the contemporary work doing justice to its ancient counterparts. So he is constantly on the lookout for phulkari – as it was embroidered in the distant, remote villages of Punjab, as a labour of love.