Tradition and Memory, Handed Down Stitch by Stitch

If you happen to be anywhere near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you have a few more days to visit this extraordinary exhibit of Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab.

Thanks to Architectural Digest contributor Medhavi Gandhi for this informative and culturally sensitive article.

Philadelphia Museum of Art showcases the history of Punjab’s rich embroidery craft through ‘Phulkari’

Phulkaris, which literally translates into ‘flower work’, is a unique style or technique of embroidery peculiar to Punjab, and today constitute the lavishly embroidered head scarves and shawls crafted in the region. ‘Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab’ presents phulkaris from the collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz alongside the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection, focusing mostly on embroideries from a pre-partitioned Punjab.

The threads of phulkari have since endured much: partition, industrial reforms, changing economic and fashion trends, and the exhibition aptly helps you develop a perspective around all these.

Curators Dr. Cristin McKnight Sethi and Dr. Darielle Mason position the craft as art, presenting phulkaris through the historical and cultural lens, thus offering a renewed contact with the old way of life; ceasing to be a commodity of high commercial value but more as a window into the lives of people.

In a brief issued by the Museum, Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said: “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”. I couldn’t agree more, and here’s why:

Phulkari’s history dates back to the time when shared cultural practices were common and women from all religions crafted and wore these embroidered textiles. Just as gold is handed down generations, phulkaris in the early 19th century signified a woman’s material wealth and were deemed an important part of her wardrobe. They were typically worn as shawls draped over the head on special occasions such as marriages, births, and other rituals…

According to Flora Annie Steel (as published in the Journal of Asian Art, 1888): Phulkari was a home-craft, a leisure time activity, crafted with passion for personal use or to gift it to near and dear ones and was never meant for sale. During colonial rule, these became part of gift basket locally described as “dali” that were presented to the British and other high officials on Christmas and also as a gesture of gratification…

The display of phulkaris in the exhibition also indicates the erstwhile trade route and materials that underwent a change at the turn of the 20th century. Cotton was a readily available local resource that was used to spin cloth that would be embroidered. Soft, untwisted silk floss thread called as “pat” came from various places like Kashmir, Bengal and even from Afghanistan, and Turkistan, but were dyed locally in Amritsar and Jammu, and women could obtain this from nomadic merchants.

The politics of 1947 changed all of this.

The events of Partition led to the death and displacement of millions of people across what today comprise Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the northern half of India. This schism left in its wake fractured communities and enormous loss of heritage. Some phulkaris were abandoned during the mutual flight across the new borders; many others were destroyed.

There were no nomadic merchants to buy from anymore; neighbours who sat together to celebrate over a phulkari had been displaced and the global context for this craft was also to undergo a change.

What I find unique about this exhibition is that it pays attention to, and encompasses the evolution of phulkaris—tracing the personal histories attached to these pieces, the production of crafted objects from textiles—strongly connected with the virtues of gainful employment, skills-based learning and exhibition culture. In doing so, phulkari is presented as an embodiment of its practitioners and those who held it dear. In phases, it evokes happy memories; indicates the change and loss albeit highlighting the importance of facing a shared past.

It also raises questions about the emotional effects of producing, gathering, gifting, and using phulkaris, and about the politics and effects of Partition on these textiles.

For more historical detail, and photos, find the entire AD article here, and the museum multimedia page here.

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