Phulkari embroidery, once the leisure craft of women in villages and kasbahs of Swat valley, Peshawar and Hazara in erstwhile North West Frontier Province, Sialkot, Jhelum and Multan in undivided Punjab, is in revival mode in 175 villages around Nabha, west of Patiala in Punjab.
Central Asian women of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, bordering Afghanistan, still use the same kind of darn stitches as fillers, to decorate their shirt fronts, strips around the neck and sleeve edges. Centuries ago, Jat tribal migrations from Central Asia to Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana region are known to have brought in this craft. Old folk songs, still sung in Punjab village fairs, mention this.
Time was, when on the birth of a son, during weddings and festive seasons, women all over undivided Punjab sported Phulkari and Bagh odhnis. It was a personal craft, an expression of one&’s creative urge. Usually a group activity for women, Phulkari literally means flower work. Densely embroidered motifs, barely revealing the base fabric is Bagh (garden).
Originally Phulkari patterns were done with one centimetre long dyed silk floss thread, with stitches in geometric patterns for odhnis, chaadars and dupattas, on cotton handloom fabrics. Now Malkha, Kotpad and handloom silk fabrics are in vogue. It is essential for the base fabric to have distinct warp and weft, that enable embroiderers to count the threads with their needles.
Made specifically for handloom by small-scale, village-based primary producer-run co-operatives, Malkha has a distinctive texture, drape and durability. Bridal wear saris in Punjab are made with 35 count, or finer fabrics.
Nabha Foundation in Patiala district has reached out to women in rural clusters and trained nearly 800 girls and young mothers, to supplement their family incomes. They are encouraged to improve their skills, understand pricing, in relation to input costs and be aware of coming fairs and exhibitions – that offer marketing opportunities – for which timely delivery of their work must be dependably assured, to those collecting for sales outlets
Training and all materials used are provided free. These girls had no tradition of Phulkari embroidery in their families. Their "Patiala Phulkari" bridal suits, dulhan dupattas, stoles and accessories are now becoming available in Delhi NCR.
A young Patiala Phukari embroiderer of Nabha won the prestigious Kamladevi Purashkar in 2013. This was inspiring for the young women in the community to do better in their craft, to gain a sense of self-worth and empowerment, with a steady income to augment the family income a reality.
The Patiala Phulkari revival endeavour is supportive of women forming self- help producer groups, motivates them to be consciously exploring new colour combinations and sustaining product quality. They are taught use of motifs, basic principles of selecting quality materials, pricing their handiwork, grading the final product to reflect the quality and quantity of work. A niche industry has been created, while bettering women&’s place in obscurantist rural society
Nabha region of Patiala has one of the worst sex imbalances in India – and that perpetuates the inequity. Home-based self-employment mitigates the gender bias women face in rural communities. Income generation strengthens the social and economic status of women, whose dexterity in any craft endows a sense of self-confidence.
Inspired by the rural tradition of community involvement, the craft revival initiative was born out of a distinctly successful, far-sighted family’s benevolent desire to preserve a heritage craft, alleviate economic hardships and make a difference to the rural community, where their ancestral roots had been.
An affiliate of the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation, the Nabha Foundation is an integrated rural development, non-profit non-governmental organisation, registered as a Trust in April 2003.