Philadelphia Museum of Art’s ‘Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab’

A Common Thread

With divisions between religious groups growing ever deeper, it is comforting to recall a time in which diverse cultures shared a common thread. Imagine a world in which Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh women not only cohabited amicably but were together engaged in creating elaborate, hand-embroidered textiles -- as large as nine feet by five feet -- to be worn as shawls, used as bedding, or displayed as wall hangings. This is the lost world of Punjabi textiles, now displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

One of the exhibition's more brightly accented Phulkari textiles. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Textile garden

Phulkari means “flower work” and describes the type of highly detailed embroidery which flourished in the Punjab region from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. Prior to the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, these remarkable textiles reflected a woman’s wealth and status and served as dowries to be brought into marriage. Sadly, this craft did not withstand the murderous conflicts and displacement that occurred in the wake of the British departure from India.

When they emigrated throughout South Asia, Punjabis of all religions left their handcraft behind, to be replaced by commercial textile manufacturing. The exhibition, in the Perelman Building’s Joan Spain Gallery, recaptures a time when women held the community culture in their own hands.

The color palette used for these fabrics is striking. This is not the bright frenzy associated with other areas of India or Pakistan. Here, the emphasis rests on local dyes: madder root, which yields reds that are almost brown, and indigo. The base cloth, cotton, receives embroidery with silk and cotton threads. Yellow ochre, re,d and dark brown dominate, with touches of green, blue, and yellow.

Women's work

The embroidery’s complexity stuns. While some of the designs are abstract, many patterns use human and animal figures. Because this was a craft taught to young girls by their mothers in preparation for their wedding day, there is a sense that the ornate quality of the design contains within it the aspirations of the mother for her daughter to make a good marriage. One textile illustrates a Punjabi folktale; another depicts a circus; another a train. Each remains unique and exquisite.

However, this exhibition comes to life not through the textiles hung on the gallery walls, but rather through those artfully draped on a cluster of mannequins on a raised platform; the effect is of stepping back in time to visit a Punjabi village.  Strategically placed among them stand two gowns designed by Manish Malhotra, one of India’s foremost Bollywood costume and fashion designers. Of Punjabi ancestry, Malhotra designed these gowns specifically for this exhibition using phulkari embroidery techniques on velvet and silk.

These magnificent embroidered textiles expand our understanding of a time in which religious differences yielded cultural enrichment. It has much to teach us.

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