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Sainchi Phulkari

Artist/maker unknown, Punjabi

Made in Punjab, eastern Punjab, India, Asia

Early 20th century

Handspun, handwoven plain weave (khaddar) with silk and cotton embroidery in darning, buttonhole and chain stitches

7 feet 8 inches × 54 inches (233.7 × 137.2 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Costume and Textiles

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Phulkari Collection

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The figures and forms stitched onto this sainchi (figural) phulkari are much more naturalistically rendered than is typical of textiles from this region and time period. The artist has given the animals in the border a wonderful liveliness, bending their legs in movement as if they were on parade. The two small decorative pots of flowers at the outer ends of the cloth are far more detailed and explicit that the usually abstracted floral or geometric-floral motifs found in most phulkaris. Similarly, the handling of the human figures—the attention paid to their dress and the fleshiness of their bodies—give the sense that this artist is embroidering scenes she actually saw in her own Punjabi village. Toward the center, a woman operates a charka (hand spinning wheel). Behind her stand a British couple, identifiable by their hats and parasols. Near them, two men flank a dancing bear (a practice that is now illegal). To their right, another woman churns milk into butter.

The strikingly naturalistic renderings of animal, human, and vegetal forms in this phulkari are reminiscent of imagery in the embroidered textiles known as Chamba rumals, stitched by court women in a neighboring region in the Himalayan foothills. Unlike the court products, however, the figures and forms in this phulkari do not appear in “realistic” scale. Birds and vegetables appear to be nearly the same size as some human figures, suggesting that an empirical depiction of the natural world was not as important to this artist as creating an aesthetically pleasing pattern and composition.

Phulkari is the name given to a style of embroidery originally made throughout the Punjab region of present-day India and Pakistan. It loosely translates from Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu as “flower work” or “flower craft” (phul means flower, kari means work). Women covered large cloths with this type of embroidery for themselves and their families to use as oversized shawls or veils (odhinis), wall hangings, or bed covers. Phulkaris are characterized by the use of brightly colored un-plied (un-twisted) silk thread, known as pat, that is embroidered onto handspun, handwoven cotton fabric, known as khaddar. The khaddar base cloth used to make a phulkari was spun, woven, and dyed locally, while artists purchased the pat from traveling merchants who brought silk from Afghanistan, Bengal (eastern India and Bangladesh), and China. The dominant embroidery stitch in phulkaris is the darning stitch. However artists used a range of stitches when making a phulkari, including running, chain, herringbone, buttonhole, stem and Cretan stitches. There are several different styles of phulkari each with a unique set of motifs and names, such as thirma phulkari, bagh, sainchi phulkari, chope, and darshan dwar.

Traditionally women learned the art of embroidering phulkaris from their mothers, grandmothers, or older female relatives and friends; a girl began to embroider at a young age, and eventually was tasked with making phulkaris to be included in her dowry upon marriage. Phulkaris were an important part of a woman’s material wealth that she brought with her to her new home after marriage. In addition to being worn as odhinis, phulkaris were also used as bistre (bedding fabrics), layered with chaddars (thin sheets) and dhurries (thicker woven rugs) to create cushioning on a charpoy (woven cot). For special social functions or religious ceremonies phulkaris were hung on the walls of homes and temples.

The earliest extant examples of phulkaris date only from the nineteenth century, though references to them in earlier writings suggest a much older origin for this type of embroidery. At the time of independence from Great Britain in 1947, the Punjab was partitioned. The western portion became part of Pakistan, the eastern part of India. Thanks to this upheaval, phulkari production declined significantly in both halves. Today, phulkaris are made and used on the Indian and Pakistani sides of the Punjab, but in a dramatically altered form.