Dr Anu H Gupta and professor Shalini Mehta with their book at the Chandigarh book fair at Panjab University. (Express photo)
“This book is not just tracing the history of the handicraft and tradition of phulkari, but also the lives of women which are intrinsically tied to the evolution of the craft in Punjab,” claims Professor Shalini Mehta, a sociologist and co-author of the book “Phulkari from Punjab: Embroidery in Transition”, which was showcased in the Chandigarh book fair at Panjab University (PU) on Saturday.
The book, which has been co-authored by Dr Anu H Gupta, an Assistant Professor at the University Institute of Fashion Technology and Vocational Development at PU, ties Gupta’s knowledge of textiles and emerging fashions with Mehta’s expertise in sociology to delineate the history of phulkari, along with the lives of the women who have been engaged in the evolution of this traditional craft.
“The idea of the book came to us when Anu, who was doing her PHD in phulkari came to me with her research idea, and I decided to collaborate with her because there was so much history and tradition tied to this particular method of embroidery,” claimed Mehta, at the book launch.
Gupta claims that the Phulkari embroidery is deeply tied to the history of Punjabi women, as well as their empowerment and subsequent disempowerment. “This was originally a craft done by women at home. A phulkari dupatta was always part of a women’s trousseau, and the richer the embroidery on the dupatta or shawl, the richer and more beautiful was the bride perceived to be,” explains Gupta, who conducted rigorous field work and research for the book.
“I went around Punjab’s villages every weekend. I would just take my jhola and go off to some district in Punjab like Patiala, or Moga or any other district. I would go around villages, collecting stories of women and their cultural link to phulkari, and then come back for the week, before heading off to another district the next weekend,” shared Gupta.
Apart from tracing the lives of the women now involved in the craft of phulkari, the authors have traced the history of the craft, from its status as a rich cultural tradition, to its eventual demise through due to being commodified and appropriated by the British. “It all began declining when the British began selling the craft as a commodity. They brought in some Kashmiri craftsmen to do the work, which was traditionally only done by women,” explains Mehta.
However, the authors claim that the craft regained its position and was revived after partition through attempts made by the Ministry of Textiles. “The government came up with many programmes and incentives to revive phulkari embroidery and traditions. Since then the women of Punjab started engaging with the activity again, so the tradition is also commercially viable now,” said Gupta.
However, the authors have found that exploitation of craftswomen in the villages has remained a norm even after the end of the British Raj. “What was first appropriated by the British, has now been appropriated by fancy boutique owners and designers, who sell a phulkari embroidered cloth for 1000s of rupees, but pay the craftswoman only about 25 paise for each floret that embroider on the cloth. Just 25 paisa!” Mehta pointed out.
The book, which is now on sale in the Chandigarh Book fair at PU, also contains photos punctuating the narratives inscribed in the book with vivid portrayals of the beautiful tradition of phulkari.