Updated: Jul 5, 2022
My Grandma had always been an attractive lady. But I rarely saw her dress well unless there was a wedding function, festival, or another important event.
One Sunday afternoon, while I was completing my homework, I went to her room to fetch my box of crayons and found her opening the wooden chest containing all her dear possessions. Since she rarely opened it, it was always a fascinating experience peeping in. I'd drop whatever I was doing to join her, and this time was no different. As I peeped in, I saw a carefully preserved collection of her khaddar and silk suits, a small wooden box containing her gold and silver jewellery, a Surma-Dani (silver bottle with an applicator containing kohl powder), several parandis (a decoration for braid tassel), and a lot of colourful bangles.
But she was looking for something else, and after quite a struggle, she took out a packet containing a carefully preserved collection of colourful dupattas. She picked out the most beautiful one, unfolded it and placed it on one of her shoulders.
I gently took one end of that dupatta in my little hands and stared at it. It was embroidered with colourful threads. I was fascinated. "Bibiji," I said, a little hesitant. "Out of all your possessions, I love this dupatta the most. Can I have it?"
She took my little hands in hers, "It is not a regular dupatta, dear. It is called Phulkari. When you grow up, I will give it to you," she smiled as she replied candidly.
I could not take my eyes off her as she sat in front of the mirror and brushed her hair. She was wearing a Patiala suit. She put on a matching bindi and gold earrings and decorated her hands with glass bangles and two gold ones. Then she braided her hair, putting a simple black non-tassel parandi and circled it into a bun. She covered her head with a mulmul dupatta and wrapped phulkari around her shoulders.
"Bibiji, there is no festival today. So, why are you dressed up like this? Are you going somewhere?" I asked.
"Yes, I am going out to Mindo's house," she replied, adjusting her phulkari as she made her way to the kitchen.
"Why are you going there?" I asked her as I followed her to the kitchen.
"Because Mindo is blessed with a granddaughter. It's a function for the newborn child," she said as she pulled out a plate from the utensils rack to serve lunch to Grandpa.
"Can I come with you?" I asked sheepishly.
She turned to me, paused for a moment and said, "Only if you promise me that you'll finish your homework once we are back, I'll take you along with me."
I had always been an obedient child. So, I promised her that I'd be a good girl and finish my homework once we were back. I was happy at the mere thought of eating cake at the function since the word 'birth' to me was synonymous with cake. I rushed to my room to change my clothes while she got done with serving Grandpa's meal on the plate.
I wore a pink frock, put on the matching hairband and sandals. Then I ran straight to the kitchen and, seeing Grandma almost done with her chores, I asked, "Bibiji, how do I look?" She turned to me, had a glance and said, "You look just like a little princess!" Then she picked up the plate full of food in her hands and started moving towards the verandah where Grandpa was sitting. I followed her with a glass of water in my tiny little hands.
My Grandma had been quite particular about everyone's eating schedule, and Grandpa was no exception to that. And since he wasn't inclined to accompany us to the function, she told him, "We are going to Mindo's house for a function. Here is your lunch," placing the plate on his table. "Have it. And forget not to take your medicines afterwards. We will be back by 4 pm."
My Grandpa, whom I affectionately called Papaji, nodded his head and turned back in the direction of Television.
My Grandma held my left arm as we stepped out of the house and started walking towards Mindo Tayiji's house.
"Bibiji, will we get to eat cake there?"
"No! we aren't going to a birthday party."
Disappointed with the fact that there would be no cake, I asked, "Then what's the occasion?"
Grandma sighed. "Well, as I already told you that your Mindo Tayi had been blessed with a granddaughter, she has invited all her friends and neighbouring ladies to witness and contribute to embroidering the first phulkari for her granddaughter."
"Embroidering a phulkari for a baby girl? But isn't she too small for one?" I enquired.
"Yes, she is," Grandma said as we walked, "but it is customary to begin a phulkari on the birth of a girl in the family."
"Customary? Why so?"
"To celebrate the birth of a girl- as it is believed that she would be the preserver of this folk art and the creator of future generations," she said. "Phulkari holds a sentimental value in our culture. It serves as a way to map a family's history." She further added, "Grandmother of the newborn places the first stitch on the embroidery and later mother, aunts and sisters-all the women in a family, lovingly start embroidering phulkari. It is a grand project which takes up more than a year to complete."
"More than a year?"
"Yes, more than a year."
"Why does it take so long?"
"Because phulkari making is a complex process," she said.
"How complex is it, Bibiji?"
Sensing my curiosity for the process of phulkari making, she explained- "First of all-the, cotton is collected from the fields. After a few simple techniques, it is spun into yarn by the women on the charkha (spinning wheel). This yarn is then dyed by a lalari (dyer) and woven by a jullaha (weaver) into a long sheet of coarse cloth called khaddar (a handloom plain weave cotton fabric) which represents the Punjabi women's tough and challenging life and on which the colourful embroidery is done. The untwisted floss silk yarn called patt is used for embroidery, which is a whole different process to obtain and is typically embroidered using darn style stitching known as dasuti tropa (done on the opposite side of the fabric). So, you see, the handmade process of phulkari making is very-very labour-intensive."
I was astonished upon hearing the whole process of phulkari making- "It involves a lot of hard work, Bibiji", I said.
However, I was now more curious to know why the women chose to go through this labour-intensive handmade process instead of purchasing them directly from markets. So I asked, "Why can't women just purchase it from the bazaar, like regular clothes?"
"Well, that is because phulkari was never intended to be brought or sold in the bazaar. It is an expression of pride, love, devotion, and joy of women of the household on the birth of a child in the family," she said. "It is a legacy of a purely domestic art of embroidering passed on from one generation to another. Under the guidance of their grandmothers and mothers, young girls create embroideries for their dowry, which signifies a girl's ascension into womanhood. Kadh Kasida Pehreh Choli, Ta Tum Janoh Nari.”
"What does it mean, Bibiji?"
"Shri Guru Nanak Dev Ji said that only when a girl learns to stitch, she is considered a complete woman." She added, "Fine phulkaris serves as a symbol of wealth, status, and legacy for a Punjabi woman. Therefore, no ceremony in our culture is believed to be complete unless women wear these exquisite embroideries done by their mothers and grandmothers as they are considered auspicious and add colour and richness to occasions such as marriage, festivals, and other special events," she finished.
We walked in silence for some time, and then I asked, "Did you too have a phulkari ceremony when I was born?"
"Yes, all the women of our neighbourhood were invited. I placed the first stitch on your phulkari, and then everyone, in the form of blessing for your bright and colourful future, embroidered their share on it."
"Will you show it to me?"
"Of course, I will show it to you when we'll get back home," she said as we reached Mindo Tayiji's house.
The verandah was beautifully decorated with colourful fabrics and flowers. An intricate Rangoli design was also drawn on the floor at the entrance. Charkhas (spinning wheels) and charpoys (beds woven with jute strings) were arranged under the trees. All the women were dressed up in beautiful and vibrant phulkaris. Some women were spinning the charkha, while some were sitting on the charpoys, sharing their stories. The whole atmosphere was festive.
Mindo Tayiji and some other ladies of her family welcomed us. Grandma congratulated her and the family members. Meanwhile, Aman didi, Mindo Tayiji's daughter, directed me to the snacks corner. I filled my plate with pakoras, one samosa, a few jalebis and some rabri to share with Grandma.
After we all were done with the snacks, my Grandma joined the women sitting on the charpoy, and they all started singing folk songs. A little later, Mindo Tayiji, with her granddaughter in her arms, entered and made her way to the centre of the verandah.
She sat on a chair with her granddaughter placed in her lap. One of the women from her family then gave her a long sheet of khaddar cloth and colourful patt. The verandah was filled with congratulatory vibes as she put the first stitch on that khaddar cloth.
Then small packets of wheat grains were distributed to women as they sat down to embroider their share. This was something new to me. So, I asked Grandma- "What are the grains for?"
"It's an age-old tradition to put one grain of wheat on one side for every stitch we make. On the successful completion of the phulkari, these grains will be donated."
I helped my Grandma in phulkari making by putting one grain on the other side for each stitch she made. And then, as directed by her, I gave those grains to Mindo Tayiji, who was collecting them in a basket placed in front of her. The ceremony was a grand success, and after everyone was done with their share of embroidery, we all had a delicious lunch.
It was late afternoon by the time we reached home. Since we both were somewhat tired, we decided to have a siesta. When I woke up, I realised Grandma was already in the kitchen, preparing dinner. So, as promised, I sat down to do my homework.
By the time I completed my work, she too was done with her kitchen chores, so I went to her and asked, "Bibiji, when will you show me my phulkari?"
She smiled and made her way to her room, and I followed her. She opened the almirah and took out a red khaddar phulkari from a muslin bag. Placing it onto my tiny hands, she said, "This is a grandmother's legacy for her granddaughter."
It was exquisite. I was awestruck at the mere sight of it. I unfolded it and placed it over my head as I looked into the mirror.
"So, you like it?" she asked.
"Oh, I love it! Bibiji, when will you give this to me?" I asked as I gave it back to her.
She carefully folded the phulkari and, while putting it back in the muslin bag, said, "I will give this to you on your wedding day."
Seasons changed and years passed. As promised, my Grandma gave me her phulkari on my 20th birthday, and she still has kept one for my wedding day.
But a lot has changed in these last twenty years. With the onslaught of fast-paced mass-scale production methods, the traditional art of phulkari making has become more or less extinct. I've seen most women giving away their phulkaris to the house help ladies since there's a marked loss of interest of the younger generation, like daughters and daughters-in-law, in the art of phulkari making. Phulkaris are being placed on the grounds as carpets, put on walls using nails and even hung on doors as curtains. They are being used in the fields to collect crops or simply as rags. In fact, they are even being sold in the markets for cheap rates. It is extremely disheartening to see that one of the most progressive states of India- Punjab, not valuing its traditional art of phulkari making.
Phulkari making is an essential part of our culture. I just hope the present generation understands that and tries to preserve this Legacy of Love before it's lost forever.