A beautiful yellow and red 8ft x 5ft shawl worn by Punjab women is part of Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection at the Philadelphia- Museum of Art.
PHILADELPHIA— Presently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is an exhibition focused on Phulkaris. Phulkaris, meaning ‘flower work’, are ornately embroidered textiles with great beauty and cultural significance. They are mostly found in Punjab, a region straddling Pakistan and India. Titled Phulkari: the Embroidered Textiles of Punjab from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, many of the works on display are from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection that has been promised to the museum. The exhibition also includes traditional phulkaris from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection, and high fashion ensembles by one of India’s leading designers, Manish Malhotra.
The designs on display present the regal of these embroidered textiles and the pain that went into creating them. Making Phulkaris involves a labor-intensive process and takes months if not years to create. It is no wonder that it is a powerful symbol of Punjabi cultural identity.
On display are large shawls measuring about 8ft x 5ft. Made of vibrant silk embroidery on a plain-woven cotton cloth, deep thoughts must have gone into creating the designs, which are then meticulously finished in captivating colors.
While some phulkaris depict animals and village scenes, others portray complex geometric patterns in bold colors conveying good fortune and social status. Red, hot pink, orange, neon green, and gold threads are intricately woven to astonishing beauty. Since phulkaris are handmade, each one is unique.
Phulkaris serve many purposes in the Punjab society. Although mainly worn by women as large shawls on special occasions, they were also made into blankets, furniture covers, and hangings. Some were even used to document important events. One of the textiles in the show features a circus with animals and muscular men. Another shawl has religious themes and mirrors. The common thread, however, is that they are exquisite.
For women of many religious groups—Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs— who consider Punjab their holy land, phulkaris are sacred. Therefore, the tradition is passed on from the older generation through a system that encourages continuity and the articulation of phulkaris religious relevance. Young girls learn the needlework techniques from older female relatives and friends in the effort to perpetuate the tradition. In many cases, these young girls create the embroideries textile for their dowry, which they take to their new homes when they got married.
After the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the phulkaris tradition became even more important. The partition, which split the Punjab region, gave people greater impetus to celebrate the tradition, and phulkari textiles became an important symbol for the new nation of Pakistan.
Through the years, modernization, industrial growth, and global trade eroded the relevance of phulkari textiles. While it was still important to the older generation of Punjab women, it did not command as much attention with the younger generation. However, instead of fading away, the phulkari tradition experience a rebirth, gaining renewed attention in Punjab and global space.
In the last fifty years, phulkari techniques and patterns have experienced a revival, especially as commercial art. With tourism booming in Pakistan and India, the phulkari tradition has evolved beyond Pakistan. Adding to the popularity of the phulkari textiles is music and video. Phulkaris have been celebrated in popular music and videos. Fashion designers are also taking a lot of interest in Phulkaris and many are using them for high-end designs. Manish Malhotra, for instance, recently created a phulkari-based couture collection. His designs are part of this show.
Manish Malhotra designs combine the traditional with the contemporary. Phulkaris are made into jackets, skirts, and silhouettes in a creative reinvention of this traditional textile. Combined with other materials like chiffon, velvet, and lace, the beautifully colored Phulkaris exude elegance. Malhotra’s hybrid designs transcend everyday aesthetics.
Located in the Joan Spain Gallery, this exhibition was curated to bring attention to the Phulkaris as well as accentuate their beauty. The use of mannequins also brings real life experience to the exhibits. The lights were also well placed to help viewers read wall texts and understand what they were experiencing. Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection was curated by Darielle Mason, The Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Dilys E. Blum, The Jack M. and Annette Y. Friedland Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles, Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Dr. Cristin McKnight Sethi, Assistant Professor, The George Washington University, Washington, DC
Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection. Through July 9, 2017, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.