Artist/maker unknown, Punjabi
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This sainchi (figural) phulkari displays a lively palette of embroidery threads on a base cloth dyed with madder (a flower root that yields a pink-red to rusty color). The diverse depictions of animals and humans are relatively naturalistically rendered and recall those of courtly Chamba rumal embroidery from the nearby Himalayan foothill region (today the state of Himachal Pradesh). This particular sainchi phulkari is sometimes called circus phulkari, by virtue of the depictions of acrobats and performers that appear throughout the cloth. A small central lotus marks the cloth’s center and a train appears on each pallu (ornamental end border) while a parade of large animals march around three sides of the cloth. Among the many smaller figures are two men fighting with swords, another two wrestling with weights, an acrobat flipping backwards, and a figure balancing on a bamboo pole (a feat known as bansa rani and a common practice of local jugglers and acrobats). Phulkari is the name given to a style of embroidery originally made throughout the Punjab region of present-day India and Pakistan.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.