Sunday, January 04, 2009

Jasleen Dhamija on the symbolism on Phulkaris

Paper presented at
MANTLES OF MYTH: THE NARRATIVE IN INDIAN TEXTILES
Flower fields of Textile Landscapes: The Pictorial Phulkari of Punjab
Siyahi, Jaipur - 13 – 15 December, 2008

Woven fabrics, embellished and embroidered express the history of the those who weave it and of those for whom they are woven. The women’s embroideries are often the mantles of finest fabrication of myth and reality. Created by the women from their perceptions of life, their desires, their interpretation and orientation of mythology, an aspect, which is so rarely talked of. So many of the stories of origin have deep connection with the act of spinning and weaving. In any case, fabrics are closely linked with the rites of passage and often with the secret fertility rites, which are performed by the women.

Different regions of Punjab have different styles as well as varying ways of expression, which is reflected in their embroidery. The glowing yellow of the Bagh and its many variations. The sat ranga, which has layers of meaning. It is the rainbow, the swing of the goddesses. It is Indra Dhanush, the bow of Indra, which destroys, the untrue, the unjust. It is the five elements of the physical world and two of the psyche. The Chandarma with its silvery white light, which often features in a description of beauty “chan-warga”, moon shaped face. It is also the reflection of the dream world of the kanya, who was considered most powerful, as a sakshat kanya, the living virgin goddess. The ceremony of the girl’s mehndi is symbolic of the power of the virgin. Traditionally in Punjab, seven pairs of imprints of her henna covered hands, are done on the outer wall of the kitchen as she faces outwards. She symbolically leaves the power of the kanya on the walls of her home, as she leaves her home.

The phulkari is the joyful flower studded everyday wrap, with its rich motifs of flowers and foliage, which have a range of meanings. The Bagh is an all over embroidery where the silken thread covers the entire surface generally in a bright golden yellow and sometimes in white. Most of the patters are geometrical. Whereas, the figurative Sainchi of East Punjab was full of pictorial expression and it mirrored the inner and outer life of the community.

The women of Greater Punjab, the land of the Sapt Sindhu, which had not only the Punj-ab, the five rivers, but also the Indus, which rose in the mountains of Tibet, as well as the invisible river Saraswati. The Rig Veda mentions the sapta sindhu region where the people tended their cattle and where Saraswati had large pasture land. The flowing waters enriched the lives of the people by linking them together. Throughout the ages there was the movement of the tribes into Northern India and it is a historical fact that borders were constantly shifting.

They absorbed the old cultures and there were links with the gulkari of Turkey, khemedozi (butter embroidery) of Afghanisthan and the souf and khunti of Baluchistan.

Punjab’s contacts with Central Asia continued and the frontiers kept changing from Balkh to Kashkadarya and Sukhandaraya and even beyond. This spirit of adventure, of the ability of adaptation and absorption of other cultures, while retaining their own tradition, are part of the spirit of Punjabis.

The origins of most of the people were nomadic and it was the women, who gave stability to the family and tribe by creating a space of their own, defining their territory and creating the warmth of the hearth. The totemic motifs embroidered and woven by them were their protectors and an important part of secret rituals, the hidden magical rites. They were the priestesses, who recreated the nakshatras, which protected them.

It is in this context that we have to see the rich culture inherited by Punjab.

This rich tradition was also fostered by the mystic poetry. The Guru Granth Sahib was the repository of not only the Bani of the 6 Gurus, but also a collection of mystic poetry of Punjab. Guru Nanak Dev, the first Guru of the Sikhs, was a great mystic and his Gurbani is one of the richest traditions of the bhagti and sufi tradition of that time. The women were part of this knowledge, they listened, they sang, they recited, and they embroidered these motifs, these symbols, these myths. These were absorbed into their psyche and became a part of their way of life, expressed in their colourful idiomatic language. Many of the motifs embroidered are expressive of their belief, of their shared heritage, their mythology and their unexpressed longings and desires. It is their rich past, which gave them a rich repertoire of motifs.

Until recently and in the rural areas even today, the grandmothers and mothers brought up the children on the Janamsakhi of Guru Nana. The earliest known can be traced to 17th century, relating the wondrous stories of Guru Nanak Dev walking amongst the stars. His going across the oceans to West Asia seated on his prayer carpet with his eyes closed in deep meditation. These were Star Wars of the past. Guru Nanak Devji visited the Kauru-Desh, the country ruled by women they were the amazons, the warrior women, expert riders and falconers and in some areas of Central Asia these myths of Central Asia were a reality, as I learnt when I lived and worked in Central Asia. They were also women, who were magicians and turned all the men, who came to their domain into sheep and even Mardana was turned into one. According to the Katha, Nanak Devji confronted the queen, Nur Shah and her retinue of women magicians and subdued them. These wonderful stories of udan kathullas, flying beds, taraya-da-desh, warrior women, beautiful enchantresses, were depicted in large lithographs and women and children poured over them, as I did in my childhood in Abbotabad and even my son with his grandmother in Delhi. As we do now over the comic books, identifying the characters and marvelling at the scenes. Many of these stories found their way into the embroideries of the women.

Besides the religious discourses there were also the itinerant story tellers and bards, who told the extraordinary tales of valour, of heros, such as Sohrab and Rustom, of romances of Hir Ranja, of Sasi Punnu, Sohni Mahiwal. They learnt the passionate songs of Sohni Mahiwal:

Sohani Hijar tai dewai pahi baldi
Shala kher kari Mahiwal di

Sohani lights the lamp at the grave of the Pir
Oh Lord! Please protect my Mahiwal

Or the great Sufi romance of Heer Ranjah

Doli chardia maria Heer cheeka
Meno lai chalai Babla leh chale
Meno rakh le Babla heer akhe.
Dole ghat kaohar ni lai chalai weh

Heer wails Father they are taking me away.
Father keep me with you. The palanquin carriers are carrying me away. A cry, which every woman has felt to the very core of her being.

It was women in Punjab, who maintained these traditions. Enriching our lives with their songs, expressing their creativity through the richness of their embroidery the Phulkari, the Bagh and the Chope, which were so much a part of the rites of passage. These expressed the longing, the dreams and frustrations of the women.

It is strange how many pictorial traditions are similar for the rectangular piece of cloth becomes the universal mandala of the square and the circle. The lotus in the middle and often the tree of life in the corner. With the whole spectrum of life reflected over the surface.

A row of the large peacocks, the sun bird, with human figures creates a rich border. These mythical birds have lotuses in their mouths and could possibly be the sacred hamsa, which floated on the eternal oceans and laid the cosmic egg, from which the universe emerged. Female figures possibly Rati the goddess of love, rides on them. In between these figures are juxtaposed the mating peacocks.

In each corner there is the sun and the moon. There is a man and a woman engaged in an animated discourse. Is it love or is it a violent confrontation? It reminds one of a wonderful song,

Puchardh sahelia
Mai weh yari kewai lagaida dhola
Pehle akhia, gurieh phir ralmill
Bahi da dhola

Oh my love, My friends ask
How does one get a lover?
Dearest first you play with your eyes and then you are together.

In some of them the local ruler appears. He is going hunting on horse back, holding a falcon on his wrist, a hunting dog with its keeper accompanies them. On a rare occasion we see the ruler seated on the throne with two sepoys guarding him. The hunted birds pick grain. There are two strange figures with wings, are these the fairies or are they the enchantresses of Karru Desh? The figure of Shrawan, the faithful son carrying his parents on a pilgrimage, appears in practical all the figurative phulkaris. The Ramayanas roots lie in the story of the accidental killing of the filial son by Dashrath, Rama’s father. The motif of interest to them is Shrawan Kumar, instead of kings and their palaces. Are they commenting on the human story of the blind father and mother deprived by the thoughtless act of a king.

A yogi sits in Samadhi and a female devotee bows before him. Is she asking for a child or the return of the errant husband?

Two soldiers on a camel guard their territories. A man rests under a tree in the company of a parrot, tuti-e-Hind, the bird of wisdom, a crow, the messenger, a squirrel, devotee of Rama and a monkey, representing Hanuman. A woman goes on a bullock-cart and is followed by possibly a European woman with an umbrella, leading a fierce red dog. A train passes across the horizon and the two sahibs with their sola hats and umbrella are controlling this monster. But then the passengers are romantic couples, holding flowers they appear to be engaged in love play, as the train rumbles across the horizon. Above the train are two red peacocks, red is the rajas colour, the colour of passion. Is this a warning? One peacock stands on a black snake associated with sexual urge, while another has below it a scorpin, which symbolizes the unbearable pain of unrequited passion.

On the opposite side of the train is the tree of life. What is it saying? Changes happen, landscapes change, yet life goes on!

Striped tigers, the vehicle of Durga are representations of Mahesha Surmardhani, the powerful Shakti created by the Gods to battle with the undefeatable demons. Women see themselves as the swarup, the reflection of the goddess. Below them is a couple with the man offering a fruit to the woman. Is it the story of Adam & Eve being depicted here? Along with these mythical stories, life continues uninterrupted and a woman spins the cotton on her spinning wheel. A ruler with his two guards is seated on his throne. A python carries away a struggling child.

A man & woman talk to each other under the tree. The lady embroiders the scene from a popular folk song.

Talli de thali beh kai oh Mayia-we mayia.
A kariye del dia gala.
Tu mera dard wandewa
Mai tere dard nu jhala


Come my lover, let us sit in the shade of the teak tree and talk of the matters close to our heart.

Or is it the familiar early movie scene of a man and woman running around a tree in a strange enactment of the mating game.

A very realistic centipede crawls acoss and moves above the red cow and sends a shiver down the viewers back. The wrestlers are seen wrestling, while their two mugdars identify them. The pehelwan have multiple significance in the minds of the people. They were the chivalrous heroes, like Rustam, who stood for the code of chivalry. They were also the wrestlers, who were always the unobtainable dream lovers that the women longed for and never attained. For true practicing wrestlers were the worshippers of Hanuman and sworn to total celibacy. The complex world of the woman lived at multiple levels is depicted in this exquisite embroidery. This is the non-verbal language, which speaks to every woman and she can relate to it in her way.

There is another style of embroidery, which has a number of common motifs. It is full of movement and every motif appears to be created with an eye to detail. The kala-nag emerging from underground. The train with a European Engine driver larger than the engine and a huge plume of smoke. Above it is the traditional camel caravan connected to the scene of the lover Sassi and Punni. We see here Sassi runs after the caravan, which is taking away her lover Punnu. She implores.

Dachi walai mordh mohar wai
Dachi walai lay chal nal wai
Dachi walai holai holai tour wai
Matt akhey koi meno chor wai

Camel driver turn back
Or take me with you
Go slow camel driver
Or people will think I am a thief
Then she cajoles him and even flirts with him.

Teri dachi de kan wich walia Your camel wears earrings
Muh gora te zul fa kalia Fair is she with black tresses


Many of the pictorial phulkaris are full of movement. The only still centre is the symbol of the lotus, which is also a solar symbol, it represents the sun. It also represents the opening up of the consciousness. In some phulkaris, it is transformed the all seeing eye of the Lord. When it shines down upon the earth, nothing is hidden. The truth is known.

Bharam khoi shant
Sehej sawami
Pargas Bhaya
Koal khilai
Sundh sakhia meri nind bhali
Men apnarda Pir milia

When the doubt in the mind is gone
There is peace within
As the lotus opens at dawn.

The motifs of the jewellery that the woman has longed for and never had, are made her own, by creating them. There is the shringhar patti for decorating the forehead and framing her face, along with the nose ring, the cascading earring and the hathphool.

In one of the embroideries there is an outsize rattle and the child of her longing and as he grows up he will be like Shrawan and fulfil her desires. Or is it a reflection of a song crying out that she is married to a child. Main Manje da Jatti. Gulabo nika jaya. Hik charakede dou charakede. I am a robust woman of Punjab, while my husband is a child, who still plays with his rattles.

A women stands and spins the spindle of cotton thread as a bristling dog protects her.

The train passes across the horizon, obviously it brings home the soldiers, who had left home for woman with their nose rings, symbolizing their marital status, dance in joy, along with the young men.

The paired hamsa, the sacred bird nurtures the tree of life.

There is an extremely busy phulkari richly embroidered in lemon yellow, orange, pink, white, green and blue, creating a landscape of people and animals.

The central section has a number of animals none of them spell danger. Frogs, tortoise and water birds symbolize the presence of water. The whiskered mouse creates the presence of Lord Ganesha, as it is his vahana. Different forms of birds from the domesticated hen to the, duck, the crested hopi of colourful plumage and many other can be seen. The monkey man makes the monkeys, Raja Rani, play the couple game of- I love you I love you not. A bear dances to the signs of his master. Just in front of us is a veiled woman is this Sasi or Sohini sneaking out to meet her lover.

There are a row of animals. The subdued sheep, does it represent the men of the Begum Nura Shah, the enchantness, who turns men into sheep and just behind is a rather cocky billy goat and sly laughing fox ready for any prey.

A sealed train passes across the horizon. Above the wrestlers, a common motif, wrestle together. They are the romantic figure of women that the women dream of. Like the John Abraham & Akshaye Kumars of today. Their strong psyche, their shining massaged bodies are what they would like to hold in their arms and be held by. But then they are far removed from their life for not only are they often itinerant, but the pehelwan normally has taken the vow of chastity like Hanuman.

A priest holding his book. The bania. A mem sahib and sahib with their dog. A woman biding farewell to her child.

It is this world of dreams, the world of longings, the everyday happenings, which create the world of the women on this extraordinary canvas.

Quite distinct from these vibrant embroideries of East Punjab are the highly stylized Baghs of West Punjab & Hazara, which have been studied to a much greater extent. Here the highly stylized geometric patterns cover the entire surface. The squares within squares, create a grid parallel to the grid of the warp and weft, which in the Rigveda is used to explain the concept of time. This was the sacred grid. It was the very base of the mandala originally created for the fire altar and became the sacred geometry of creativity on the basis of which places of worship were created.

These double grids, which create a powerful cloth are built by two sets of parallel lines. One set is parallel to the earth the other runs upwards to the sun. The dabia, boxes are the very inner core of the embroiderers creativity and through the shimmering surface, created by the change in direction of the stitch, gives an added dimension to the cloth, thus giving a double protection to the wearer.

The complex wari-da-bagh, which the paternal grandmother, Dadi, began embroidering at the birth of the boy child, was the veritable history of the family. A change of pattern indicated a family upheaval, the introduction of black was expressive of a loss. The introduction of a pink flower was remembrance of a happy event. When after the solemnization of the marriage the grandmother or the boy’s mother wraps the bride in the bagh, she is being wrapped in the emotional history of the family, which she is entering and whose joys and sorrow would now be a part of her life.

The phulkaris, colourful floral embroideries were worn by everyone and they were a part of their daily life. A man cries out. Ley ke phulkari suhe rangdi. Ag landi jandi jitho langdi”. Wrapped in her red phulkari she enflames wherever she goes. A women responds. Phulkari meri reshmi, utte kaddah ni Mor. Galla teria Mithian, Par Chal Teri Kuj hor. My phulkari is of silk on which I embroider the love bird, the peacock, your talk is very sweet, but your behavior is something else.

There are many motifs, which appear quite often in the pictorial Sainchi and are deeply evocative and have multiple layers of meaning. One can read the embroidery at many different levels. The lotus appears in every pictorial embroidery. Often it is the central dominant motif. It symbolizes the sun, it symbolizes the inner most world of the women, it symbolizes purity and the opening up of the consciousness. It can also mean the women’s ability to disassociate herself from her surroundings and look from above, as can be seen in some phulkaris. The peacock here is not associated with Karthika, the god of war, but with Rathi, the goddess of love. The stylized hamsa, which is often mistaken for the peacock, symbolizes the origin story of the laying of the cosmic egg.

The black snake is a symbol of male sexuality, as well as can signify the underworld and the enemy of the sunbird.

Shrawan, the filial son carrying his blind parents on pilgrimage signifies the beginning of the great epic Ramayana. It also is the longing for a filial son like Shrawan. The train moving across the horizon is the outer world penetrating their inner world. There is curiosity, a desire to know the outside world and yet there is fear of it.

A woman calls out.
Sard deyo eh rail gadiya nu
Mera kant pardes laygaye nu

Burns these trains, they have taken my husband away.

In another song, she says,

Kale kale gadi mainu leja
Mera kant da mukhda kukda

Oh black train, take me with you. My husband’s face calls me.

Duhan mera yar
Duhan more khanjar

She looks at the train’s smoke and says. Ah the smoke is my lover, for it bring him back. It is also my destroyer, as it takes him away.

Many of these motifs are carried into other creative expressions. An extraordinary motif, which is used across cultures is that of the scorpion. The motif appears in the songs “Manu das liya hai mayia” I have been bitten my love. It appears in the figurative embroidery of East Punjab, as well as in the stylized forms of the phulkari of Punjab, in the embroidery of Saurashtra and Kutch, as well as in the wall paintings done by the women. The songs and a rather droll play enacted in U.P. by women, as they await the arrival of bride, uses the scropion’s bite as a very specific example of sexual deprivation. The same motif finds its way in one of the most sensous figures of Khajuraho where the scorpion crawls up the thigh of the nayaka. Devangana Desai in her book on Khajuraho goes on to say that, possibly the ancient name kharvaha could mean the carrier of scorpion, as Khara is not only the date tree but is also used for the scorpion. Literary descriptions of Shiva, as Agorha describe him as wearing a garland of scorpions. A far cry from the scorpion motif being embroidered at the opening of a skirt from Haryana or the stylized border of the phulkari.

Besides specific colours, forms and shapes feature in their embroidery language.

Dhola je tur chalo rang lani ah sawa.
Mere ahl jawani jewai bakhda hi awa.
Green represents her budding youth and flaming red her passion.

Guru Nanak says,
Kad kashida pehran choli
Ta tun jachai nar

Embroider your own choli and wear it. Only then will you be a perfect woman.

Is he saying it is only when you can embroider your own choli, are you considered a woman, as is the tradition amongst the Riang of Tripura, where the girl must weave her riah, the breast cloth for the marriage and a particular ceremony is performed only with the Riah for it presents the true spirit of the girl. One wonders if this a remnant of a belief that the choli created by the woman is a relfection of her persona, thus possibly leading to the evolution of a tantric cult of the choli, where the woman practitioners would shed their choli in a pitcher and the choice of a choli would pair them. Was the choice of the choli based on chance or on the significance of the embroidered motifs.

Shall I end here to quote from the great iconistic medieval poet and mystic Bulah Shah.

Paiya hai key paiyahai
Sat guru ne allakh lagai hai.
Is phul buteh pai hai
Kad Kad tera nam Bulha
Alakh Niranjan paihai

I have found it
The true guru has touched the invisible eternity
It has found the real flower
With which I have embroidered your name Bulha
It is only then I have found myself when the lord has anointed my eyes with the colorium of truth.

No comments:

The plight of the Bakherwals