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July 16, 2006

REVIEWS: Redefining a dying craft

Reviewed by Nyla Daud


The result of eight years of research and extensive travel over what has now come to be known as the October 5 Earthquake Belt, Phulkari, the book, comes as the first ever effort by any local researcher to read the details of a craft tradition that has adorned garments since centuries past. The listed co-authors are three sisters, each a specialist in her own profession (Nusrat Batool runs an NGO for women’s empowerment, Iffat Batool is a university teacher and Quratul-Ain is an education officer) but sharing an overwhelming respect for the craft traditions of their land.

That Phulkari is the first in their listed series of explorations of indigenous technologies, relates to the trio’s having discovered the many wondrous nuances of the embroidery in their quest for craftswomen who still retain the basic elements inherited from their seniors.

Trekking across the length and breadth of the Earthquake Belt leads them to delve deeper and deeper not only into the socio-economics of the art but also into the many legends and spiritualistic links of the Phulkari tradition.

Apart from the elitist urban circles where the Phulkari shawl is occasionally flaunted as an art piece of enviable antique value, the craft has been an essential part of the traditional culture of urban Punjab. Sadly, its very practice and interesting social history stands lost to the mercenary forces of modernism for two reasons: one, because its practitioners have deliberately fought free from the associated stigma of inferiority and backwardness associated with the craft as the country enters a period of industrialisation and globalisation.

Secondly this is a cultural heritage the keeping alive of which requires a compulsive and intensive labour of love and few youngsters today would be willing to carry this baggage. Thus, in recent times few practitioners of the art could be located. The trio claim to have followed the remotest clues leading them to small-time mountain villages or clusters of households rumoured to house practitioners of Phulkari.

“We would carry all the relevant materials, base cloth and threads in our backpacks and trek up only to find that hardly anyone cared to display the skill. Gradually we would make friends, make them appreciate the beauty and economic worth of their priceless heritage and finally one woman in a crowd would offer to work a stitch. A lot of the response was excited by the economic rewards we offered.” In due course of time, the sisters collected not only rare samplings of this unique workmanship but were also able to put together the fragmented history of the Phulkari tradition.

Which at one level reads like a fairy tale closely interwoven with the lives of the young women who execute it and, at another, gives a rare insight into the spirituality of the craft and of the its awesome connectivity to the classic traditions of Baba Bulleh Shah, Amrita Preetam and Baba Guru Nanak.

The authors quote Baba Guru Nanak as having said that only those girls can execute the art that have been blessed by the gods. Traditionally handworked by young girls to ultimately become a prized possession at the time of their wedding, the art of the Phulkari shawl is believed to be the result of an intense emotional consciousness that is reflected in the ultimate design work.

Containing over 60 glossy pages of a colourful hard cover, the text of Phulkari spans not only the evolution of the ancient craft but interesting details like the variety of colours, stitches and working materials involved all highlighted by swatches of the worked craft. Also worked into the text are a couple of maps to give a geographical and historical perspective, besides a very attractive border of Phulkari pieces along the length of the pages.

However it is in the co-authors’ over anxious effort to relate Phulkari to contemporary life through visuals, that the publication loses much of its excitement. The poor quality of visuals laid out in an unimaginative combination of garments modelled by rather bored-looking, young men and women and an attempt at showing the craft being actually worked by older women, somehow, detracts from the original purpose of the book. The co-authors, who are to be credited with accumulating a lot of information about this beautiful art, could have done better had they limited the publication to simple facts which in themselves make for interesting coffee table reading.


By Nusrat Batool, Iffat Batool and Qurat-ul-Ain Wengaar, 112-A, Johar Town, Lahore.

Tel: 042-5168985.


63pp. Rs 1,000

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