A Day In The Lives Of Phulkaris
By Sharvani Sharma
I observe. I live each day as it is.
I recall and recognise so I can recreate
each cluttered memory coiled inside me,
trying to merge within the portions of my being
that if I allow to blend shall perhaps result
in stronger aches or few other pleasurable pains.
And just when I am starting to feel helpless
around my shaped walls,
you come to my rescue as I always carry
our bare selves along.
You let me pour those coils through threads
and throbs in the form of patterns and subjects
that this skin has kept concealed and now regret
so I pour all moments upon you as they are
no more trapped but relive upon your thickness
in their better glistening selves.
And amidst these struggles of passing
lives and designs upon you
there’s a universe we have produced
who float or fit within the luminous spaces of you.
You have experienced numerous stories of my life
and yourself, an embroidered life in outlines
which were griefs left unhealed and now I sigh
at how you have accepted them as ornaments
with aesthetic beauty and an appealing sheen
to one’s eyes.
You are my portrait outside this frame of me,
created of weaves, colours and eternal motifs.
You are so many forms on this embroidered body-
the bagh, the chope or the gulkherian di phulkari,
a labyrinth of nature, geometrics or even sweets,
settled on two ends of cotton voiles or opaque fabrics.
THE BEST FIT
I urged them all to remember that
if it must happen it shall, someday soon
though this didn’t feel like my apt age, I cried
but my precious sleep time under this sky
to count numerous stars and gaze at the moon.
Wasn’t it too soon to sit me on a throne
with oversized clothes clinging on
while the men from my extensive clan
declared across the five rivers, “Ceremonies
for our daughter’s marriage are in full swing and on.”
The satin silken emerald costume
newly stitched was too large for me,
demanding a nip through the broad ends
for which I ran and jumped around the one
who strangely was ignoring me.
“I will fall on my face, dear mother
with this over lengthy shiny cloth,
my legs still have time to fit within
the heights of this glittering silk salwar.”
The shimmery top exposed
the peach flesh of my virgin form,
dropping itself against my shoulders
while I brought it back again
to be on my sides while no one else was
but here it signaled every other minute
that I was yet not the right one but the one
who still needed some years for us to be one
and for me to be embraced and bedecked.
A giggling burst of aunts and sisters- in- law
ran into my room, sheltered around me and
placed a tall pile of jewelry boxes in front of me.
Picking up few gold bangles to ornament my wrists
Prabhjot Bhabhi held my hand with a tight grip,
jerked it and asked, “get together your fingertips.”
Finally, she threw up the huge shiny ringlets upon
the abrupt circumference of my bony forearm.
I had to get rid of each of them
and back in my old comfort dress except
what would and never has yet faltered,
my grandmother’s most adored
You, my phulkari,
are my sparkling constant,
my silent confidante and
my most magnificent drape,
with same size for a lifetime to go
and my best fit forever,
for every shape,
age and day.
I have been there now numerous times—
Surrendering decades of learning from
my mother and the past generations, the
pristine art we have left behind.
This marketplace is an embroiderer’s ride,
having wandered through its geographies,
a favored niche of Patiala and its street sides
not nurturing the real craft but satisfying
a yearning hope, a tribe’s hunger for life.
I struggle to celebrate the flawless threads and
rawness within each work of my needle
upon the earthy fabric’s right and wrong side.
Now I am not a leisured creator from the bygone times
but one who imitates diverse motifs as the desired designs.
Today I have forced and forgotten my suppressed stories,
for tomorrow I shall revive beyond this known bazaar
and my lost art’s glories.
This two plus half yards of wrap
has already lived two lives and
waits to accompany me to
live another half of mine.
Its tattered threads and worn out silks,
its sheen sparkled sixty years of them–
my mother and before her, her mother;
it became the veils to their beauty and pride.
While I was growing, mother narrated
to me the story, how her Nani created
this lengthy calico for her beauteous little girl,
handed over all these years, for each generation’s dowry.
I had imagined it to be part of my trousseau as well
and it’s in these moments I see this manifested
when day after day I get to play the remaining
part to this two-and-a-half measured magnificence.
I am the chosen heiress for this antique piece–
our phulkari that means nothing to the masculine.
All the heirloom roses, the darned posies
still feel so blooming, and more stories etched in.
When I clutch this cherished heirloom in my hands,
the fragrance and precision state how long it had travelled
since the day its seeds were planted until they became
the silken threads ravelled, and strands unravelled.
Walking for hours from village to city, my great-great
grandmother sold her hand- spun knits and pieces
in her run-down leather bellies and wrinkled
parched skin, getting more baked in the afternoon sun–
She walked each journey to create these ageless braids.
Each count needled on the madder red loom sheet, couched
from the underside, as much above as it’s embroidered beneath,
gold strings pulled so gently for embellished and entwined stitches;
every floral motif like an episode crafted in.
Less design and more like letters, each embroider
forms the words she would have taken months to write,
reflecting some happy, few not so flowery days of her story;
embroidered arcs of the seven colours of her orbed rainbow glory.
This heirloom is my blessing to cherish, a legacy to carry,
and not just another piece of phulkari in my dowry.
THE POSTHUMOUS THIRMA PHULKARI
The smell of metal in the air
eased me and I was less in disbelief;
knowing by then, there were more
she-infants like I was to be–
laid down and buried alive like
a fresh prostrate rosemary.
In an old dumped garden upon a
dead land, my button eyes could see
many others like me, who would have been
strangled and choked, thumbs pressed in necks;
each of us losing ourselves, screaming and struggling,
shook for last and then stopped quivering.
It’s been a while now, and unearthed
as spirits, we celebrate that we are alive now
and grow deep inside the womb of our mother earth.
We are the daughters of inhumanity,
entombed at birth for not being
born a son to our families.
We are saplings with caress from the ground
fed with each bit of molasses you placed in our mouths.
We suck the sweet rock like its milk from your chest,
grasped every twist of braids and threads,
you placed in our raised fists;
tiny as our little hearts, we clenched.
Dear mothers and fathers!
If ever you want, come and visit our home,
the one where you made us sleep to never
breathe again and forever not grow;
know that we are our shelter now,
we are a garden of flowers;
we have spun ourselves,
weaved together, stronger
from those puny threads;
over the white peony spread,
we have embroidered each of us
like the crimson red floret bed,
and from wounds that you gave us,
our blood has dyed those muslin strands.
We are the posthumous Thirma phulkaris,
those insignificant horizontal dead bodies
that you didn’t find appropriate
for the horizon of a new morning.
If only you had not killed us alive,
if only you had sung to us the lullabies,
rather than singing:
“ Gurr khaeein, pooni katti,
Aaap na aeein, veere nu ghallin,”
I would have grown into a young girl,
learning the art not underneath this universe,
but decorating your home with mosaics and florals.
I hope my brother is born now,
part of the family where I was to be.
I fetched him so he could grow
and create his own small glories.
I shall be alive as the unstitched thread,
to his borrowed life and its stories.
Aren’t we doubles
across these parted lines
of us and they?
Of I and he?
Only so distinct by such names the world has given,
the phulkari, Gulkari and Jisti in another space,
so alike, yet each flower so strangely placed.
Weren’t the threads counted for every needled form,
whether the khadi was Indian or not
and the silk thread from Afghanistan?
Poised and beauteous,
I grew in her womb as did the ‘He’
The process has never differed
whether you and I belonged to
Peshawar, Patiala, or Montgomery.
And now I realize our lives are akin,
as a woman who’s draped
in your embroidered auspiciousness
as a baby who’s wrapped
in your cushioned softness
and a blessing who’s each thread
is every grandmother’s caress,
And so scarcely distinguishable
to have been decreed to call a complete woman
only if I knew how to embroider you,
when someone from above said,
“Kadh kasida pahreh choli tan tu jane nari.”
To be seen as the flawless embroidered phulkari
only if no partition was such a perfect stroke,
that a woman on the other side sung,
Goriyae ni tu khari sayaani, teri koi rees nahi
Jis sui reshmi phul kadhe, us sui di koi rees nahi,”
And to be called a common world,
that no geography was so distant
and no gender was unique in blood.
Please stop before this day halts
and you free yourself from me –
A body of cotton, a silk embroidered skin.
Let me memorize each music of how your heart beats
because that is where my home is
where I rest and lay for most part
of the day until sunshine stays
and in each moment when you breathe,
veiled upon you I understand your every mood
and no more a stranger to the emotions you feel.
Please take care of me,
all corners are alike.
Hold me tight
or embrace around
or tuck me so good
so my arms, legs flying in the air
and clung upon your shoulders
do not fall on the ground.
Please give this body some time.
It is still trying to be familiar
and recognize a life with you–
its soul deep inside.
THE INCOMPLETE SCARF
The amber scarf that nestles
across my neck since few days,
rubbed against and scratched
my skin today in the stale warm air.
I wonder if there was, yet a dialogue left
that the lingering corners wanted to have
with the needle, weave, and each strand,
who listened to the first two tirelessly and
stroked their shores from end to end.
They were wrong —
there was more to narrate
from the other two bends
with fresh pierced stitches
and the silken threads.
NO DARKNESS BE ALTERED
From the floral bed crafted
over the green yarned sheet,
separating tufts of any colour
is like dividing a country.
Wouldn’t it be unfair to
remove the scuds of the blue, only
because you see them ragged and loose?
Why would I pull out the plush leaves,
twined with tendrils and their rustles in between?
The thorns around them still keep them harmless,
lesser than your desires of spoiling so much within.
I though feel relieved, it’s a lifeless spun piece
and not the united country you wish to
isolate and split.
How do I trust only the sunshine strokes
of threads, abandoning the purple evenings
embroidered next to the mahogany strands?
That’s not what my life has taught me–
to leave behind the shadowed years
like an old threadbare scarf,
relish and cherish the saffron air,
the days I spent in Punjab.
This is what those years have taught me–
to entrust all the brightness not only
on the yellows and reds,
but embrace each darkness too,
of violet and brown threads.
I ask you to imagine
this embroidery with whirls of alterations and
a forcibly marked country of irretrievable divisions–
Symmetry of petals for the dead?
Or the needled holes from abandonment?
Or the frivolous threads, jolted and wrenched?
Don’t ask me to cleft,
I do not thread the lines that could divide a country.
It’s only after the grey blanket of midnight hours
that the bright mornings shall be.
Don’t ask me to make it new,
I do not have the art for such an image.
It’s only from the full bouquet of flowers
that the sheer phulkari shall be.
If I could choose the fabric
to be weaved upon,
perhaps I would surrender
my desired needled akar
to the soft cotton muslin.
The fabric, symbolic of
purity and endurance,
mirroring clear water and the woman,
who shall own me someday
and know of her own identity
I would surrender to let my
creator retrieve another form of herself,
searching and collecting
all her broken flower petals,
braiding back to luminous times—
warps of colorful silks, embroidered
as memorable episodes through me.
If these flowers of tussah
could grace my owner,
who shall cover her open blankness
of pale and pink skin,
and embrace my complex layers
of mulmul, the fibers
and their own stories beneath—
like that of the woman who carries
her natural surface and further,
the membranes of lives within one life
and still manages to embody
the spirit of herself,
in the shape of a flower
just like me, who,
over the entwined network
of my fully needled akari,
shall then be called and worn
as a woman’s woven phulkari.
Bagh: It means garden. It is a full carpeted form of embroidery through numerous motifs which do not leave any space and no portion of fabric can be seen.
Chope: A distinct style of embroidery done on red khaddar. The completed embroidery through this form is identical on both sides.
Gaultheria di Phulkari: Phulkari of blooming flowers
THE BEST FIT
Salwar: A pair of light, loose, pleated trousers, usually tapering to a tight fit around the ankles
Bhabhi: Sister- in- law
Adaalat Bazaar: Court Market. A popular market in Patiala, Punjab, known for the art of Phulkari.
Note: The mention of two and a half yards is prominent in the poem as the complete length over which the embroidery for an odhani is done is of the mentioned size, in most cases. Two separate pieces of one yard each and another half a yard is stitched together to make it a long piece of phulkari.
THE POSTHUMOUS THIRMA PHULKARI
Thirma Phulkari: It is a form of phulkari where the base cloth is white and not dyed with any color. It is embroidered with red thread.
The English translation is as follows:
“ Gurr khaeein, pooni katti,
Aaap na aeein, veere nu ghallin”
“Eat your jaggery and spin your thread,
But go and send your brother instead.”
Note: Female infanticide in colonial Punjab was associated with many rituals and superstitions. Many sayings and folk songs had emerged around the event of killing the daughter. One such ritual was using a thumb to choke the newly born girl child and then burying it in a prostrate position. In this ritual her mouth was kept full of pieces of jaggery (molasses/gurr) and a small piece of cotton thread was clutched between her lifeless hands. The above-mentioned song was then be sung in a hope that a son would be born next time.
Jisti: In Pakistan, Phulkari is now known as Jisti work
Notes: Kadh kasida pahreh choli tan tu jane nari: Guru Nanak Ji in his scriptures stereotyped the notion of embroidery as a woman’s duty to establish her feminine worth.
Goriyae ni tu khari sayaani, teri koi rees nahi,
jis sui reshmi phul kadhe, us sui di koi rees nahi: Translated in English as “You beautiful young lady, you are very intelligent and skilled, there is no one like you, the needle with which you embroidered the silken flowers, there is no comparison of that needle either.”
By Sharvani Sharma