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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.


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

embroidered caress.

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 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 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.


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

as mine.

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


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.


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

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