History has mentions about phulkari being brought to India by the ‘Jats’ of Central Asia in ancient times. Some say that it originated in Punjab in the 15th century. Another thought is that it belongs to Persia where a similar craft called ‘Gulkari’ existed. There is no certain way of knowing which of these accounts is true since there is no proper documentation of phulkari as a craft in history. The first time the word appeared in a written record is in the 17th century when it was documented in the Punjabi folklore Heer Ranjha by Waris Shah. This could be because phulkari was never fabricated for sale. The embroidery was done by ladies in a family and hence the techniques were generally a word of mouth - knowledge handed down from one generation to another.
The tradition of phulkari is often associated with the Sikh heritage but references of Hindu and Muslim adaptations can be found in history. So it would be right to call phulkari a craft belonging to a geography than a religion. The exquisite embroidery is known to have been made in the districts of Hazara, Peshawar, Sialkot, Jhelum, Rawalpindi, Multan, Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ambala, Ludhiana, Nabha, Jind, Faridkot, Kapurthala and Chakwal of the Punjab region.
Whatever be the history, phulkari is steeped in traditions and has now become synonymous with Punjab. As soon as a girl was born in a family, the mother, grandmother and other womenfolk of the household would start embroidering phulkaris for her to be given away as a part of her wedding trousseau. Since it was an activity that almost every woman spent time on, it was more or less considered to be a household chore. As a result, one did not venture to buy phulkari dupattas and the craft did not get commercialised. But the arrival of the British changed this - a market opened up abroad for Phulkari embroidery. In a report prepared by Lockwood Kipling for the Journal of Indian Art, one can find him talk about the development of trade of phulkari where he also bashes the modifications done to it to adapt the craft to European tastes.
Phulkari Embroidered Cushion Cove
By 19th century, the demand for Phulkari in America and Europe saw an exponential increase. Embroidery units in Punjab, especially Amritsar started getting bulk orders of Phulkari fabrics for items such as bed linens and curtains, diluting the essence of the craft. Soon, to cater to the burgeoning demand, phulkari work started being done using machines which also dramatically brought down its price in the market. The stitches and patterns were also modified to cater to the western taste and demands. As a result of all these changes, Phulkari in its original form is dying a slow death while its poorer machine made version is flourishing like never before. Women in some pockets continue to practice this traditional craft but it would need a lot of efforts from the government or other agencies to document the motifs and techniques in order to resurrect the craft.
Image Credit: Antima Khanna, Pinterest