Embroidered Truths: Curator Karun Thakar on objects from latest Brunei exhibition


Karun Thakar has recently guest curated the latest exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, ‘Baghs – Abstract Gardens’. Here, he discusses the significance of these traditional embroideries. 

Baghs: Abstract Gardens’ is free and open to the public. Book your free timed tickets on the Brunei Gallery website

My mother was thirteen at the time of the India/Pakistan partition in 1947. She has very vivid memories from her childhood in Lahore about the use of baghs (a type of embroidered shawl), though I am not sure that all the shawls and hangings she describes were baghs. Her late sister, Banarso, was married a year or so before the partition and talked about a huge trunk in the household, full of these beautiful embroidered textiles, most often associated with weddings. She also gave me a fragment of a bagh that she had brought with her during the partition in 1947, a violent and disturbing period of history where millions were displaced and killed on both sides of the border.

Baghs were too bulky to carry, but Banarso wrapped some of her gold jewellery in three strips from a rather ‘special’ one (the rest had been used to make some costume which was no longer in the family). The strips were used to conceal items on her person while they made the perilous journey from Lahore to Vrindavan. They were reassembled by a rafu gar (darner) in Delhi. According to her the strips were from a bagh embroidered near the northwest region of the country by professional embroiderers; she thought it was over 120 years old. She gave it to me about thirty-five years ago.

My aunt also told me it was standard practice to have professional embroiderers in their home, mainly doing zardosi work. They worked for months to get part of her wedding trousseau ready. Before leaving in 1947 the family were able to tear up all the zardozi embroideries and swap the fragments for some jewellery. Baghs and other silk embroideries were left behind in the care of some Muslim neighbours, along with a set of house keys. They had to travel in very simple, old clothes, for fear of being looted. Alas, they were never to return again.

In this brief article, my aim is to raise questions and highlight areas of further research in this relatively under-studied subject of baghs and phulkaris. I hope that by laying bare some of the romantic notions in colonial literature on the subject we can start to disentangle the facts from the legend. We must also treat the oral historical information with critical scrutiny. For the purpose of this article I will be using the term bagh to mean phulkaris too, unless I am discussing specific pieces.

I first started seeing baghs in the early 1980s, when I began travelling from the UK to Delhi to visit my sister. With dozens of trips to India and Pakistan in more than thirty-five years, I would say that I have seen tens of thousands of baghs. From my early trips it was evident that almost every textile dealer I visited had a collection of these embroideries. I would select only a small handful of pieces, not just because of my limited budget, but also because only very few pieces appealed too me. The most prominent ones that I used to see were embroidered in harsh oranges and other very bright chemical colours, and some had very little embroidery. A lot were cut-up fragments or had colour runs. I personally had a collection of about 300 pieces; unfortunately I have only about half of my original collection now.

Baghs (‘gardens’) and phulkaris (‘flower-work’) are cotton head coverings that were made in undivided Punjab (the historical region now includes Pakistani Punjab, including the further northern edge of Hazara and part of the modern Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh). Women carried out the cotton picking and spinning; the thread would then be hand-woven into coarse cotton cloth called khaddar. Rangrez dyers would then dye the cotton to various red colours as well as indigo. All the embroidery was done from the back by counting threads in darning stitch using floss silk (heer). This technique was perfect for showing most of the silk in the front, as only a single thread would be caught in the back. The front surface would show a much longer float of the thread, providing the traditional stitch by building solid blocks of parallel rows of darning stitches.

It is assumed that most of these embroideries were made by women for domestic use. All the current writing seems to have overlooked the commercial production of these embroideries. A large number of baghs and phulkaris were exhibited at the ‘Punjab Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures’ held in Lahore in 1881/82. That export market must have been well established by the mid-19th century, as illustrated by Flora Steel’s article ‘Phulkari work in the Punjab’

It is also interesting to note that she talks about the high quality of these shawls being embroidered in Hazara, the region my aunt had referenced in relation to her fragment. All the pieces from this region demonstrate a very professional kind of embroidery.

Examining the detailed inventory of the show in Lahore, it is not surprising to find work done by women under ‘Maker’s Name’ but they are listed as  ‘A woman’, ‘Hindu woman’, ‘Hindu females’, ‘Dowlah’s wife’, ‘Gokal’s wife’ and ‘Durbari’s wife’, as well as the names Ram Kaur, L. Dave Sahai and Mt Rajkour. Men’s names are listed as: Hira Lal, Bahadur Singh, Hazara Mal, Ganesh, Akbar Khan, Mir Mohamed, Parmanand Anand, Sad Ram & Akbar, Ellahi Bux Khan and Mohamed Akbar. There is a huge scope to analyse this data in the future.

Some things are obvious from the inventory. The embroideries were done by Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities, as illustrated by the names.

Second, the work must also have been carried out by professional workers. This hypothesis is further supported by Flora Steel: discussing the embroideries created in Hazara, she states, ‘fine work is all done to rich orders, and most big houses keep dependents constantly embroidering’. There are also a number of surviving examples from the 19th century that show almost identical designs. I still have about seven examples of one design. I donated the eighth one to the Victoria and Albert Museum (IS. 1-2014); a number of other identical examples have also been published.

The decline of the commercial production is further highlighted by the pieces collected by Caspar Purdon Clarke in 1881/82 for the V&A, as referred to by Flora Steel. Having examined some of the dozen-or-so pieces in the V&A collection, I find them to have very sparse embroidery, with some early examples worked in harsh pink dye (05617[IS]). The foreign buyers in India would not have had access to the high quality of shawls made for personal use, or other fine domestic embroidery. Further evidence of this is seen in the gaps in collections of kantha embroideries produced for domestic use by women in undivided Bengal.

The designs on these head coverings vary widely, partly in accordance with the region in which they were made. Western Punjab work seems to be mainly geometric, whereas the eastern regional pieces can have figurative, architectural, floral as well as just geometric designs. These head coverings were used at various wedding ceremonies as well at festivals like Basant Panchami, Baisakhi and Karva Chauth. The Punjabi terminology used to describe the designs on some of these pieces may be a very recent development. I just want to explore some of the terms in common use by dealers, collectors and museums.

The abstracted tree-like design is often described as ‘khanjar’, meaning a dagger. The border of this piece clearly illustrates that the triangular forms seem to represent stylised tree elements. Some other examples of this type of embroidery do not have any borders but show only the geometric design; hence the confusion caused by calling it a dagger motif. It is also hard to imagine that a head covering made with the use of expensive silk for weddings or other ceremonies would have a dagger design. It has also been suggested that the iconography refers to some early Buddhist symbols, Shiva and Shakti (male and female elements), yoni, or ikat design, all without any clear evidence.

‘Darshan dwar’ phulkaris carry the literal meaning of ‘seeing the doorway to the divine’ . Most texts refer to these baghs as being made for donation to gurdwaras or temples. The architectural elements along the two sides of this group of phulkaris may have led to this name. The ones in the collection show diverse forms of iconography within individual baghs, from acrobats to animals and birds. Several also have wedding jewellery embroidered on them. A strong argument against them being made for donations is that not a single one has been recorded in the inventories of temples or gurdwaras.

A chand (moon) bagh is also seen. Moon baghs may have been used in the Karwa Chauth ceremony. Punjabi women fast for the health and well-being of their husbands on this auspicious day. In the evening they look through a sieve at the reflection of the moon to secure its blessing; the fast can then be broken. There is some anecdotal evidence for the use of these shawls for this ceremony, as the name and ceremony have some correlation.

As for the ghobi (cauliflower) bagh, it might seem ridiculous to suggest that this vegetable would be a reference for embroidery on a shawl. However, various folk and popular Punjabi songs refer to an elderly suitor bringing a cauliflower for his intended; she ridicules him by saying, ‘Everyone brought flowers but the old man brought me cauliflower.’ One such song was made very popular by a 1964 Bollywood film, Sangam. The Lata Mangeshkar song ‘Mujhe Budhha Mil Gaya’ even has its own Wikipedia page. The baghs that are described by this name just show a stylised flower form (Hitkari, 2003).

The origins of these and some other bagh names may be a very recent development. For example, ‘thirma’, which means white, is used to describe cream-ground pieces, and ‘sainchi’, meaning pure, is applied to figurative pieces. I find it interesting that none of these terms was used when I first started buying these. Often an exotic name seems to make goods more marketable.

There are other research areas in this field that we need to explore. They include the ground cloth used for the embroidery; the quality and dye of the silks used; pre- or post-construction of the ground strips; the lack of borders on some pieces; and shawls with signatures and text. There is also a lot of oral and anecdotal evidence to be analysed, concerning pieces used for specific wedding ceremonies: wari, when red bagh and gifts from the groom’s family are displayed; chura, the ceremony in which the bride’s uncle donates red bangles; phera, circling around a fire by the bride and groom; and doli, the bride’s leaving home ceremony in a bagh-covered palanquin.

It is clear from Punjabi literature, including poetry from the 15th century onwards, that embroidery played a huge role in women’s lives. Historical writings on these textiles often talk about the singing and dancing by women sitting around and embroidering these shawls: see Steel (1888), Tandon (1968) and Hitkari (2003). It is important to re-examine the mythologies surrounding the production and use of these shawls in a post-colonial context.

In his 2005 book Designs and Patterns in Phulkaris, SS Hitkari quotes his mother: ‘I would have gone mad but for indulging in embroidering phulkaris’. Perhaps we need to examine the meditative/escapist role that embroideries played in the harsh lives of women in the 19th century. Given the condition of the material that has survived, it is obvious that these pieces were loved and treasured as family heirlooms. It is also clear that a lot of hopes and dreams were transferred from a needle to the cloth by young girls and women when creating pieces for the wedding trousseau.


This article was originally published in Hali Magazine, issue 208 Summer 2021, pp.100-5.


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