Discover the beauty and cultural significance of phulkari, ornately embroidered textiles from Punjab, a region straddling Pakistan and India. In addition to stunning examples from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, this exhibition features traditional phulkaris from the Museum’s collection and high-fashion ensembles by one of India’s leading designers, Manish Malhotra.
Phulkari, meaning “flower work,” is a labor-intensive textile made of vibrant silk embroidery on a plain-woven cotton cloth. Deeply rooted in Punjabi life before the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan (which split the Punjab region), this tradition has become a powerful symbol of Punjabi cultural identity. Usually worn by women as large shawls on special occasions, phulkaris were also made as blankets or as furniture covers or hangings. Women of many religious groups—Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs (who consider the Punjab their holy land)—stitched phulkaris, with young girls learning needlework from older female relatives and friends. They often created the embroideries for their dowry, which they brought to their new homes when they married.
Some phulkaris depict animals and village scenes, while others display complex geometric patterns in bold colors conveying good fortune and social status. Whether figural or geometric, all are rich in symbolism: after the 1947 Partition, phulkari textiles became an important symbol for the new nation of Pakistan.
Over the past half century, phulkari techniques and patterns have experienced a revival, especially as a commercial art. As an emblem of pre-Partition village life, phulkaris have been celebrated in popular music and videos. More recently, this folk tradition has entered the realm of high fashion through designers such as Manish Malhotra, who recently created a phulkari-based couture collection.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website
Whether or not you go, Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection focuses on a group of nineteen stunning works, surveying the genre’s fascinating history. This is the first publication outside South Asia specifically on this art form, offering significant new information on the craft and its importance to personal, familial, and regional identity, in the past and the present. Exquisite and labor-intensive, phulkari (“floral-work” or “flower-craft”) embroideries were originally produced by women in towns and villages across the greater Punjab, a region that today straddles Pakistan and India, from at least the early 19th century into the first decades of the 20th.
Phulkaris were made from brightly colored silk thread on rough, earth-toned fabric. When done for domestic use, they functioned primarily as women’s wraps at weddings or other important events. Especially following the Punjab’s devastating partition in 1947, phulkaris were also produced as commercial exports.