Spreads of baagh and phulkari – an amaanat

New Delhi, India

All four of my grandparents once lived in what is now Pakistan- on my paternal side, my grandmother hailed from Rawalpindi and grandfather from Gujranwala, and on my maternal side, my grandmother from Quetta and grandfather from Lahore. Still preserved from 1947, amongst the few items carried with on their migration to India, we have in our family’s possession a few chaddars with traditional Baagh and Phulkari embroidery.

I remember first setting my eyes on them at ‘Biji Ghar’, the home of my father’s grandmother, in Gurdaspur. In the neighbourhood of Beriyan Mohalla stood her house- a little haveli of sorts, and more of a house of wonders for us children. Knocking with the bronze chain rattler to announce our presence was oddly exciting. We would come into the all brick building, to always be welcomed by cool lemonade or hot tea. There were mysterious cabinets embedded right into the walls, which housed all sorts of interesting wares like tiny bronze plates to put water out for the birds; a crockery cabinet with the vintage china pieces; a book cabinet which contained a Gurmukhi version of the original Heer by Waris Shah and even a weathered down, unabridged copy of Othello from our grand-uncle, Surinder Pal Singh’s B.A. syllabus, amongst other books. In one of the storehouses, I even spotted my father’s stroller from his childhood, and of course, in the larger bedroom sat the big furnace, which I had never seen in a house in the plains. This house in Gurdaspur was visited year after year, every summer and winter, and yet each time, we would still chance upon something new sometime and incredible from the past. Like the time I, as an inquisitive nine year old, unlocked one of the rooms on the terrace only to find dozens of paintings done by an artist friend of the family.

My father’s aunt who was the sole occupant of Biji Ghar, Auntie Mohinder, was born in 1932, well before the Partition. In the midst of conversations about their journeys across, she had once brought out the old baaghs from the other side of the border. Even as a child, I remember being completed fascinated by all things vintage, the once pre-owned, especially something that was part of my family. I remembering revelling in the beauty of the fabric and grazing my hands across the entire length. And as we marvelled over these large shawls, auntie told me and my sister that these would, one day, eventually be passed on to us.

She recounted their history — these chaddars had been embroidered by Biji, my great grandmother, Ishar Kaur, for her own trousseau. She was born around 1908, so these pieces would have likely been made some time in the early 1920s. Often in those days, women would collect or make such items for their trousseau – handcrafted or embroidered cloth  –  which later could be used to make several smaller items like dupattas, rumaaley, tablecloths and bedsheets.

Phulkari is the most well known form of embroidery from the Punjab area. The word is derived from “Phul-kari” — literally meaning a “work of flowers” and when done all over, with no spaces left in the background , it creates a “Baagh” or garden. Perhaps for this reason, the base cloth for “Baagh” ought to be strong rather than delicate, since it would be covered in stitches all over and regard for its prettiness is little, since it would not be visible at all. Hence, khaddar or khaadi makes a great choice for it. Mohinder auntie showed us one with intricate golden-yellow threads which covered the cloth entirely, giving it an elegant and regal feel. Phulkari – on the other hand, which leaves cloth unembroidered, is often done over a variety of materials like silk, crepe, georgette, as little embroidery does not risk damaging the base material. From the aged lot, a phulkari piece stood out, its base evident in places unembroidered- a now-faded red khaddar, which surely would have been a radiant bridal-red at its time.

Eventually as the years passed, Auntie Mohinder turned older, sold the house and moved to Chandigarh. But even then, she often called my father to say ‘Tuhadi amaanat mere kol paiyi hai’, That which is yours, is with me…’ Whenever they would chat, she would mention it without fail. I suppose, for people of that generation, a promise, even casually made, held a different kind of finality and importance.

When the time came for me to inherit these beautifully emrboidered pieces from her, I learnt of a thought that had once crossed her mind – that, as an heirloom, perhaps these chaddars ought to be passed on only to the males in the family, so the heirloom “stays in the family”. Which then, by a patriarchal mindset, rightfully, could never have been mine. But since my sister and I had once been promised these, she made sure they came to us. We received two of the chaddars and several others were distributed amongst the other children in the family.

My grandmother, Waryam Kaur, born in 1928, was quite a perfectionist and looking at this embroidery, I am certain it was a quality she would have inherited from her mother. Phulkari that is available in the market these days, both handmade and machine-done, tends to have loose threads at places, shoddy, not-so-neat stitches. Interestingly, Baagh is an art rarely seen anymore. Perhaps the effort and time required for it is too great to be of commercial interest.

The heirloom I have inherited is undoubtedly a work of art. Each stitch is so perfectly done that even a hundred years later, not a single thread is out of place. Wrapped in pretty white cloth with chikan and lace borders that Biji herself had stitched, and that was used to avoid minimal contact between the folds, these chaddars have stood the test of time. Every time we take them out, it is as if we’re handling something almost sacred. A century old piece of embroidery created by my great-grandmother is sacred in any case.

Biji’s ghar has been long sold off and the brick and mortar of it is probably in pieces today. To my father, the memory of the smells of the house — the pickles and jams made and kept in ancient martabaans is most strong. But in my case, the fascination of entering a past world remains the strongest memory. These two baagh and phulkari pieces are what I hold most dear, in memory of Biji, a lady I never knew but feel like I almost did. They remind me of her and her daughter, Auntie Mohinder, who kept her promise to two little girls.


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