Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra
A young girl leaves her home to join another family of which she knows very little. She has spent her childhood and early youth sheltered within the large compound of her maternal home with limited exposure to the outside world. And now she must leave her mother and the family that raised her. What will provide her with comfort in that alien house that she must now call home? Until she forms the bonds of love in her new home what will remind her that she is loved and cherished? The Dowry chest – containing things that she surrounds herself with during the early days in her new home – her clothes, her jewels and other legacy gifts.
For some this dowry might comprise of things ‘bought’ from the market. But for those that are fortunate, the dowry contains pieces that were made by her mother and grandmother before her own eyes through her childhood. Pieces that are embedded with memories of many afternoons in which the women of the family gathered together to create her wedding canopy. For the fortunate, the dowry consists of the magnificent Bagh Phulkari Chadar!
THE SOCIAL PARADIGM
When a daughter is born, her grandmother begins working on a new Phulkari Bagh textile. And by the time the daughter is ready to be married the Bagh chadar is complete.
Over the years, while the daughter is being prepared for the most important event in her life i.e. her wedding one loving instruction at a time, the bridal canopy is also being prepared, one perfect stitch at a time. And on her wedding day, the bride walks to the wedding altar at the center of a convoy of brothers, who hold the Bagh textile above her head as a canopy of love and shelter.
A traditional wedding song sung by the women of the family as she walks with her brothers:
Maa de haathan di ae phulkari nishaani eh | This Phulkari is a sign of your mother’s hands
Isse Naseebaawaala ne Ronde Hansde Payii eh | Fortunate are those who wear it through times of smiles & tears
In those days, joint families were the norm and children grew up amidst parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. Gender roles were very clearly defined and from the pre-teen years onwards, girls were brought up primarily by the women and trained in matters within the household while boys remained in the company of men and were trained in all matters beyond the walls of the home. The family bonds between the young girl and all the elder women, her mother, her grandmother and aunts, were very strong. The song states that even though the loving arms of her mother must be left behind as she moves to her new home, the dowry shawl created by these very arms will continue to provide her with love and comfort during the happy and sad times in her new life.
THE BAGH TEXTILE
The Bagh is a specific type of Phulkari work. Phulkari literally means ‘flower work’ that is embroidered onto cloth in the style prevalent in that region. Phulkaris contain embroidered floral, geometric and angular motifs, scattered throughout the rough hand-woven khaddar base cloth. When the embroidery blankets the base cloth completely in a way such that the background cannot be seen at all or is seen only minimally, the shawl is given a special name : a ‘Bagh’ (meaning : garden). In a Phulkari, the embroidery is sparse and the base cloth is always visible but in a Bagh it is not. Baghs are finer pieces and rarer works of art.
An example of Bagh in which the base cloth is not visible at all:
The precision with which the elders embroidered the Bagh phulkaris is remarkable and might even put modern day machines to shame. Maybe this quest for perfection stemmed from the mother’s intense desire for a perfect life for daughter. Maybe she made this dowry textile perfect so that it may accurately reflect her flawless maternal love. In order to create such perfect devotion to any object, cause or person, one is required to pour out and empty oneself, one’s heart and one’s soul into its creation, with the exclusion of all else. And the proof of the devotion is the perfection that results.
Strips of cloth that were narrow, as they had been woven on small hand looms were used after hand-stitching together a combination of 2, 3, 4, or 5 strips to form a broad base. The base cloth is then dyed in shades of rust or maroon, with the exception of the Thirma pieces that used un-dyed white cloth.
The thread used for the embroidery was all-natural silk floss. Fine all-natural twisted silk thread that is available today is already hard to work with compared to cotton or synthetic thread, so it is hard to fathom the challenges involved in working with untwisted silk floss!
These threads that are no longer available were dyed in various bright colors, possibly with insect dyes and were imported from other places along the Silk route from Afghanistan, Kashmir and perhaps also China.
In a Bagh, the satin stitch is worked from the wrong side of the cloth in a way such that the thread is hardly visibly on the back and the base cloth is hardly visible on the front.
Patterns are created by counting wefts & warps of the base cloth and creating stitches in straight lines.
Motifs are created primarily by the varying the starting and ending points of adjoining stitches.
In addition, colors of the thread may be varied to create the motif.
In the case of single color Baghs, the orientation of the straight lines is also varied to create a variation of gloss. This results from a variation in the amount and nature of the light reflected by the differently oriented threads.
The base cloth may be exposed to add color and to create artistic patterns between the motifs
THE NAZAR BUTTI
Many Baghs have one single motif that appears to be jarringly out-of-place or appears to be a mistake or the result of an error in planning the layout. A motif in a color that is beyond the color palette of the piece or a motif that has been left blank without embroidery or an error in the proportions of a single motif may be seen.
It leads one to wonder how it is possible for the woman whose precision and rigor is unquestionably superior as evidenced in the rest of the Bagh, could suddenly slip and make such a glaring error.
The curious discrepancy leads us to investigate the culture and that reveals the following endearing reason for this slip: The errors or flaws that we see in Baghs have been created intentionally and deliberately. There is even a word for this in the Punjabi vocabulary: ‘Nazarbutti’. It is the ‘butti’ or motif that is intended to absorb all the ‘nazar’ or the evil-eye and protect the wearer from it. (This is to be seen within the larger context of ‘nazar’ which is prevalent in the senior Indian psychology even today for which countless remedies have been devised that may also be seen as folk art by outsiders).
After a few weeks of looking at Baghs I find myself drawn towards the Nazar Butti. The creativity seems to be concentrated in this one little rebellious motif and a hundred years after their intended use, it is this motif that is attracting my ‘balaiyyan’ (a word that is somewhat the opposite of ‘nazar’ . Will deal with this enigmatic subject in another article).
It is to be noted that Baghs from Sikh families do not contain the Nazar butti as they do not practice rituals that involve superstition.
Many of the Baghs have a selvedge like guard border that protects the textile from edge wear. In very few Baghs that are quite likely older, we also see the guard border repeated on the back. This is the only stitch seen on the back of the cloth.
The magnificent dowry canopy takes the crown in ‘precision’ a cold characteristic that is usually associated with machinery. But this association is not true of Bagh artworks – in which the warmth of a mother’s love shines through. And while the base cloth is rendered invisible, the souls of the mothers is clearly visible!
A salute to all the mothers from rural Punjab who made these wonderful works of timeless art!
Today we are left with but a few antiques as the art handmade Bagh has become extinct and is now being revived artificially.
These and other Thirmas and Baghs are on display on wovensouls.com – Punjab Gallery.
IF YOU HAVE A THIRMA (or Bagh) THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO SELL, PLEASE CONTACT ME. I AM CURRENTLY BUYING.