Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Producing, Collecting, and Displaying Phulkari Embroidery from Punjab, c.1850 to Present

  • Author(s): McKnight Sethi, Cristin Ruth
  • Advisor(s): Williams, Joanna G
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the production, collection, and display of phulkari folk embroidery by looking at the ways in which textiles move from sites of production in Punjab to sites of consumption and display in South Asia, North America, and Europe, beginning in the middle part of the nineteenth century and continuing to the present day. Part of the motivation behind this study is to understand the circulation of phulkaris: how and when did these textiles enter collections, become categorized as “art” and displayed in exhibitions, and take on new meanings during processes of acquisition-display? Another motivation for this study is to understand what can be gleaned through close visual examination of objects, and exploring the process of making - a process which, in this case, is deeply informed by gender and gendered constructions of labor.

With these themes in mind, this dissertation begins with a focus on production, that is on objects and artists. The Introduction looks critically at the origins of phulkaris with particular attention to previous literature on the subject and the contours of existing archives. The first chapter (“Abstraction and the Category of ‘Phulkari’”) examines the diverse styles of embroidery identified in scholarship and museums as “phulkari,” and explores the role of abstraction in the motifs and compositions of several individual textiles. Chapter Two (“Embroidery as Writing in Figurative Sainchi Phulkaris”) focuses on the women responsible for making phulkaris, and identifies ways in which we can read individual women’s “hands” and female agency in these objects, particularly in figurative, narrative phulkaris. Acknowledging that women’s voices and biographies are rarely seen in traditional archives (e.g. as text, as pen and paper), these textiles become compelling objects that mark a woman’s perspective and presence.

Shifting gears the final three chapters explore the ways in which phulkaris have circulated in collections and practices of display, namely large-scale exhibitions and museum galleries. Chapter Three (“Women’s Work: Phulkari, Flora Annie Steel, and Collecting Textiles in British

India”) focuses on the figure of Flora Annie Steel, a British woman living in Punjab in the late nineteenth century, who collected and wrote about phulkaris. This chapter looks closely at the way Steel depicts phulkaris in her oft-cited 1888 essay, and the subsequent effects this had on early collections and exhibitions of phulkaris in British India. Chapter Four (“Embroidery for the New Nation: Collecting and Exhibiting Phulkaris in India after 1947”) centers around the growing presence of phulkaris in museum collections in India following the partitioning of Punjab in 1947, and explores how these textiles were leveraged as objects of national interest and celebration. The fifth and final chapter (“(Re)Defining Phulkari as ‘Sikh Art’”) examines recent collections and exhibitions of phulkaris in South Asia, Europe, and North America which frame these textiles within the context of “Sikh art” - an emerging and somewhat controversial category within South Asian Art History - and shows how these objects have been re-inscribed in the name of religion. The Conclusion discusses recent practices of producing phulkaris as well as visual citations of phulkaris in contemporary art, and proposes ways to understand this diverse body of material given the contexts of circulation and display discussed in previous chapters.

Each of these chapters aim to examine the role of gender in the making and framing of these textiles, and to explore the ways in which production and consumption of phulkaris in a number of global and historical settings have dramatically altered their meanings over time. Ultimately this study provides a case study for understanding the complex circulation of objects and their shifting uses and meanings when collected and displayed in new locations and cultural situations.

Main Content
Current View