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Images: details from mural by Orijit Sen.


Scripting A New Vocabulary





Preserving linguistic traditions is akin to cementing cultural foundation. This rings true for Mela Phulkari which, in its fourth edition this Vaisakhi, is showcasing the aesthetic beauty of Gurmukhi through calligraphy. It depicts the correlation between the script used in the form of calligraphy and Phulkari embroidery created on baagh (shawls).

Genesis of Mela Phulkari took place when Kirandeep Kaur and Harinder Singh rediscovered the rich heritage of Punjab over a decade ago when they embarked on a project on Phulkari. They started collecting shawls, some as old as a century, on which rural women had done Phulkari. The duo, now known as Phulkari revivalists, seek to connect with not only the Punjabi community when they host the exhibition in Delhi but also people from across the city. So they are presenting music and dance of rural areas of their State.

In an attempt to reposition Phulkari, it is being used as a metaphor for creating awareness on women’s empowerment, social bonding, heroes, old forgotten places and skilled craftsmen.

“Phulkari is the craft of Punjab and Gurmukhi is the script of Punjab. Punjab is the common link that runs through all facets of Mela Phulkari,” says Kirandeep.

This year, installations, artworks featuring an amalgamation of calligraphy and the exquisite Phulkari weaves have been put up. Certain couplets from Guru Granth Sahib have been used in calligraphic form. These works have been created to take art lovers on a journey of the Gurmukhi script, which since the past 500 years has become a defining element of Punjab and its people.

“We have been working with conceptual Punjabi fonts, artefacts and accessories for the past 15 years. We have used artists for making T-shirt designs, pottery and block prints too. So we were quite excited about the calligraphy theme of the exhibition. The challenge was just that we had a number of ideas but had to just work around 12 exhibits due to time, resource and space constraints,” says Harinder.

“Gurmukhi is an important part of Punjab yet not many Delhiites are exposed to it. So we have tried to give Gurmukhi a new lease of life outside Punjab through art work. Gurmukhi is not taught to children here unless grandparents take extra efforts in making them read and write the script,” says Kirandeep.

On use of Gurmukhi in the art work, Alka Pande, curator, says: “This year we decided to explore the charm of the written word through the simple beauty of the Gurmukhi script.”

While the origin of Phulkari is not known, the Gurmukhi script is attributed to the Second Master, Guru Angad, who formulated it five centuries ago to script the vocabulary of a new, modern and revolutionary faith, Sikhism.


This can be seen from the installation of Harpreet Kaur Sokhi who is telling her personal story of preserving Phulkari through an installation.

“My great grandmother made eight baghs. My mother could not learn but she preserved them. Phulkari is considered auspicious as it is embroidered by a family member and not done by an artisan. This is a heirloom which will be used when I get married. These are worn usually when women get married. After the haldi cleansing ceremony, the bride is wrapped in a shawl full of phulkari work. On the wedding day, when bride walks down the aisle with her brothers who hold a baagh shawl over her head. When the bride becomes a mother, then also it is used. This is my way of telling art lovers that we need to preserve our heirloom to keep alive our family tradition.”

Design and execution of lettering was done with brush. Gurjeet Singh, calligraphy artist, says: “Words which are known only in rural areas of Punjab have been inscribed on ceramic pots. Words like ‘gulgule’, a sweet dish eaten in marriages, have been inscribed.”

Jagdeep Singh, who mastered Gurmukhi in calligraphy five years ago, says: “Earlier I was into portraits. Initially, forming letters was a challenge. Balance of the alphabet had to be maintained. Now, I am innovating different fonts in the script.”

Discovering age-old heritage of Punjab, says Harinder Singh, was the intent of this exhibition. “Revival of the old way of embroidery is difficult and painstaking as many artisans have moved on and have created a contemporary method of embroidering their colourful dreams onto various fabrics. We are working with these women to enhance their quality and are encouraging them to use old patterns.”

Making a statement is an installation where Sangrur bells have been used to signify a larger meaning.

“Thirteen hundred Sangrur bells, key chains, have been made out of small embroidered patterns by women of Balran village. This is an effort to impart confidence among women and make them economically resilient. These bells have been designed to signify ‘pappa’ representing the first alphabet of the word ‘Punjab’ in Gurumukhi,” says Kirandeep Kaur.

“Six years ago when we got to know that Sangrur had a very high rate of farmer suicide, we picked a basic diamond pattern and involved the project leader to let the women create it on khaddar. It took many months and a lot of effort from both sides to develop the key chain,” reflects Harinder Singh.

Pointing out that exploring and creating new ways at looking at Phulkari is the endeavour of the exhibition that concludes today, Pande sums up: “This exhibition is about identities of women and wisdom dutifully transferred from mother to daughter over the years. It is about embellishment that goes into garments which convey auspiciousness.”

[Courtesy: The Hindu newspaper. Edited for]

April 13, 2017

Conversation about this article

1: Avtar Singh (Delhi, India), April 18, 2017, 12:48 PM.

I was able to visit Mela Phulkari and enjoyed it and its theme. The best thing I liked was the Mural by Orijit Sen. the details covered the old and the present. The aim hopefully is to help bring back phulkari in the villages as a mean of earning and diversifying the use of baagh in dress material, bags, curtains, hangings, etc.

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