Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection
On March 12, The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present the first major American exhibition of phulkari textiles, exquisite embroideries made in Punjab, a region that comprises north central India and eastern Pakistan. This vibrant tradition, shaped by women and passed down through generations, has become a powerful symbol of Punjabi cultural identity. Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection celebrates the promised gift of their collection of these rare embroideries. Exhibited together with other examples from the Museum’s collection, these works span a period from the mid-nineteenth century until the Partition of India in 1947. The exhibition also includes contemporary fashion in which the creative use of phulkari embroideries suggests a powerful revival of this boldly designed and colorful textile art today.
Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said: “This exhibition, which examines the artistic, cultural, and political significance of phulkari, is long overdue and will certainly delight visitors who may be unfamiliar with this remarkable art form. Once again, our collection has been greatly enriched through Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz’s generosity. This promised gift has also enhanced the reputation of the institution as a premier destination for the study and appreciation of South Asia’s world-renowned textile traditions.”
The major focus of the exhibition will be on pre-Partition textiles handwoven in cotton and embroidered in lustrous Chinese silk. Some phulkaris feature animals and village scenes, while others are ornamented with elaborate geometric patterns in rich pink and gold conveying good fortune and social status. To demonstrate the continuing influence of these traditional textiles, contemporary couture created by one of India’s leading fashion designers, Manish Malhotra, will also be on display. Runway fashions from his 2013 collection celebrate the bright colors and intricate patterns found on traditional phulkaris, demonstrating their broad appeal on the international stage. In addition to high fashion, the show will include videos that examine the political and social upheaval created by the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 and how it disrupted this textile tradition as well as the later revival of phulkari as a symbol of Punjabi pride.
Phulkari embroideries historically served as a significant symbol of a Punjabi woman’s material wealth and were deemed an important part of her wardrobe. They were typically worn as shawls draped over the head on special occasions such as marriages, births, and other rituals.
Dr. Cristin McKnight Sethi, co-curator of the exhibition, said: “These works serve as a way to map a family’s or a community’s history. They are canvases upon which a woman could express her desires and worldview through needle and thread. By looking closely, we can study just how deeply these makers valued their cloths and how they invested them with meaning.”
Dr. Darielle Mason, the Museum’s Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, notes: “Phulkari embroideries hold immense historic significance and emotional power for those of Punjabi heritage and members of the Sikh religious community who now live around the world. On a purely aesthetic level, with their almost neon colored silk threads set against deep earth toned rough cotton, phulkaris are among of the most visually stunning textile types ever created.”
This exhibition is made possible by Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, The Coby Foundation, Ltd., and The Stella Kramrisch Indian and Himalayan Art Fund.
Dr. Darielle Mason, The Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Dilys E. Blum, The Jack M. and Annette Y. Friedland Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Dr. Cristin McKnight Sethi, Assistant Professor, The George Washington University Columbian College of Arts & Sciences
Joan Spain Gallery, Perelman Building
The book, Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, edited by Dr. Darielle Mason with essays by Dr. Cristin McKnight Sethi and Dr. Mason, accompanies the exhibition. It features color illustrations and vivid descriptions of the nineteen phulkari in the Bonovitz gift to the Museum. The essays examine the meanings of phulkaris, as well as their styles and techniques. They also discuss ideas of beauty, identity, and the politics of embroidery in South Asia. The catalogue is co-published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press. It is available in the Museum store.
Phulkari, which translates to “floral work” or “flower craft,” refers to embroideries using imported silk on a rough-weave naturally-dyed cotton ground. The names given to the many types of phulkari reference their visual qualities: thirma (meaning white) are embroidered on white cloth usually worn by older women; sainchi are any type featuring figural motifs including village and circus scenes as well as what are called darshan dwars (“doorway to the divine”) that depict large gateways or house fronts filled with figures. Most elaborate and labor intensive are bahgs (“gardens”). Taking several months or even years to complete, baghs are characterized by dense embroidery that covers the entire surface of the cloth in exquisite, usually geometric forms.
Before Partition, in which the Punjab was split between India and Pakistan, phulkari embroidery was deeply rooted in Punjabi life. Usually worn by women as large shawls, some were also made as blankets or as wrappers to cover sacred items in the household. They were stitched by women of many religious groups—Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs (who consider the Punjab their holy land). The events of Partition led to the death and displacement of millions of people across what is today Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the northern half of India. This schism left in its wake fractured communities and enormous loss of heritage. Some phulkari were abandoned during the mutual flight across the new borders; many others were destroyed, leaving us only a small fraction of these once abundant historic textiles. Today, however, phulkaris are made and displayed around the world as a symbol of both Punjabi regional pride and Sikh religious pride.
About Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz
This exhibition is one of several in recent years that have featured gifts by Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz. In 2013, Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, exhibited more than 200 works created by American self-taught artists between 1930 and 2010. In 2009, the Bonovitzes gifted their collection of embroidered textiles created by women in Bengal (today Bangladesh and West Bengal, India) which were included in the survey Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection and the Stella Kramrisch Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The publication garnered the prestigious Alfred H. Barr Award for outstanding museum scholarship.
Many phulkari and kantha works have hung in the Duane-Morris’s Philadelphia offices, in dialogue with other works from the Bonovitzes' collection of self-taught artists. A selection of phulkari from the Bonovitz Collection is on permanent exhibition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, in its Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Concourse of Lenfest Hall.
Sheldon Bonovitz is Chairman Emeritus and CEO of Duane Morris LLP and a long-serving Trustee of the Museum. Jill Bonovitz is a distinguished artist who works with clay and wire.
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