Location: Oakville, Ontario
Rafia Shafiq is an artist reviving the traditional Punjabi embroidery technique of Phulkari. Based in Oakville, Ontario, she's taught a variety of Phulkari embroidery workshops at museums, galleries, colleges and studios across the Greater Toronto Area and has had her work exhibited at multiple craft shows. Through her Instagram account Dhaga Art, she sells custom pieces and educates audiences on the history and heritage of Phulkari.
Can you describe what Phulkari is? What are its origins and its context in today's world?
The word “Phulkari” is derived from two Sanskrit words, phul (meaning flower) and kari (meaning to work), thus it means to do flower work. Phulkari artwork can be found from Swat Valley, through the areas of Hazara, Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Sialkot, and Lahore in modern day Pakistan into Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludihana, Patiala (Indian Punjab) and Rohtak and Hisar — neighbouring parts of Haryana — right up to Delhi.
The earliest mention of the word Phulkari appears in the famous love story Heer Ranjha written by Waris Shah. The earliest available articles are Phulkari shawls and handkerchiefs embroidered in Chamba Style during the 15th century by Bebe Nanaki, the sister of Guru Nanak Dev ji, the first guru of Sikhism.
The distinctive feature of this embroidery is the simplicity of its stitch. Darning stitch was the most commonly used technique to make Phulkari. The design was formed by counting the number of threads on the wrong side of the fabric, without any tracing or drawing. Traditional Phulkari was made of hand-dyed and hand-woven spun cloth called “khaddar,” using high quality untwisted silk thread called “pat.”
Punjabi women made the traditional Phulkari in groups called a “Trijan,” where all women engaged in embroidery as well as dancing, laughing, singing and weaving. A girl’s education was considered incomplete if she had not learnt the intricate art of embroidery. Phulkaris and Bagh Phulkaris (in which the whole base fabric is embroidered) were made by the young girls for personal day-to-day use, as well for their dowry. In today’s world, however, Phulkaris are embroidered using machines, with modern materials such as synthetic fabric and threads.
What makes Phulkari different or unique from other styles of embroidery?
Phulkari embroidery has a language of its own. It is a treasured craft which has been passed from one generation to the next. The distinctive quality of Phulkari is the counting of threads on the reverse side of the fabric to create the geometric motif. There are a lot of connotations and stories in Phulkari, as the women would embroider their surroundings onto the shawls. The motifs were inspired by the things they used in their daily life and articles precious to them, such as domestic animals, birds, fruits, flowers, human figures, jewelry, household objects, spinning wheels, cooking, or other routine activities, alongside a geometrically patterned base. All the colours and motifs used by the women for embroidery had a symbolic significance. The colour red symbolized happiness, prosperity, love, and passion. Yellow, which stands for success and fertility, is used in great quantities for Phulkari.
The Phulkari fabric also formed an important item of a bride’s trousseau. In the West Punjab, following the birth of a boy, it was customary to begin “Vari da Bagh.” The newborn’s grandmother would place the first stitch on the fabric. The bagh would later be handed to the boy’s bride on their wedding day. A bagh given to bride by her grandmother was known as “chope.” The chope was started by the grandmother after the birth of a girl. Small peacock and cow motifs were embroidered, which symbolized protection, good luck and wellbeing.
You completed your thesis in Phulkari craft. How did you initially come across the style and what was the process of learning Phulkari like?
I had a keen interest in traditional crafts of the subcontinent (India and Pakistan) and while researching for a topic I came across a Phulkari technique. It wasn’t just embroidery, it was a lifestyle celebrated by women of Punjab. It celebrates womanhood – grandmothers and mothers embroidered shawls for their daughter’s out of love. Each shawl was an heirloom of its own. My university in Lahore, Pakistan, Beaconhouse National University is closely connected with the local community and artists of Pakistan. To meet with the artisans of this embroidery style, I contacted NGOs, museums, local artists and textile collectors of Pakistan.
With all the wonderful people I met along my Phulkari journey, I made my way to Haripur Hazara (North of Pakistan) where I met with an incredible team of craftswomen. They revived Phulkari by creating kurtas (shirts), scarves, cushion covers, mobile covers, shawls and more to generate livelihood for their family. I learned Phulkari from one of their daughters and with a lot of practice and time, I managed to create my first ever fine-Phulkari piece.
Can you describe your method of bringing a piece of embroidery - whether it be your own independent idea or a custom order - to life?
I take embroidery orders via Instagram and emails. The client has the option of choosing any design/pattern/motif they prefer and I provide them with the hoop sizes (4-14 inches). Once they finalize the picture and size of the hoop, I make the sketch which is open to edits. Afterwards, I chose the closest colour threads to that of the picture or design and finally getting started with the embroidery.
Many of your pieces are modern illustrations but you also craft pieces featuring traditional motifs. Could you explain your approach to stitching the traditional and contemporary together?
As my product is geared towards a niche market, I cater to my audience depending on their preference. A fusion of contemporary and traditional has always been to a hit with the clients. For instance, with my cityscape hoops, I use the traditional Phulkari motifs to highlight the flowers, river or leaves. Something as simple as straight Phulkari lines in a muted earthen tone has been a hot seller in the past. A lot of my orders have been about custom monograms and names with Phulkari motifs around it, which gives it a good mix of colour and style.
How has your artistic practice evolved since you began? And how do you see your practice continuing to unfold?
The main idea of “Dhaga Art” has always been to revive Phulkari embroidery by teaching it to people. I started off by conducting embroidery classes and workshops in the GTA, including at the Art Gallery of Mississauga (AGM), Peel Art Gallery Museum & Archives, and Sheridan Collage. With the pandemic, my practice has shifted to teaching virtually. I collaborated with Textile Museum of Canada, AGM and many more museums to continue the Phulkari workshops and it has been very well received.
As far as the embroidered hoops are concerned, my work was solely traditional at first but I enjoyed making it more custom-based for my audience. This makes each hoop special in its own way and the appreciation I receive from customers is beyond words – I’m just glad my work could bring them joy and it’s a piece they can cherish forever!
Pay it forward -- tell us about something or someone our readers should know about.
Dhaga Art is a tribute to my late father, who lost his battle fighting with cancer. The year I immigrated to Canada, he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and I flew back to Pakistan for the treatment. During his last days, he suggested I should teach Phulkari embroidery in Toronto and months after his passing, I gathered the strength to make it happen.
I have a 2 year old girl who is always keen to play with my embroidery threads and the only time I get to work on the orders peacefully is once she’s gone to bed. I’m a full-time mama during the day and an embroidery artist at night.