My roots lie in the land of five rivers, Punjab, now torn apart by imagined boundaries. My grandparents and their grandparents made their home in the western part of Punjab, now in Pakistan, and crossed over to India when the Radcliffe Line tore through their land. One of the only things my maternal grandmother carried with her during the harrowing journey across, was a Phulkari Bagh.
Phulkari literally translates to ‘Flower Work’ and is a traditional embroidery technique found in the Punjab region. Phulkari uses a simple darn stitch with a silken thread made on the reverse side of handspun fabric with geometric designs woven by counting threads rather than sketching outlines. There are many variations of the work seen across centuries, but sharing a common history of subversive feminism.
In the centuries past, Phulkari was a domestic craft, made by women and for women. Designs and skills were passed on through word of mouth, from one woman to another. Women would stitch it for their daughters, granddaughters, or for themselves, whether a gift in marriage or a shroud in death. The patches made alone, or with other women from the house or community, bringing a unique flavor to each piece. At a time when there was little means of claiming their space in world outside, these Phulkaris would become a space to encompass a new world of their desires and legacies.
In the last few years, and more so in the last few months, I find myself going deeper and deeper into these histories. I find myself imagining what it would have been like for those women who came before me and how their woven stories found a way to reach me. I find myself turning back to these histories, in my attempts to move forward in life. As I struggle with compassion fatigue and imposed isolation, I imagine how my grandmothers used their needle and thread as a path of self-expression and self-care. I find myself in these stories, trying to mend our broken stories together and weave a new narrative.
Much of my current practice is informed and influenced by this heritage as well as my past work. I have been a lawyer and activist for the past decade with a focus on gender rights work. A struggle with compassion fatigue led me to reconnect with embroidery and craft and finally find my voice in craftivism and though the term ‘craftivist’ has been coined recently, I strongly believe our ancestors were the original craftivists!
My work in 2020, has been a response to the political and social happenings in India. In the past year, we have seen innumerable human rights violations and increasing injustice in the country. But, with that we have also borne witness to an incredible and hopeful resistance movement led by Muslim women. Apart from on-ground activism, my craft became a means of processing these trying times while trying to connect with a larger community.
As the Pandemic took over, the injustices around me increased manifold. The systems we’ve built continue to serve the overserved, more so in times of extreme crisis. There is constant change but seemingly debilitating stagnation everywhere. The digital has become the new personal where touch is in short supply but ambiguous information in surplus.
As being in isolation became the new norm, embroidery became an even bigger voice to deal with internal and external turmoil. I go back to my grandmothers, who not unlike the world now, also lived in isolation, using embroidery to engage with world outside their home. I continue to use my needle and thread to sew seeds of resistance in the only way I could while using my craft has offered a space for quiet reflection and slow action.
Craftivism through embroidery, has been a way for me to connect my past to my present and work towards a desired future. As I bring elements of my ancestors’ phulkari into my work, I hope it brings along the feminist strength and resilience of their world into mine.
About: Rubina Singh’s needle has a point. And that point is often a form of resistance as well as reflection on our world. She is a craftivist from New Delhi. ‘Craftivist’ is a portmanteau of ‘craft’ and ‘activist’ and is something that aptly defines her practice where she plays with the craft of embroidery and other textile arts within social justice work. Being trained in Law as well as Design, she strings these two passions together into rights-based textual textile art while also engaging with the subversive feminist histories of embroidery and her inherited love of the craft of ‘Phulkari’.
Her Instagram can be found here.