The Phulkari Trinjans: A Heritage Lost, Thread Therapy and How You Can Help!

Caste Dynamics in Rural Punjab Gender Dynamics in Rural Punjab Phulkari Phulkari Self Help Groups Punjab Rural Artisans The Partition of India The Virsā Story World Mental Health Day

All the women vied to look at the deep burgundy patterns of Simran's bridal mehandi. Shy and new to the Trinjan of her husband's village, she held out the palms of her hands to show the intricate floral pattens her sisters had lovingly drawn for her wedding just a week ago. "Your mother-in-law will love you a lot and so will your husband" - declared one, alluding to a common superstition that "darker the mehandi stain, more the love that you're likely to receive from your in-laws". Simran just smiled, still unsure about the beginnings of her new life but already sensing the camaraderie and warmth of her new second-home, the Trinjan of her husband's village.

The Trinjans of Undivided Punjab were All-Women Communal Platforms where women got together and sang, embroidered, stitched, exchanged notes about their lives, asked for help and felt empowered about their role in the Village. Trinjans were powerful - not just socially - but also served as catalysts for innovation-led change in the agriculture-based village economics, especially in the shadow of a strong patriarchal culture. They gave the women of Punjab a Collective Voice & a Vibrant Creative Expression - both elements that are strongly tied into Feminine Self Esteem, feeling of Productive Worth and hold great Psycho-Therapeutic value. 

The impact of the disappearance of these Trinjans, then, had to have deep rooted impact on the women of post-1947, Divided Punjab.

The analysis is complex. And, much needed. Aviation Disaster analysts say "It takes a minimum of seven conditions to line up in a certain fashion to bring a large, modern commercial airliner down". This blog post tries to analyse what might have been those proverbial seven conditions in the case of Punjab's Phulkari Trinjans. Exploring this can help us understand the critical underlying aspects of socio-economic and psychological condition of Punjab's Women Phulkari Artisans - a section of the world's population dwindling at an incredible pace, as these words are being typed.

The Partition of India triggered a transmigration of nearly 14 million people (largest in modern world history, outside of war and famine) and armed vigilante groups on both sides of the newly created border often indulged in abduction, rape and murder. As in most instances of ethnic cleansing around the world, women and girls form the most vulnerable targets. An entire generation of women (and men) growing up in the aftermath of, what some scholars have aptly described as the South Asian Holocaust, suffered immense psychological trauma as they sought to rebuild their lives and families with meager resources.  

Further in the 1970s, the "Green Revolution" flooded the Indian side of Punjab with high-yield crops, construction of hydroelectric dams and expansion of one of the world's largest canal irrigation network. This era of abundance led to rapid urbanisation and a fundamental change in the Punjabi farmer's work-ethic fuelled by influx of migrant agricultural labor from adjacent impoverished provinces. Women's role in agriculture declined sharply and traditional 'open social communal spaces' such as the Trinjan suffered a massive second blow.

Curiously enough, Economic Development did not necessarily correlate with higher literacy rates or opportunities for outside employment for Punjab's women, instead over these decades of abundance and rising per capita incomes, chances of a Punjabi woman being born drastically diminished in the first place!

A quick note on Sex Ratios (Data: UN Statistics 2013): 89.3 females per 100 males: Punjab lower than India's National Average of 93.4 versus, by way of comparison, 103 for the United States OR interestingly, Curaçao ranked #1 globally at 121 females and Latvia ranked #2 at 118 females per 100 males.

In his book "More than a 100 million women are missing", Amartya Sen (1990) analysed that a great many more than 100 million women have gone missing from this planet because of the consequences of worsening gender ratio in India, China, South Asia, West Asia and North Africa. Sen, on the basis of research, argued that if men and women receive similar nutritional and medical attention and general healthcare, women tend to live noticeably longer than men. Sen dismissed arguments that sex ratio would be determined by cultural differences of societies towards gender or by the degree of development of societies. He further argued that besides the above aggregate factors, the sex ratio would be subject to many social conditions. For example, while it may be expected that economically rich countries would have less or no deficit of women on account of better nutrition and health facilities, there are poor regions in Sub‐Saharan Africa where women outnumber men. There are regions like Punjab and Haryana in India where there is deficit of women compared to their poorer counterparts. Thus, economic development may result in relative worsening of the rate of survival of women. Economic development does not invariably reduce women’s disadvantages in mortality. According to Sen, status and power of women in a family differ greatly from one region to another and these social features would be related to economic role and independence of women.

The new socio-economic dynamic in Punjab throughout the 70s and 90s also created a Class-layer upon the pre-existing Caste-layer thus widening the "power distance" between the wealthy and the poor. Whilst the rich could afford a more 'perfect' (yet mechanised) interpretation of handicrafts (see blog post on 'fake computer-aided design phulkari), the "pure practitioners" of this Handicraft were (and are!) often the disadvantaged strata of the society. In Phulkari's case, 100% of these pure practitioners are women. Cheap Imitation-Phulkari products have flooded the modern (domestic & international) marketplace chipping away at the feasibility or indeed, the possibility of Trinjans even more! 

The ultimate pre-conditions leading to the systematic destruction of the Trinjans came during the mid-80s and 90s. Sparks of insurgency and separatist movement flared up in Punjab - historically known for its fierce ethnocentric pride and a legendary tradition of clan-based loyalties. Add religion to that zealous ferver and a high-handed central government seeking provincial stability, and it serves as the perfect recipe for social chaos, economic disruption, corruption, absenteeism from school and criminally high rates of unemployed yet able-bodied youth. Lack of safety for women, a spate of honor killings and, in general, a heightened state of patriarchal feudalism in rural Punjab ate away at the remnants of what were once the glorious Trinjan Collectives of Punjab. 

Why is this important? Moreover, this critique will be reduced to a blogger's lament about a cultural inheritance now lost unless we make the cause of Empowerment and Esteem of our Women worth our while. For us at Virsā, the cause cannot just be limited to the Handicraft, it has to go beyond and hold the Hands that Craft, the Eyes that visualise a Pattern and a Mind that is inspired, creative, free and believes that She matters to this world. 

October 10 is World Mental Health Day. While the definition of 'lack of productive mental health' goes beyond the term "depression", but the latter is often its most visible and most talked-of expression. Research indicates that depression is the leading cause of disease-related disability among women in the world today. Depression is much more common among women than men, with female/male risk ratios roughly 2:1. More importantly, women at the bottom of the pyramid are least likely to have access to diagnosis of and/or therapeutic relief from depressive circumstances that lead to a wide ranging mental health issues. The Women Phulkari Artisans of Punjab fall into this category, unfortunately. 

As an agent provocateur, we invite you to imagine a Punjab with the Trinjans alive and singing today? Where rural Punjab Artisans could sit together, sew  together and carry out their Creative Endeavor and live their life with the Possibility of coaching younger women and girls thus, passing on their skills to the future generation. A utopian fantasy at this point or at best, a B&W old movie snippet from when-it-used-to-be! 

Realistically though, just the presence of a flourishing Trinjan-like structure will not iron away what ails Punjab today or indeed, most parts of the world. What it can do is address at least part of the issue. Progressive generational artisan-attrition is a reality. Handcrafted Heritage, especially one dependent on an oral tradition, is increasingly a perishable. 

In addition to publishing blogs (and indeed reading them!), here’s what all of us can do: 

1. Informed Awareness & Real Empathy: What research does tell us that "*Thread Therapy" and "Creative Collectives" have a very high correlation to better coping mechanisms, positive self esteem and better self-care among women (and men!). Self sustaining as these usually tend to be, these collectives may reduce public healthcare & aid burden, longer term.

2. Real Empathy to Real Action: If you’re in India and have access to one, you can support State University-run KVKs (Krishi Vigyaan Kendras). There are KVKs for several type of Handicrafts & Artisans, depending on the part of India you’re in. Further, NABARD finances & supports Self Help Groups which help (Phulkari) Artisans organize themselves independently. 

If you’re in another country (or even, in India): You may help via Virsā’s International Fundraising Appeal. Funds will be used to run a Healthcare Camp for Phulkari Artisans, especially with regard to their Vision and Musculoskeletal issues. Donate Here:

*For more on Thread Therapy read: 

More such resources & research online.


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