Baghs – Abstract Gardens, an exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London, WC1
This exhibition of stunning, embroidered, bagh and phulkari head coverings from pre-partition Punjab, belonging to the Karun Thakar collection, is a must see for embroidery lovers.
The translation of the word bagh means garden and the title Baghs – Abstract Gardens, refers to a style of head-covering which is covered in dense silk floss stitches so that the background khadder cloth is invisible to the eye. These are the most expensive of the shawl designs because of the amount of silk thread used. These embroideries, like the phulkaris, were created from the reverse of the cloth in darning stitch using floss silk without a pre-drawn pattern. The rows of silk stitches in geometric patterns reflect the light and give the impression of movement within the design. You can see this in the bagh below.
Phulkari literally means flower work and these shawls are embroidered in flowers, motifs and geometric shapes but the background khadder cloth in madder root red, indigo or cream is visible and forms part of the overall design. The photo at the top of the page is a detail from a phulkari.
The shawls date from the end of the nineteenth century and would have been hand embroidered by Sikh, Muslim and Hindu young girls and women for weddings and other ceremonies. Some may have been commissioned from professional embroiderers by wealthy households
The shawls give us an insight into the lives of these young women. The figurative shawls, feature domestic and wild animals, jewellery designs, Mughal architecture, a train with carriages, a wrestling match and people carrying out daily tasks. Symbols and beads to ward off the evil eye can be seen in some of the geometric designs.
It’s a visual feast of over thirty stylishly curated geometric, abstract and figurative shawl designs, which gives a glimpse of the creativity, skill and lives of the women embroiderers behind them.
The Brunei Gallery is open Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 17.00pm. The exhibition is free and online advance booking is mandatory. Find out more about Baghs – Abstract Gardens and book here. The exhibition ends on 25th September 2021.
Note photography is not permitted at the show. The photographs are of a phulkari and a bagh head covering I was shown by a private collector in Bhuj, Gujarat.