Sitting in Melbourne, 42-year-old Kate posts a photo of herself on social media donning a Phulkari mask. This beautiful piece of artwork was flown down to her doorstep from Moonak village in Sangrur district of Punjab. The story, however, is neither about the Phulkari masks nor of Kate.
The beautiful Phulkari masks tell the story of women empowering themselves in the worst of times. Kate’s beautiful blue mask with an embroidered heart is a product of the love and labor of the widows of Moonak. Most of these widows were left to fend for themselves after their husbands died of suicide due to mounting debt.
Punjab has seen an increase in farmer’s death in the past few years due to a drastic decline in the income of farmers. As per the data sourced from Punjab Agriculture Department and Punjab Revenue Department, the Punjab government recorded 2,528 cases of farmer suicides in four years between 2015 and 2019.
With the main breadwinner of the family gone, the women had to step in to ensure that their children and dependents get a life of dignity. Phulkari became their weapon of choice.
Phulkari is a traditional style of embroidery that has its origin in Punjab. It entails detailed embroidery with silken thread on cotton clothes. This distinct style of stitching is done on the coarse side of the cotton cloth. Even though Phulkari (Phool-Kari) translates to flower work, several intricate patterns are drawn by the highly skilled artisans of Punjab.
For the women of Moonak, practicing Phulkari wasn’t only about taking forward the tradition. This skill also helped them piece their lives back after the death of the breadwinners of their family and live a life of dignity.
Delhi-based social worker Ghazala Khan came to their aid when these women were going through a tough phase in their life. With her support, they have been able to turn their skill into a profitable venture especially owing to the rising demand for designer masks in cities. Masks have become a daily companion in our lives due to the pandemic and are increasingly being treated as an accessory much like dupatta, belts, and earrings by city folks.
Ghazala, who runs an NGO (Building Bridges India, BBI) that works with poor rural families in Punjab, helps in procuring the raw material, thread, rubber, and fabric for the masks for around 300 women. The aim of the NGO is to improve the conditions of those women who have lost their husbands.
Now, there are ten centers in ten villages of Sangrur district in Punjab. Each center has 25 to 30 girls and women. "We didn’t have funds to buy land, I approached ten different Gurudwaras of Moonak village to give some space for this cause," said Ghazala.
After seeing Ghazala’s efforts and noble intentions behind creating these centers, Gurudwaras' authority came forward and allotted free land for the women. The Gurudwaras provide a free, safe stay for the women-- no is allowed to enter the centers without being checked. They are also provided a one-time meal.
Convincing these women to take the reins of their life into their own hands wasn’t easy. Most of these women aren’t educated. “Under the social pressure, women were not ready to step out of the houses and join the center. They had this belief that talking about husband’s suicide would make them a villain in family and society,” said the 46-year-old social worker.
The stories that come out of these self-help centers are of sheer grit and courage, of broken dreams and renewed confidence. Take for instance the case of 23-year old Nikki, whose father died by suicide three years back. Her father was a truck driver. “It’s hard to describe how it feels when you lose your father’s support at such a young age. Even as we were struggling to make ends meet, our mother could not endure the pain of losing her husband. She fell ill and we didn’t even have the money to buy her medicines. Our relatives didn’t come forward to help us out of this dire situation."
Nikki is one of the few educated girls in the group. She has completed her high school and had ambitions of pursuing higher studies. However, the untimely death of her father cut short her dreams. Today, Nikki supports her family, she earns five thousand per month by making Phulkari masks.
The beauty of the motley group of women brought together by Khan is the different kinds of situations they come from. Amarjeet, 34, is a single mother of two young daughters. Her world came crashing when her farmer husband Lakhbir died by suicide two years back. "I couldn't visualize my life without my husband. This huge loss broke me down completely. No one stands for you when you are in pain. Being a single mother it’s not easy to raise two daughters that too without any support," said Amarjeet. Without any external support, it took Amarjeet a long time to take back control of her life.
The centers are also supporting women who lost their jobs during the lockdown. Gaganpreet, 25, taught Accounts and Business Studies to 12th class students in a private school of Moonak. As the Coronavirus pandemic, the Principal sent out a message to Ganganpreet, “Schools are shut and we don’t want extra staff". Ganganpreet was laid her off along with the other female staff (the school only retained male staff), even as the authorities withheld her three months’ salary.
She used to get Rs 6,000 by teaching students. Now, she earns half of that salary by making masks at the center. "I am earning less but at least I have something to do in such difficult times. This amount helps me in fulfilling my basic necessities," said Gaganpreet.