A stitch in Tradition

Issue 04, 2021

A stitch in Tradition

Ashdeen Z. Lilaowala |author

Issue 04, 2021

Parsi Gara is a unique embroidery tradition honed by the Indian Zoroastrian community. Sarees adorned with this flora and fauna-inspired art are considered heirlooms today, and the craft is seeing a revival, says award-winning textile designer Ashdeen Z. Lilaowala

When most people see the realistic nature-inspired patterns of Parsi Gara embroidery for the first time they are struck by its beauty, finesse and craftsmanship. They are, however, unable to assign it a geographical, cultural, ethnic identity to the craft. The reason for this is reflected in how the Parsi Gara came into being, which mirrors the journey of India’s small yet enterprising Zoroastrian community.The Parsis are Zoroastrians (followers of the Persian prophet Zarathustra), who migrated to India from Persia (modern-day Iran) in the 7th century CE. The small community arrived in Gujarat and settled along the west coast of India. The Parsi Gara embroidery is a byproduct of the community’s trade and travels — an amalgamation of textile traditions from around the world, including Chinese, Persian, European and Indian. The sublime, unique craft has evolved to keep pace with the dynamic Parsi community as well as its non-Parsi patrons.

The Story of Origin

By the early 19th century, Parsi traders had begun traveling to the Far East, trading in China and Hong Kong. They carried opium and cotton with them from India, which was bartered for tea in China. When they returned by sea, they brought back beautiful Chinese artifacts, including ceramics, antiques and the most coveted, the embroidered textiles. Legend has it that a Parsi trader in Canton, was so taken by watching craftsmen embroider realistic depictions of flora and fauna on to fabric, that he commissioned the pattern to be created on six yards of silk and carried it back as a saree for his wife in India. Originally, the embellished fabrics that came from China were completely covered with embroidered patterns, edge to edge. But gradually, the design was modified to suit the pattern of a saree, with borders, and blank spaces for tucking in, etc. Slowly, Parsi women in India also started learning the embroidery technique and Indian motifs, colours and sensibilities began making way into the Gara lexicon. The Parsi community that had recently settled in Bombay (now Mumbai), had become quite rich and influential and wanted their clothing to reflect this newly acquired status. The women, therefore, adopted these embroidered masterpieces: the Garas as their signature look.

Unique Aesthetics

Traditional Parsi Gara designs include the popular kanda papeta (onion and potatoes), margha marghi (the rooster and the hen)  and  cheena cheeni, which, as the name suggests, includes an array of motifs borrowed from the Chinese visual vocabulary, including pagodas, dragons, men and women. Certain flora and fauna motifs that represent the Zoroastrian reverence for nature are also very popular. These include peonies, roses, chrysanthemums, lotuses presented as vines, trellises and abundant gardens. Bamboo motifs borrowed from Chinese textiles are also much loved. And so are butterflies that are considered auspicious as they symbolise prosperity and longevity. A mix of real and fantastical creatures adorn Parsi Gara fabrics, including birds of paradise, cranes, phoenixes, peacocks, fish and dragons. Another interesting motif is the divine fungus from the Chinese tradition meant to protect the wearer. As the widely travelled Parsis became exposed to European aesthetic, scallops, bows and ribbons made their way on to Garas and so did elegant European colours and colour combinations. The original fabric used for Garas was called sali ghaj, which had very thin lines running through it. Today silks, georgettes, crepes, lace and other lighter textiles have replaced the original fabric. Traditionally, Gara sarees are draped ulta palla style and teamed with European-style blouses and a lace sudreh (the traditional inner garment worn by Parsis along with the kusti or sacred thread). This used to be accessorised with pearl and diamond jewellery and a chic purse to complete the look.

Vintage photographs of Parsi families dressed in their traditional attire. In earlier days, women would either wear heavily embroidered Gara sarees or sarees with intricate Gara borders

Hand-embroidered Magic

Parsi Gara embroidery uses satin, crewel or aari and stem stitches quite extensively. Specialised stitches like the meticulous French knot or khakha and the jaali technique inspired by tatting lace are also used. Depending on the density of the work, a Parsi Gara saree can take anything from three weeks to two months to be completed with six to eight artisans working on one piece together. The artisans are required to understand the nuances of the Parsi Gara craft deeply. For instance, when birds are embroidered, the rendering needs to be realistic including details like the movement of the feathers, the shape of the beak, and the patina of the eye. Artisans, therefore, are required to observe nature to be able to bring to life the essence of the motif they are embroidering, mixing colours and using shading, not unlike an impressionist painter. This painstaking hand work is what sets Parsi Gara embroidery apart and makes it precious. It is a part of the Gara tradition to transfer richly embroidered borders, which are traditionally known as kors from old and damaged Gara sarees to newer ones. These sarees are carefully preserved and handed down as heirlooms, making it an intrinsically environment-friendly textile culture.

A karigaar painstakingly hand embroidering a Phoenix motif at the ASHDEEN atelier

Keeping the Tradition Alive

Even among traditional Parsis, the Gara has become occasional wear worn at weddings, navjotes (Zoroastrian initiation ceremony) and other celebrations. There is a need to strike the perfect balance between keeping the core essence of the embroidery tradition alive while innovating in applications. This will help engage younger generations of Parsis and non-Parsi textile, embroidery and sari enthusiasts whether that is through stylised application of motifs, a colour palette fine-tuned to suit modern tastes and the use of lighter, more wearable fabric etc. Virtual and physical exhibitions can play an important role in getting younger audiences to learn about the textile and interact with it in person. Along with several other designers, my team and I have been experimenting with newer fabrics and colours to give this traditional art a contemporary look. The idea is to adapt the heritage patterns onto new materials and patterns for the younger generation. We are also training craftspeople to understand the nuances of this embroidery and practice it. We want to preserve not just a textile heritage but along with it also the age-old tradition and culture of a community.

Ashdeen Z. Lilaowala

Ashdeen Z. Lilaowala, an NID graduate, is an award-winning textile designer, author and curator known for his research and revival work on the Parsi Gara through his eponymous label ASHDEEN, specialising in hand-embroidered saris inspired by the storied craft. He has also associated with the Ministry of Textiles, India, and UNESCO’s Parzor Foundation on Parsi embroidery.
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