The Glory of the Gara

Part of every Parsi bride’s trousseau, the gara sari is an enchanted garden of visual delight

Author: Saloni Madan | Source: Deccan Chronicle

A thing of beauty is a joy forever/ Its loveliness increases, it will never pass into nothingness. John Keat’s poem, Endymion, may have received scathing criticism back then from critics for narrating the tale of a goddess in love with a shepherd, but his lines have endured, becoming synonymous with everything that is eternally beautiful. Like, for instance, the gara sari. What the Kanjeevaram is to a south Indian and Benarasi to north and east Indians, the gara is to the Parsi community. A thing of beauty to be treasured and passed from mother to daughter, aired at weddings and other formal occasions, then carefully packed and kept away, ready and waiting for the next big outing.

Unlike the Kanjeevarams and Benarasis that are woven, the gara is embroidered. That too by hand. Though looking at its neatness and detailing, you could be forgiven for mistaking it to be machine-made. A traditional gara comes in three basic styles — a dense all-over jaal pattern; a border and pallu with small motifs sprinkled across; or just a running border that can be stitched onto a sari. The price is, therefore, determined by the intricacy and extent of the embroidery. It is also a test of patience and perseverance, for depending on the elaborateness of the pattern, a single sari can take anything from two to six month to embroider.

The main stitches used are crewel, satin stitch, stem stitch and French knot, all intricately intertwined with thin silk skeins. Sometimes, these saris can be just in two shades — a dark base with ivory threadwork or a pastel base with multicoloured threads which often go up to as many as 30 shades. No geometric design is ever used and most designs comprise stories and scenes of Chinese origin — pagodas, bridges, boatmen and shrines. The most popular, however, are enchanted forests with all manner of flowers and Oriental birds of paradise.

That’s because this style of embroidery was brought to India by Parsi traders who journeyed to China in the 19th century. These motifs were used by the Chinese nobility for their ceremonial robes. The traders brought back many such robes, whose patterns were then replicated by local craftsmen in Surat. Initially, the craftsmen only made embroidered borders that would be stitched on to thick Chinese silk yardage (also brought back by those traders), which would be draped as saris by their womenfolk. Gradually, Surati craftsmen started experimenting with local silks such as gaaj, paaj and gaji. Patterns, too, saw huge experimentation and evolved from borders to all-over jaals.

A traditional gara can come in several designs. “Nearly all motifs found in typical Parsi embroidery either have religious or mythological symbolism attached, or are drawn from the flora and fauna around them,” says Debapriya Das, a researcher with the craft revival module of the Parzor Foundation, which works at resuscitating the dying art of Parsi embroidery. “For instance, there are various kinds of flowers, all of which have some symbolic meaning, such as the lily for health, chrysanthemum for long life and the 100 petalled-rose, which stands for spiritualism. One may also find the Indian ambi being used, but with a crane from the Chinese tradition inside it. Or, there could be the typically Chinese paisley with lotus petals at the base, combined with an Indian peacock or the Persian bird of paradise, the simurgh,” she adds. Besides, there is also the karolia — a spider design that is actually a flower, and the chakla/chakli motif (male/female sparrow).

The word gara (also ghara) actually stems from the Gujarati word for sari, Das tells you. “A Parsi gara, therefore, is a sari and not a type of embroidery, which makes it a bit of a misnomer. Traditional Parsi embroidery, which is an amalgamation of Indian, Persian, European and Chinese influences, is referred to as gara embroidery because at one point of time, it was only to be seen on garas.” Whatever may have been the origin, the fact is that whether it’s a sari or a form of embroidery, the word gara has for years been synonymous with gorgeous saris of incredible workmanship.

The story of the gara, says Das, goes back to 633 AD when the Arabs invaded Iran. Parsis were driven out of Persia and they used the sea route to reach the western coast of India, with the largest group reaching Sanjan in Gujarat. The Hindu king there, Jadi Rana, was willing to give them refuge in his kingdom, on the condition that the newcomers adopted the dress and language of the land. That is how, initially, the Parsis came to wear the sari and speak Gujarati.

Over many decades and centuries, the Parsis turned the gara into a garment of their own and the most visually identifiable marker of their identity. “It is certainly the most distinctive symbol for the Parsis and its significance cannot be ignored because it actually charts the trajectory of the community. It has undergone adaptations and transformations according to the circumstances that it has been placed in at different points of time, which is what also makes it a marker of cultural assimilation and adaptation,” she says.

Go to any Parsi wedding and you will find the older ladies in pastels with thin, delicate borders and the younger generation experimenting with brighter colours and bolder patterns. Also, this embroidery is no longer restricted to saris alone — it is being used by designers across India in dupattas, salwar kameezes and even dresses.

Take, for instance, the work of Delhi-based designer, Ashdeen Lilaowala, who is famous not just for his traditional saris but also the completely contemporary twist he has given to the embroidery in dupattas and dresses. His Spring/Summer 2013 resortwear collection had models walking the ramp in garments embroidered with Oriental birds, lilies, chrysanthemums and hundred-petal roses. Using the motifs rather interestingly — and sparingly — he has created a spate of striking designs this season.

A Parsi himself, Lilaowala explains how the gara sari has reinvented itself over the years. “Traditional garas were always in silk, which gave the sari a certain density and movement which was its character. Shades of red, maroon and purple were most popular as bases with off-white embroidery on borders using the aari needle, besides, of course, the evergreen pastels. Today, however, it is more in vogue on lighter materials like crepe and georgette that can be even worn in summers, as opposed to silk. So, the definition of Parsi embroidery has continuously been changing and today it has really opened up,” he says.

Both Lilaowala and Das are, however, concerned about the machine-made garas flooding the market these days. While an authentic new gara can range between Rs 20,000 and Rs 30,000, vintage pieces command a much higher value because of their antiquity. On the other hand, machine-embroidered garas can be procured for less than one-fifth the price, which, of course, are no match to the workmanship of the original. “Discerning buyers are able to tell a tacky, badly done imitation from the original but a large number cannot and are often crooked into buying a fake,” says Das.

Really, nothing can beat the matchless beauty of a genuine gara, and its timeless charm. For as any Parsi woman will tell you, it is not just a sari, it is a piece of her heritage. As Dr Shernaz Cama, director of the Unesco-funded Parzor Project says: “The gara for a Parsi woman links past and present, her ancestors who wore it and the daughter or daughter-in-law to whom she will pass it on in the future. It is a living heritage, its symbols tell stories she can tell her granddaughters. Many of these were made by her ancestors, aunts and grandmothers. Which is why we a
re trying to teach the value of these saris to not only our community but the entire world craft community.”