At a time when the Parsi-Zoroastrian community records a drastic decrease in its population with every count, what’s the point of basking in its glorious past, a few cynical minds can always ask, but a balanced outlook will only appreciate the agenda behind “Parsi Panorama” a four-day festival celebrating different aspects of Parsi culture with a thrust on its textiles.
Dr. Shernaz H. Cama, Director of the UNESCO-Parzor Project, aimed at documenting different aspects of the community, tells you that the dwindling numbers are a reason to be concerned, but that can’t be interpreted as a void of traditions in the community. However small it may be in numbers — the last census conducted in 2001 put the Parsi population at 64,000 in India which is dropping by 10 per cent every year — Parsis remain a vibrant society, very proud of its heritage.
“Parsis are either looked at as a highly westernised society or very rich people. We are neither. The idea is to present Parsi culture as a living tradition,” says Cama. The UNESCO-Parzor Project, in collaboration with the Craft Revival Trust and India International Centre, gives a peek into lesser known rituals and customs of the small community, which is believed to have migrated to India from Persia in the 7th Century following an attack on Persia by Arab armies.
With a large part of the festival unfolding before viewers the rarely known world of Parsi textiles, including embroidery and exotic and forgotten stitches, the emphasis on Parsi crafts become clear. Cama, establishing the relationship with the craft of weaving, informs us, “Every Parsi has to wear a sacred girdle called kusti around the neck and that’s woven.” She adds that nature was a source of abundant joy to Parsi culture and Parsi women wove motifs like flowers, peacocks and the bird of paradise to express their happiness.
So, kors, which are exquisitely embroidered sari borders, gara, embroidered saris (a traditional Chinese silk sari which is an important part of the trousseau of a Parsi bride), ijaras, a special kind of salwar that Parsi women wore, jhablas, coats worn by children, will be displayed to give the viewers a sense of Parsi craft techniques. Some of the aforementioned items are a century old, and one particular jhabla dates back to 1830.
The viewers will be able to savour these visual delights and, in addition, a variety of stitches like Gujarati mochi stitch, ari, which is a fine chain stitch again from Gujarat, pieces of tanchoi weave and the one-of-its-kind khako stitch — known as The Forbidden Stitch, since it was so fine and complex that executing it made women go blind. Cama informs us that the last practitioner of the stitch is still alive but blind and lives in Navsari.
The organisers are also bringing in Kusti weavers who will be doing live demos for the guests. Toran making will also be showcased. “Parsi torans are different from Gujarati torans because they are woven — that too in glass,” says Cama, whose Parzor has been researching into the origin, development, techniques of Parsi textiles since 1999 aiming to preserve the craft forms. “The basic idea is to present a grassroots Parsi culture. On the one hand, the community is dwindling in numbers but on the other, traditions are kept alive in tiny places like Navsari and Bharuch in Gujarat,” states Cama. Despite the low numbers of Parsis living in Navsari and Bharuch — Navsari has 2000 Parsis and Bharuch has less than a 100 — the culture has been well preserved here.
Another section on photographs, both recent ones on the water harvesting system, traditional medical healers and original archival photos, besides photos by famous Parsis like Homai Vyarawalla, Sam Maneckshaw will also be displayed. A series of workshops teaching Parsi embroidery techniques — single silk thread, kasti weaving — are also planned. To enroll for the workshop, visit www.unescoparzor.com
(The festival begins today at India International Centre, Lodi Estate, and continues till March 16)