Parsi embroidery is being kept alive by a few patrons in the Capital.
At Navjote or during a Parsi wedding, the entire congregation of Parsi women is transformed into a sea of Gara saris, in shades of magenta, royal blue, turquoise and red. At other times, these heirlooms are barely visible as Parsi embroidery, like several other craft traditions, is teetering on the brink of extinction.
A concerted effort by organisations such as the Craft Revival Trust and Parzor Foundation, which are working to preserve it has led to the opening of embroidery centres outside the traditional ones in Ahmedabad, Navsari and Mumbai. Parsi embroidery is now slowly taking root in places as far flung as Chennai. The Delhi unit, which is located at Tughlaqabad and is helmed by Ashdeen Liloawala, a researcher at the Parzor Foundation, has improved the visibility of this art in the city.
Liloawala’s own interest in Parsi crafts stemmed from a chance project he had undertaken during his student days at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. “I had demonstrated methods of kusti weaving, an intrinsic Parsi craft, and had done several workshops for the Parzor Foundation,” he explains, as he sits alongside his workers overseeing the finish of a saree.
His embroidery unit took off in 2005. “The first project was instituted by the Union ministry of textiles. Under that scheme, there were four workshops held not simply to display what is Gara embroidery but also to show contemporary uses,” explains Liloawala. Other platforms opened up along the years, such as Dastkari Haat.
As saris — the Gara’s mainstay — is now an exclusive market, newer uses of the embroidery have become imperative. The new product range includes evening bags and pouches with Gara stitches in new motifs. “The newest item on our stands is printed stationery, particularly for cards and note paper, using embroidered motifs as designs,” says Nilofer Shroff from the Parzor Foundation.
This orientation to accommodate present-day needs and establish bases beyond western India, has also led to the creation of a work force from non-traditional backgrounds. Says Liloawala, “In my unit, all the karigars are from Bengal and not from western India. I make sure that they highlight each motif following details according to Gara tradition, such as fine finish at the tip of a bird’s beak or the end of a leaf.”
Besides finesse, Liloawala has been training his work force to become adept at all the traditional motifs that characterise a Gara collectible. To enhance the richness of the embroidery, the makers use ‘sali gaj’ or silk cloth, as the base for embroidery.
It is not an isolated motif, the silk, or the finesse that embodies Gara embroidery. Into its fine stitchery is woven the history of an entire community. With a population of just 733 Parsis in Delhi and dwindling figures ringing alarm bells across the country, Gara embroidery has become a marker of identity for the community and its contribution to Indian heritage.