The 150-year-old gara embroidery is stunning, mysterious, but not dead, as it was once believed. Designers and entrepreneurs are doing their best to revive what was originally a Chinese art form.
If a visit to Perveez Agarwal’s home induces kleptomanical tendencies in you, you won’t be the only one. Duly blame it on a 100-year-old Chinese garden scene — with pagodas, peonies and couples drinking tea — embroidered on an Indo-Western styled dress draped over a mannequin. European, Persian and Indian motifs find their rightful place on contemporary outfits like stoles and coats. On closer look, you’ll see how the designer’s karigars (craftsmen) have boldly experimented with shading, just like the Chinese gara(Parsi name for saris) makers did back in the 1800s.
And then there is the room full of garas, which takes you on a luxurious trip back in time with century-old embroidery on deep, smart cuts in fashionista blouses.
The only ones who wouldn’t want to enter this world are those who have written mournful obituaries to the Parsi gara. It is true that many garas passed on as heirlooms lie wrapped in muslin and neem (the Chinese salli gaj silks bleed when washed).
However, Parsis have found charming new ways to recreate this stunning part of their history.
Aggarwal smiles when told how evocative the effect is. “Parsi embroidery is yet another example of how a century-old art can be so relevant, without putting up with those bleeding colours. Now, you can get the same motifs on chiffons, georgettes and better silks."
Most of her clients are non-Parsi — expats, foreigners, Marwaris and Sindhis. “Some Hindus don’t prefer animal motifs on their garas and get the traditional maroons to suit their sensibilities.
Others pick only birds and flowers — you can let your imagination go wild and still own the ‘traditional’ gara," she says.
An akho garo (fully-embroidered gara) starts from Rs25,000 for light embroidery, and goes up to Rs35,000 for intricate motifs. Saris with embroidered borders cost around Rs12,000 to Rs15,000. Stoles, coats and salwar kameez can range anything from Rs6,000 onwards.
Of course, unlike in the past, you don’t have to go hunting for Chinese pheriahs either (Chinese embroiderers often came to India and to display their wares at Parsi women’s homes, sometimes teaching them the art). Local karigars are being employed by designers to weave gara motifs, or even duplicate a 150-year-old jhabla (coat worn by children) embroidered with roosters, that you may own.
Aggarwal’s 70 karigars, for instance, are Muslim, who knew nothing about Parsi embroidery till the 1992 riots. Her husband helped a few flee the city, and one gratefully returned to thank him.
When he showed Aggarwal some embroidered cushion covers and asked for a job, she promptly took out her heirlooms. In a few days, he replicated the intricate play of chrysanthemums, peacocks and the Birds of Paradise.
Passionate to prove the sustainability of this art, Unesco’s Parsi Zorastrian project, which has been undertaking projects to research, document and encourage Parsi culture since 1999, began initiatives to revive gara embroidery. Dr Shernaz Cama, honorary director of the foundation, is now trying to hard to spread the idea that non-Parsis, too, can identify with this art, and that a gara is more than a piece of antiquity.
“The interplay of motifs in Parsi embroidery is stunning on any item. We put them on purses, phonebooks, wall-hangings or cushion-covers, and watch the figures breathe life,” Dr Cama says. The future of Parsi embroidery, she believes, lies in the hands of city designers and young entrepreneurs who can help merchandise the art better and design newer products.
Designer Zenobia Davar agrees. She gave up her advertising career to pursue her first love — embroidery.
Seeing how reluctant people were to wear garas, she decided to cut off an old kor (saree border) and stitch it on a new, but translucent silk gara embroidered with the traditional kanda-papeta motif. She then chose a metallic gold petticoat to set off the embroidery, and display a bit of sheen. “People were shocked to see what an ‘old-fashioned’ garment could turn into. It is all about how you adapt what you have to today’s tastes, isn’t it?”
To place gara orders for Parsi New Year, contact Perveez Aggarwal at 98202 19696 and Zenobia Davar at 98690 28943. To buy purses, diaries and stoles made by the Parzor Foundation, contact Perin Panday at 98335 75362