Where have the old Parsi garas gone, with their bewitching stitches and magnificence?
How does one describe the sheer perfection of Parsi gara embroidery in which birds take wing with the delicacy of a Japanese Haiku, weeping willows, tendrils and cranes twist and bend with infinite grace and fields studded with ros es and peonies, jasmine and chrysanthemums “glow in splendour like a brilliant piece of paradise” as Kalidasa described beauty in another time and another place? Within their folds the Parsi gara (as the sari is known), jhabla or jackets and kor or borders carry not just aesthetic images and cameos ‘painted with a needle’ but tales and legends, myths and journeys of the Parsis, even the mystery of the Khakha or “forbidden stitch”, an embroidery stitch of such complexity that, according to legend, its execution can make the practitioner go blind!
Through its varied motifs, gara embroidery unfolds fascinating tales of a community, its aesthetics and lifestyle. Parsi embroidery is a unique part of the country’s diverse textile heritage. It is also in crisis today as the magnificent gara has been slowly fading away in the post-Independence era, keeping pace with the rapid decline of the Parsi population itself. The reason could range from migration of young Parsis, loosening of tradition, dearth of craftsperson, changing lifestyles and the very relevance of the gara itself.
The jhablas and ijors or pantaloons have disappeared while the kor and gara are increasingly seen only at antique sari exhibitions, almost like a curiosity from the past. Is this legacy of Parsi lifestyle becoming an endangered craft species doomed to disappear like the Chinese pherias or embroidery craftspersons who first gave it life, and also taught Parsi ladies?
Although Parsi embroidery traces its origins to Bronze Age Persia, the gara itself is not more than 150 years old. Its concepts and symbolism, which lay in the Zoroastrian psyche coupled with an innate sense of aesthetics, were translated into embroidery on sari and apparel by Chinese master embroiderers. In the 19th and early 20th centuries there was brisk trade between Parsis of Western India and China.
Parsi men travelling to China would place orders for embroidered garas for their womenfolk with Chinese embroiderers who would travel to India to deliver the garments. The interaction led to a crossover vocabulary of motifs and symbols. Garas were India’s first “fashion sari” in which “Anglicised” Parsi ladies stepped out to meet British memsahibs. Soon the gara became a must at all Navjots and a part of every Parsi girl’s trousseau, as well as a badge of Parsi identity.
The original gara had silk floss embroidery in white and occasionally in pastel shades on sal gajji silk, which was generally purple, red and black in colour. The embroidery was delicate and colour nuanced; often as many as 20-30 shades of a single colour thread were used to express one flower! The stitches were satin stitch with variations of extended, bound, voided and embossed as well as French knots. The Gujarat mochi stitch and zardosi from the Deccan were also incorporated while ari is now being used. A gara can take up to a year to create with many embroiderers working on one frame. Each is a “specialist” in one motif, which could be floral, a butterfly, bird …
However the symbols and motifs of each gara tell a story. The fleeing Parsis brought Persian symbols like the cypress tree, chakla chakli or contradictory birds, represented with delicacy. The Zoroastrian culture’s reverence for nature represented by trees and flowers, plant and fish life, the divine fungus, the bird of paradise and 30 flowers representing as many angels are other significant motifs while the lotus and peacock brings the fragrance of the Indian soil in which Parsi culture blossomed. While the Raj flavour incorporated floral baskets, the Chinese pheria stitched in vignettes of Chinese court life, beautiful gardens and flowers such as peony, rose, chrysanthemum… Some or all these motifs fill up a typical gara or jhabla with an overriding feel of harmony, richness, grandeur and delicacy.
Where have all the old garas gone, with their bewitching stitches and matchless magnificence? According to Chennai-based Bela Mistry Khaleeli, heir to some captivating garas and jhablas, they are cared for like heirloom jewellery, wrapped in layers of tissue and muslin amid neem and sandalwood. Her family has garas dating back to five generations. However, despite the care, garas are beginning to disintegrate, especially the fabric around the embroidery, leaving the motif intact. And these precious bits led revivalist Najur Davar of Mumbai to recreate old garas in the 1980s. Fantastically reproduced on chamois satin and crêpe, her garas are indistinguishable from the originals. She and a few others single-handedly gave the Parsis their heritage back, in the process making the gara fashion wear for other communities all over India.
The Parzor Foundation has been working, since 1999, with the support of UNESCO and the Government of India to revive the craft. Some breathtaking garas have been reproduced under its aegis. An attempt has also been made to contemporise gara embroidery by creating products like cushion covers, bags, scarves while being sensitive to the original embroidery form.
Today as Parsi garas take their first tentative steps on fashion ramps and the form finds favour with fashion designers, young Parsis are reconnecting with their cultural roots through the ‘new’ garas. And a breed of new designers and entrepreneurs are giving back to the country a precious part of its heritage that it nearly lost.
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