It is fashionable amongst engineers and systemic solution experts to talk about India’s last mile problem. It applies to roads, power plants, and pretty much any type of construction, they will say.
Indian workmen will work diligently and dutifully through the project. At the last mile, when things are to be smoothened and polished, they will lose interest, almost like a baby who suddenly gets tired. Fashion designers have another word for this: finish. Our handcrafted products may be unusual, original, colourful, and wildly creative. But they lack finish. Arguably, this same tenor of work ethics applies to the Aam Aadmi Party too, given as they are, with a penchant for histrionics without worrying too much about follow through. But this is not a column on politics. Rather it is about products, society and contradictions.
Products reflect society. Stands to reason, right? When you think of the cold perfection of a Mercedes or BMW, it stands to reason that they come from Germany. The perfect imperfection of a Japanese raku pot reflects the wabi-sabi aesthetic that the country is known for. India is a colourful, imperfect society and our products reflect that. Except in some areas: textiles for instance. Even among textiles, there are shades of imperfection.
Our woven fabrics are approximations. The peacocks, rudraksh beads and mango motifs that are woven into a Kanjeevaram or a Banarasi are not exactly alike. The trained eye can spot imperfections in the warp and weft of the weave. Often there are threads sticking out. The same applies to block-printing and often, it is these imperfections that are touted as a badge of honour.
But most Indian embroidery traditions are built on meticulousness. One among them being the Parsi gara embroidery, which originated in China but the motifs of which have been localized. To be confronted with a room full of Parsi gara saris is to experience what an obsessive eye can do to a garment. New Delhi-based textile designer, Peter D’Ascoli, is all admiration as he walks through the numerous gara saris that were exhibited last month at Cinnamon, a boutique in Bangalore. “Look at the different types of stitches used just to depict the petal,” he points out. “Look at how expertly they have depicted movement—through the curve of the flower.”
D’Ascoli makes stunning throws which incorporate printed fabric bordered by gara embroidery. Most of his textiles are exported but he showcases a few locally. Like cultural impresario Rajiv Sethi (a tired, overused term, I know, but there is no other way to describe Sethi), D’Ascoli is passionate about India’s intangible heritage: traditions like storytelling, singing, particular type of weaves and embroidery that are disappearing with the urbanization of India. “You have to link the garas to the notion of intangible heritage,” he urges. The Unesco Parzor project attempts to preserve tangible and intangible heritage, including these “threads of continuity”, among other things. These garas were once patronized by a wide swathe of society. They have now become saris used for special occasions.
Ashdeen Lilaowala is a textile researcher, and author of Threads of Continuity, under the aegis of the Parzor project. His New Delhi-based atelier also creates gara saris and Western style clothes. His partial solution to the problem of the disappearing gara sari is to tailor blouses, tops, long dresses and sheaths embellished with gara embroidery. The black cheongsam embroidered with white egrets that is hung at the entrance of Cinnamon is stunning; as are his blouses with butterflies flying all over it. “The multicolour butterflies used to be made with leftover thread,” he says. “That’s why they have many colours.”
Garas reflect an aesthetic and an ethos. They won’t resonate with south Indians who have grown up with Kanjeevarams and Chettinad cottons. We may appreciate the aesthetic of the garas but they won’t remind us of the Parsi ethos: they won’t remind us of attending Parsi weddings and seeing aunties and grandmothers clad in beautiful purple garas (the most significant colour). Objects of beauty become so for many reasons: for the memories they evoke and the intrinsic craftsmanship that is their signature. Even for those who live south of the Vindhyas, it is easy to marvel at the craftsmanship of these saris. As the Parzor website says, the gara saris reflect a confluence of four cultures: Persian, Indian, Chinese and European.
The gara embroidery originated in China when Parsi merchants lived and worked there. The embroidered Chinese silk was adapted to Indian conditions when they brought it “home” to Mumbai. Gone were the dragons, koi fish, and other Chinese icons. They were replaced with Indian flowers such as lotuses. Some Chinese symbols such as the egret and the up-curved pagoda roofs were kept. European floral motifs were adapted from French embroidering traditions. The design and placement of the embroidery was adapted to the drape of the sari with the maximum embellishment at the pallu.
For someone who isn’t Parsi and hasn’t been exposed to its oeuvre, the beauty of a gara sari lies in the precision of its embroidery. Unlike the other great embroidery traditions of India in Kutch, Lucknow and Kashmir, the beauty of the gara embroidery lies in the suggestion of movement. This isn’t a statically graceful paisley or a geometrically refined chikankari. To see the egret taking off from the folds of your sari; or to observe a heavy lotus flower bend gracefully towards your border is to imagine craftsmen bending over the garment you are wearing everyday for months on end, fastidiously embroidering these motifs so that not a thread is out of place.
Shoba Narayan doesn’t—yet—own a gara sari. She is just beginning to learn about the art.