An unusual book on the weaving of the sacred thread worn by the Parsis adds to the craft revival stories in India
Few, even among textile conservationists, would imagine a book deconstructing kusti, (pronounced ‘kasti’), the sacred thread worn by the Parsi community. It is certainly not a topic that dots fashion conversations these days. But if revival is India’s biggest fashion story at the moment — through disparate but persistent action by designers, textile experts and the government — unusual projects like these are gushy tributaries feeding into it. Textile designer Ashdeen Lilaowala’s Threads of Continuity, currently a work-in-progress book on kusti weaving, to be published by Parzor Foundation, an NGO, falls in that category.
Pretty strawberry milkshakes sit on the table between us on a baking summer afternoon as Lilaowala gently corrects me on my sweeping use of the term Parsis. He points out that some of it is about the Zoroastrian diaspora, while other references have seeped into our vast textile information from Iranian textile and craft. In the next 20 minutes, I realise that many of my facts about Parsi embroidery, craft, textile and clothes worn for Zoroastrian rituals are mixed up. That’s exactly the case with many people within the community as well, says Lilaowala, adding that documentation of such fundamental, but taken-for-granted realities like the sacred thread could address modern perplexities around identity. He emphasises that the Zoroastrian diaspora is keener than “Indian Parsis” to understand and practice lost rituals and the book attempts to recall information lost in the oral tradition.
With that as his context, the 31-year-old, a product of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, and now a designer-stylist-teacher, began work on Threads of Continuity, a coffee-table tome. It focuses on kusti, the sacred thread-girdle of the Parsi community, a string about the size of a stay-lace, and long enough to pass three times very loosely around the waist. Given to all Parsi girls and boys during the Navjot ceremony, it is to be tied twice in a double knot with short ends hanging behind. “I have been wearing a kusti since I was nine and hadn’t seen how it was woven before I documented the process as a NID student. Like me, there are hundreds of Parsis who treat it very casually,” says Lilaowala.
The kusti, which is woven with 72, very fine, white, woollen threads, requires a special loom and expert weaving skills. It takes a week for a skilled weaver to arrive at the finished product. It was formerly woven only by women of the priestly class. Its woollen thread is considered auspicious for the passage of positive mental vibrations and is significant in Zoroastrian rituals. When worn for the first time, it accompanies reciting of specific prayers, and includes choosing a patron spirit, an earthly master and is meant to allow flow of good thoughts. The same kusti is worn in Iran too.
For the book, the weaving intricacies were documented in Navsari, the twin city of Surat in Gujarat, which has a small but steady Parsi population and where women still weave it in the traditional way. The book will have interviews with practitioners of the craft, priests closely associated with the Navjot ceremony, academics, historians and cultural experts commenting on the link between craft and ritual and ordinary Parsi women who practice Zoarastrian customs even now.
This conversation with Lilaowala started last year during the Parsi Panorama in Delhi, where he had curated a show Painting with a Needle. The event included a workshop on Parsi embroidery, kusti weaving and toran making (a decorative door hanging made with glass beads). Experts from Navsari had been invited to demonstrate and teach the crafts. Mannequins wore densely embroidered Parsi gara saris and that’s where I realised that much of what we (as its city customers) accept as gara is machine made gara-like embroidery or crude hand-embroidered from Kolkata.
“The Parsi gara was out of traditional confinement in 2001 when detail-obsessed French designer Jean Paul Gaultier looked towards China for inspiration for his couture collection. Gara which originated in the Orient became a part of Gaultier’s work and then went on to the ramp,” says Lilaowala who will soon come up with a collection of rare garas. Once restricted to wardrobes of Parsi sethias, it is now treated as fine luxury and is much-wanted by young Parsi girls as well as heritage conscious customers. “All the more why we should know that all pastel coloured saris with floral hand embroidery on the borders are not garas,” he adds. An authentic piece is an amalgamation of Persian, Chinese, Indian and European influences and is abundantly embroidered with Oriental birds, lilies, chrysanthemums and hundred-petal roses.
Separating the real from the fake, and correcting mistaken notions of Zorastrian craft traditions will form the narrative of Lilaowala’s book. For those of us who get cyclically bored and then amazed, as spectators of a churning story of revival, this might be a yarn worth unravelling.