As part of Crafts Council of India’s golden jubilee celebrations, efforts are being made to revive the exquisite Parsi Gara embroidery. Apoorva Sripathi meets the people behind the initiative
For a group that hasn’t seen an increase in its population over 80 years (there are roughly 125,000 of them in the world), the influential Parsi community’s hand-embroidered gara saris are a link to their history, culture and, of course, commerce.
When the Parsis started trading opium and cotton with the Chinese some 200 years ago, according to author and curator Pheroza J. Godrej, the men sent home to their wives heavily embroidered saris in Chinese silk. “Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, as a 17-year-old, discovered embroidered silks from Canton and he introduced the gara sari to Indians,” Pheroza says. While the commonly found motifs are the ‘Chinaman’ and woman, birds, and a lot of flora and fauna — designs that signify fertility and good omen — there have been transformations with motifs such as kaanda-papeta (onions and potatoes) and chakla-chakli (male and female sparrows).
Designer Ashdeen Lilaowala’s collection ‘Ashdeen’ specialises in hand-embroidered saris, cocktail dresses and gowns featuring a unique take on the traditional Parsi Gara embroidery. In the city, along with Pheroza for a conversation on Parsi culture, tradition and craft, Ashdeen, a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, says that gara embroidery is an amalgamation of culture and art. “Basically, it’s combining Chinese embroidery with Persian, Indian and British traditions; it is embroidery where birds look like birds and not abstract shapes. We often call it ‘painting with a needle’,” says Ashdeen.
He says earlier saris looked like they were measured in yardages; that there was no concept of a pallu and when women started travelling, the garment and the embroidery became more refined. “The Parsis tie their sari like Gujaratis, except for the corner that’s tucked in at the back, so the women made sure that there was no embroidery there,” he explains. Ashdeen says that a gara sari is too expensive for everyday use and that it was more of a family heirloom. “A contemporary gara sari can set you back by anywhere from Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 2 lakh — it’s precious embroidery.”
Pheroza also mentions that wearing the gara sari for daily use isn’t practical: “It’s Chinese silk and the colour runs easily. And it’s very tough to maintain,” she says and adds that her grandmother did wear it at home but that was a different time altogether. “What we do is we send it to a place where they spread the entire sari on a table that’s 3m long and 45 inches wide and two women take a damp cloth and dab it to remove stains; dry cleaning is a no-no.” Traditionally, gara saris came in dark colours like red, maroon and burgundy so that the white thread embroidery would be visible, but with the changing times, there are white-on-white gara saris and even white-on-black ones as well, though black is considered inauspicious.
For their part, the Crafts Council of India (CCI), that is celebrating 50 years, is bringing to the forefront India’s lesser-known craft traditions. CCI’s Usha Krishna says, “Embroidery is one thing that many people don’t know that the Parsis were good at. And it’s not just embroidery; the art also signifies a tradition for the community. While we cannot bring in all the traditions at once, we’re taking it two at a time, so expect more such workshops.”
Reflecting Usha’s thoughts is the local Parsi community in Chennai present in large numbers at the talk. Wearing exquisitely coloured gara saris, strings of pearls and chandelier earrings, they greet each other as if at a family gathering.
Sixty-one-year-old Bela Khaleeli, who has been living in Chennai for more than 35 years, beams with happiness when she says she owns a gara sari. “It’s been passed down generations; my mother gave it to me but I’ve seen photos of my grandmother and great-grandmother wearing it.” She agrees with Pheroza and Ashdeen about preserving it, “I wrap it in muslin cloth and put either chips of sandalwood, neem leaves or cloves. Our parents and grandparents took better care of these heirlooms. Someday I hope to pass on my sari to my granddaughter.”
An exhibition of Ashdeen’s collection of Parsi Gara embroidery is on till December 3 at Amethyst.
Parsi Weaves and Palate Offerings at Chennai Exhibition
Reviving the age-old tradition and culture has always been the mission of The Crafts Council of India, ever since it was established 50 years ago. As part of a line-up of events to mark its golden jubilee year, the council is bringing to the city the carefully-preserved tradition of Parsis that dates back to the 10th century. Usha Krishna, treasurer, Crafts Council of India, says that the community, which she believes includes 250-odd families in Chennai, are known for their rich artistic skills.
The event will explore Parsi culture through interactions with experts such as author and curator Pheroza Godrej, designer Ashdeen Lilaowala and philanthropist Tehnaz Bahadurji, who practises Zoroastrianism. Ashdeen, who specialises in gara embroidered saris, offers a glimpse of quintessential Parsi embroidery through his collection of textiles which will be showcased in the city between November 25 and December 3.
“The embroidery they use is beautiful, with satin stitches and motifs of flowers and cranes, which is more of a Chinese tradition. Parsis, who were into trade, are known to have been travelling between China and India. That explains the influence of the Chinese designs. Later, the Parsi families who settled in India, took interest in the embroidery and started making it themselves,” says Usha.
Parsis are known to have come from Iran to Gujarat. Traders by profession, they have always been associated with stocks and market, says Usha. “Even now, if you see in Gujarat, most of them are businessmen,” she says. They also have the practice of putting kolams, like South Indians do — the origin of this practice, however, still seems to be a grey area, she says.
Besides art, when it comes to food, there are a few specific items which would be present in every Parsi menu. Parsi Patrel (Colocassia rolls with a gram flour filling) and Batata Vada (potato fritters), she says. As part of the event, authentic Parsi food will be flown down from Mumbai on November 25. “Parsis like their biscuits with tea and other drinks include mint-flavoured chai with a tinge of lemon grass,” she says.
The event will also have a Phulkari exhibition that will feature rare pieces from Jasleen Dhamija’s collection.
For details, contact 9840438608.