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.