Parsi Embroidery is an aesthetic composition of pictorial traditions and an emblem of elegance. Combining the beauty inherent in four cultural traditions – Persian, Chinese, Indian and European – this exquisite textile form is truly an intercultural craft.
The Parsi community, followers of Prophet Zarathushtra, left Iran for India, and settled along the western coast in Gujarat. By the early 19th century, Parsi traders had begun traveling to the Far East, trading in China and Hong Kong. They returned with several beautiful Chinese artifacts and the most coveted among these were embroidered textiles. Having begun to appreciate Chinese embroidery, these traders bought embroidered silks for their families that were stitched together to create saris. ‘Gara’, the Gujarati word for sari, began to be associated with the Chinese embroidered sari and this form of embroidery has since been referred to as Gara embroidery.
Drawing on the rich repertoire of traditional Chinese textile motifs, Gara embroidery depicts ‘trade patterns’ on textiles exported from China and India to Europe. The peacock with a trailing tail is an Indian motif adopted by Chinese embroiderers for Gara embroidery. Nature also finds expression through bamboos, birds, butterflies and blossoms that often fill in spaces on textiles. Some saris are so intricately embroidered that the motifs are often concealed in the meandering flower patterns and are only revealed upon a closer view. Embroidering a Gara took several months, based on the intricacy, elaborateness and fineness of the design. Owning a piece was likened to buying a piece of jewelery, which was often handed down through the generations.
Community accounts of Parsi elders recall how Chinese men carrying bundles of embroidered silk cloth on their bicycles would often leave these cloths on the verandas of Parsi homes, while they made their rounds selling their silk ware. When they returned in the afternoons, Parsi women, also free from their house hold chores would sit on the verandas, observing them working on their small embroidery frames, thus learning their special embroidery stitches including their use of curved needles. With this newly acquired skill Parsi women created their own Garas, Jabhlas and Kors. The creations by Parsi women exhibited their preference for certain motifs such as the rooster and fish, which have significance in Zoroastrian tradition as against dragons and snakes popular in Chinese tradition.
As with other traditional crafts in India, the legacy of Parsi embroidery has suffered as a result of competition arising from cheaper materials and industrial production. This unique craft has additionally borne the brunt of the dwindling Parsi population that is facing an alarming decline with every passing Census. Recognizing the need to preserve Parsi heritage, the Parzor Foundation, supported by UNESCO, began to work towards the revival of Parsi crafts and its cultural roots.
The Foundation trains craft persons in the unique form of Parsi embroidery to create contemporary adaptations of original designs. Since its establishment in 1999, the Foundation has been conducting workshops targeted at skilled and semi-skilled craft-persons such as men from West Bengal or women engaged in embroidery in Kutch.
The craft is also getting a new lease of life with its contemporary interpretations in the current design scene in India. More and more designers are choosing to use traditional embroidery in a fresh, new way to keep it relevant and in the mainstream. Neither is an easy task, as independent designer Ashdeen Lilaowala of the label ASHDEEN tells us, “The biggest challenge of reviving and working with an ancient craft like Parsi Gara embroidery is that you need to create your own imagery without slavishly reproducing it. Also you need train and nurture craftspeople to interpret your vision of Gara embroidery. My journey wouldn’t have been possible without the decade of research I have done on Parsi Embroidery to trace the roots of the craft and the route by which it came to India. Over the last three years, the response has been extremely positive to many interpretations we have done. Women across India and abroad have appreciated our new color combinations, varied fabrics and distinct motifs, which have given the Garas a more contemporary appeal.”
The concerted efforts of organizations like the Parzor Foundation and independent designer will drive and will ensure the survival of Parsi Zoroastrian embroidery and its celebration alongside the varied traditional crafts of India.
This article was first published on www.jaypore.com.