A treasured Parsi legacy

A treasured Parsi legacy

I still recall how extremely careful my Parsi friend would be when we all went out together for a special occasion and she was wearing a Gara saree. She would take great pains to walk, gently surveying the ground at every step, choose a seat away from food and drink, be constantly watchful of people around her — in case they spilled anything or stepped on her saree. “It is my grandmother’s Gara saree, and there are not too many of these kind around. And they don’t make them like this anymore,” she would explain.

Many, many years later, after I visited Udvada in Gujarat where you find Gara products of all kinds, met Parsi families on other occasions in Bengaluru and Hyderabad who showed me their exquisite Gara sarees, and also met a few kaarigars (embroiders or sareemakers) in Mumbai, I realised why my friend was almost paranoid about her saree’s safety. Gara sarees are truly precious!

Precious heirlooms

Gara embroidery sarees are family heirlooms and the ones with intricate handwork made on expensive fabric are stunningly beautiful. Richly colourful, artistically decorated with beautiful embroidery and delicately embellished, the finest among them, created decades ago, have become collector’s items. Especially, considering that the old style of creating Gara sarees has become rare in recent years. 

The characteristic motifs of a Gara saree, which make it easy for you to identify one, are traditional Chinese designs. You will see figures of Chinese men and women in traditional attire and often depicted alongside their typical homesteads and rickshaws, and sometimes with accessories like fans, umbrellas and even musical instruments. Fishing scenes are also prominent in some fabrics.

Flowering vines, which often meander across the border or body of the saree, trees, bamboos, fruits, flowers, and plenty of birds and animals like the parrot, peacock and dragon are also some popular designs. Butterflies, either alone or hovering over flowers, are also depicted. You will find intricately woven pavilions and bridges besides pagodas and peonies, all along the border of the saree and on the pallu.

However, there are some sarees or fabrics that are profusely embroidered and the motifs are all over — covering almost the entire length and breadth. Such sarees with dense work are also heavy in weight. These highly-detailed sarees are also among the most expensive and coveted.

Purple, black and red are among the popular colours, or at least were, in the old-style ones, while pastel shades are also seen now. The dark colour background was used to highlight the beauty of the embroidery. Talking to the elders in a few Parsi families, we learnt that typical embroidery techniques were the satin stitch, long and short stitch as well as the popular seed-pearl stitch, also known as kha-kha.

Cultural exchange

“The finest sarees are a labour of love. It takes months to create this embroidery. We buy one as we would a piece of jewellery. And even treat it like one!” a lady told us taking out a gorgeous saree from a wooden chest where it had been kept, the folds separated by layers of muslin cloth for protection. She explained: “Placing it on a hanger is not done. Two of my sarees have come down to me from my mother-in-law. And the nine I have bought so far have been carefully worn and will be handed down to my daughters or daughters-in-law.”

The Gara embroidery tradition among the Parsis dates back about 160 years. The origins also explain the Chinese influence on the design. Around the 19th century, Parsi traders were travelling to the Far East, especially China and Hong Kong, for business. They were enamoured of Chinese art and craft — especially their artefacts and embroidered Chinese textiles. They brought back the beautiful embroidered fabrics and often much of it was what they had placed orders for.

Thus Chinese embroidered sarees, fabrics, etc., made their way to India, especially Gujarat, where most of these traders were settled. Decades later, the local artists of Surat began to produce imitations using silk fabric, which resembled Chinese silk. Even today, these products are identifiable by their net and French knots border, though the motifs remain similar.

Later, machine-embroidery also became popular. You will find such products more easily available in some areas of Mumbai, as also at Udvada. However, around the 1960s and 70s, thanks to the efforts of designer Naju Daver who resurrected the almost-vanished olden style of Gara embroidery, this beautiful art saw a slow but significant resurgence. Naju’s daughter Farzeen Daver is continuing the work. A few NGOs also work for the revival of Gara.

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