Through the eye of a needle

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.

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