The incredible history of the traditional Parsi Gara sari
From the quirky motifs hidden in the sari to its genesis, Ashdeen Lilaowala breaks down the nuances of a traditional Parsi Gara
The timeless elegance of a traditional Parsi Gara is undeniable. Embroidered to life with photorealistic precision, the Gara sari is a unique member in the exhaustive variety of crafts found in the country. Predominantly worn by the Parsi community during weddings and special occasions, the exquisite Gara sari deserves not to be stashed away just for those big days. Vogue spoke to Ashdeen Lilaowala—one of the few creative minds carrying the legacy of the Gara forward—about the history of the embroidery, its evolution and the lesser known facts.
Tell us about the origins of Gara
Gara embroidery came into our design lexicon at a time when the Parsis from India would travel to China for trade. They carried opium and cotton with them from India, which was bartered for tea in China. Tea as a commodity was gaining a lot of popularity in Europe and the British wanted to sell more tea in Europe. The Parsis quickly became rich trading with the British.
When they came back on their ships, they also brought back ceramics and various other antiques that were available in China. Legend says that one of the traders brought back a new kind of artistic embroidery, which was very realistic in its depiction of flora and fauna and was targeted to the European market. Eventually, it was commissioned as a five-and-a-half-metre sari for the traders from India. Earlier, the pieces that came in were fully embroidered, corner to corner, but then slowly the women started travelling to China too, and they edited them to have borders, blank spaces for tucking in, etc. The Parsi community had newly settled in Bombay, become quite rich, and now wanted a certain new look—and they adopted the Gara saris as their signature.
One of the famous designs was ‘Cheena Cheeni’, which depicts a Chinese man and a Chinese woman against a landscape of pagodas, bridges, plantations and people doing daily chores in China, carrying lanterns and other knick knacks—but these were things so exotic and unseen in India, that the design became a prized possession. They also brought back narrow borders that are called as ‘Kor’, and clothes for the children—the tunics were called ‘Jhablas’ and pants were called ‘Ghicha’. These were some of the different products that were coming via the trade.
Can you tell us a little more about other popular Gara designs?
We have quirky names for motifs. Apart from ‘Cheena Cheeni’, there is a polka-dotted motif is called ‘kaanda papeta’, which stands for onion potato. Polka dots were so common at one point, that they were jestingly compared to onions and potatoes for how readily available they were. Then there is a spin wheel motif, which the Parsis call a ‘Karoliya’, or a spider. We have a ‘Marga Margi’, which is a rooster and a hen and there’s a ‘Chakla Chakli’ too, which is a male and female sparrow.
During a research exercise, we found that there is a kind of rock formation on the sari that usually comes with a peacock perched on it—the motif is called ‘The Divine Fungus’. But when you tell a Parsi woman that there’s fungus on your sari, they (naturally!) don’t take it well. And we have seen borders with exquisitely embroidered bats as well. Indians are not fond of bats, and for Parsis, bats are equivalent to death—I’ve actually had customers tell me they’re not wearing the pieces again once I confirmed the embroidery denotes a bat, and not a butterfly, as they originally thought. We also have a sari in our recent collection called ‘Morning Glory’—it has a sun and a huge spread of birds, flora and fauna, so it is like a whole narrative about the sun being the element that manifests this abundance of flora.
How long does it take to make a Gara sari?
Depending on the density of the work, it can take anything from three weeks to two months. And when I say two months, I mean six to eight people working on one sari together.
What is the base fabric of the sari?
Even though the sari is covered in silk thread embroidery all over, it has a nice flow to it and can be draped well. The original fabric was called ‘Sali Ghaj’, which has very thin lines running through it.
Garas went out of fashion in the ’30s and were only revived in the ’80s. In Mumbai, they started using this thick fabric—Shamu satin and thick Crepe d Chine back then. Presently, we largely use crepe, but not georgette or chiffon—because the silk thread is hand-embroidered and these fabrics can’t take the weight of the embroidery.
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