Parsi Embroidery - Reviving an Embroidered Legacy

Parsi Embroidery - Reviving an Embroidered Legacy

Parsi Zoroastrian embroidery has become an inseparable part of traditional Indian textiles. This ancient art, which traces its origins to Bronze Age Iran, has also assimilated cultural influences from Persia, China, India and Europe. The Parsi reverence for nature is evident in the flowers - lily, lotus, chrysanthemum, and peony, trees - weeping willow, cherry, pine, bamboo and divine fungus, and birds - cranes, peacocks, swans and pheasants that adorn the embroidery. Pagodas, boats, Chinese architectural structures, human figures and scenes typical of Chinese society and daily life are also commonly depicted. Each motif carries deep meaning: for example, the divine fungus, a symbol of longevity and immortality is believed to give protection especially to children when embroidered on their jhablas/jackets. Among other motifs, trees and vegetation represent seasons, and chrysanthemums symbolize joy and represent spring.

The strikingly beautiful Parsi garas sari, jhablas and ijars/pantaloons in bright reds, maroons, pinks, purples and blacks, offset by delicate embroidery in pale white and pastel shades, are works of exquisite craftsmanship that combine elegance and aesthetics.

Community accounts of elderly Parsis from Bharuch to Kolkata confirm the role of Chinese pherias in familiarizing Parsi women with Chinese embroidery. Pherias were craftsmen from China who came with big bundles or chests full of embroidered pieces for the Parsis. They travelled across cities and met their Parsi clientele to deliver pre-ordered garas and kors/borders. They also taught some of the women their craft.

As Parsis travelled and settled in other parts of India, especially the Deccan, they acquired local skills like Zardozi embroidery and incorporated these in their repertoire. With European influence came European stitches, designs and new shades of color. There was a large crossover of vocabulary as Parsis imbibed the best from East and West to create their own particular form.

The Sassanian “Circlet of Pearls” motif travelled from Zoroastrian Persia to China during the Tang Dynasty and then found its way back to the Parsi embroidered garas. The historical trade in silk between Surat and China and the incorporation of European designs, and even the Gujarati Mochi stitch, all went to create a fabric, which was unique. The kors and garas worn by Parsi women were distinctive, and came to be known popularly as the Parsi sari in all parts of the country.

An amalgamation of various cultural traditions, Parsi embroidery is a unique blend of the East and the West in terms of motif and technique.
  • Chinese symbols and elements of mythology: China-Chini/Chinese man and woman), bat motif, The Divine Fungus, The Phoenix, flowers such as the chrysanthemum and peony; cranes and Taoist symbols

  • Persian symbols: Chakla Chakli motif or Contradicting Birds, flowers such as the lily and jasmine. The paisley, which is based on the symbol of Cypress tree swaying in the wind and signifies life and eternity.

  • British imperial influence: Flowers, baskets and bow motifs

  • Indian influence: Peacock, lotus, ambi or Indian paisley motifs

  • Zoroastrian Culture that presents a respect and reverence for nature - Rooster motif, plant life, fish, the Simurgh or bird of Paradise and the 30 flowers representing the 30 angels who watch over each day of the month.

  • A variety of stitches are used: Satin stitch is largely used in Parsi embroidery. Variations of Satin stitch are extended, bound, voided, and embossed. Other stitches include French knots and forbidden stitch/khakha – a very difficult stitch whose complexity can make a person go blind. However, it is the voided satin stitch, which is largely used, giving a realistic impression of nature.

Rescuing a Craft in Crisis
Sadly, the great legacy of Parsi embroidery is slowing fading, unable to escape the crisis facing most traditional crafts in India, due to the competition arising from cheaper industrial machine made materials, a limited pool of skilled craftspeople; the decrease in the demand of traditional crafts has been inevitable. And it is suffering additionally because of the added crisis of the dwindling Parsi community. The population is declining so rapidly that it is 10% smaller with each decennial census. While the loss of cultural traditions is a growing phenomenon worldwide, the sharp demographic decline poses a danger that Parsi Zoroastrian culture will be completely extinct. Recognizing these challenges, the Parzor Foundation, UNESCO and the Indian Government have come together to rekindle interest in the craft of Parsi embroidery and prevent it from being wiped out.

The Parzor Foundation has been working since 1999 with the support of UNESCO to revive the heritage and culture of the Parsi Zoroastrians of India. It conducted the first serious research into the origin, history, development and technique of Parsi textiles and embroidery, with experts travelling across India and beyond to trace its roots from Tehran, Yazd and Kerman in Iran to Hong Kong and Shanghai in China.

The Foundation grasped the need to commercialize this craft in order for it to survive and become a means of livelihood for its practitioners. In fact, the possibilities for commercial expansion are significant. As Parzor’s Dr Shernaz Cama, Director of the Parzor Foundation points out, while the West may be losing interest in doing laborious hand embroidery, there is yet a large potential market for fine handwork in the domestic as well as other international markets. A series of workshops for the revival and contemporization of Parsi embroidery were conducted in Ahmedabad, Navsari, Mumbai and New Delhi in 2005 and 2006. The aim was to help the craft become competitive in the contemporary market, while ensuring that products remain sensitive to the original forms and carry the hallmark of Parsi tradition.

The workshops imparted a whole range of livelihood skills, from the technical knowledge of embroidery stitches to design skills and basic business management know-how, such as packaging of products and interaction with prospective buyers. Design motifs were sketched out on computer to help standardize and explain them. At the workshop in New Delhi, participants not only recreated Parsi gara embroidery but took advice from professional designers on creating commercial products with wide appeal and the potential to sell fast, such as, cushions, spectacle cases, mobile phone covers, bags and scarves. Ashdeen Lilaowala, a designer and Textile Consultant at the Parzor Foundation, offered feedback on the standards of craftsmanship needed to ensure marketability, using a Parsi phrase to explain what could not be allowed to happen: agal hira, pachal kira, “In front are diamonds and at the back are worms!” The embroidery in front is as beautiful as diamonds but the back is like worms.

It’s hoped that the workshops may be developed into a long-term training programme, which will fully revive Parsi embroidery by creating a guild of craftspeople, entrepreneurs and designers. In the meantime, the Parzor Foundation has become an international centre for information on Parsi textiles and embroidery, attracting textile researchers, academicians and designers. Parzor also hopes to bring out a book on the embroidery that will document its important linkages to Central Asia, China and India.

Dr Cama is quite optimistic about the future of Parsi embroidery. She shows me a splendid Parsi gara passed down to her by her grandmother. This exquisite jamuni/purple coloured kanda-papeta no garo with its delicate embroidery is indeed a treasure to cherish. She remarks, “As the younger generation realizes the elegance of the embroidered gara, kors and jhablas and begins to understand the symbolism behind them, our fears about the disappearance of Parsi embroidery can be dispelled”. The revival of this tradition is nurturing the skills of the craftspeople, encouraging prospective entrepreneurs and catching the eye of patrons. Thanks to the work of the Parzor Foundation and the UNESCO partnership, Parsi Zoroastrian embroidery will be here for a long time to come.

This article was first published in UNESCO Power of Creativity Magazine; Vol. 2, August 2008

A close up of the Parsi gara/sari with white silk floss embroidery on purple Sali gaaj silk filled with the forbidden khaka stitch, in rich colors and extraordinarily delicate embroidery.

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