The craft of Parsi Embroidery tells the story of multicultural history, embodying dynamic roots and routes. Parsi embroidery has been a part of India's diverse textile heritage. During the Bronze Age, this art form took birth in Iran, and with time it drew influences from European, Chinese, Persian and Indian cultures. The saris that depict Parsi embroidery are known as Parsi Gara Saris, and each piece takes about nine months to complete. But now, very few markets are available because of the declining Parsi community and the mass production of readily available clothes.
A.n embroidery cupboard with shelves containing Chinese lacquer boxes, wicker baskets with tools, and exquisite colours and shades of embroidery thread would be the trademark of a Parsi home up until fifty years ago. A shelf containing embroidery pattern books from all over the world with their intricate impressions traced on paper would be commonplace in classic Parsi households.
In the Tang and Song dynasties (618–1279 CE), the Persian love of nature mingled with the skill of the embroidery schools of China across the Silk Route. In this early stage of the intercultural amalgam, after interaction between Persia and China, satin stitch, long and short stitch and the Parsi 'Khakho' or a seed pearl stitch began appearing with Chinese chain stitch. The khakho, because of its intricacy, resulted in women losing their eyesight and thus became synonymous with the 'forbidden stitch'. In this undated 'khakho jhabla', the birds in a Persian Gul-e-Bulbul pattern seem to be seated on an adaptation of the Chinese Divine fungus. The Divine Fungus in Chinese mythology symbolises protection from the Evil Eye. Legend has it that a Parsi trader in Canton, watching artisans embroider a rich textile, requested them to colour 6 yards of silk as a sari for his wife in India.
Parsi women, following Indian tradition, began designing kors or borders to match the inner embroidery. The frontage, or the pallav, was intended to highlight the design. This fish gara is an engagement sari made to order in China by Parsi merchants from Western India dealing with Opium, Tea and Textiles. Imperial purple and other such shades are favoured in the Persian tradition. As Indian influence developed, the auspicious Indian Kunku red or vermillion became a favourite. In the gara(right), made as part of the Parzor revival of traditional motifs and embroidery, we see a continuation and contemporisation of tradition.
Parsi women had adopted the sari when they migrated from Iran to Sanjan. Still, to keep it distinct, they wore their wrinkles on the right and made the 'pallav' reach almost to the feet, standing out in distinctly patterned embroidered garments. In this portrait(left), Lady Bachubai Vakil of Ahmedabad (1888) can be seen in an embroidered Parsi velvet kor gara and her sacred Sudreh in lace. This European influence added to the intercultural amalgam.
A fine example of Parsi embroidery, the portrait of Jerbanoo Kanga of Nagpur (1923)(right) depicts her wearing a Parsi Gara. The picture was preserved by her grieving husband post her death during childbirth.
While earlier, Parsi embroidery was a part of a way of life, its current revival began with Parzor workshops conducted throughout the country. Today practitioners and designers are participating in its contemporary resurgence. Since a craft can only prosper through the creation of new forms, Parzor Foundation, with its sincere work on Crafts and Textiles, works towards preserving this proof of the multicultural history of Indian Textiles. The UNESCO Parzor project has tried to draw the world's attention to the Parsi community. The enthusiasm with which the sensitive world community has responded to Parzor's Craft Research and Revival Module provides hope that this fragile yet distinct thread in world textile encounters will continue to add worth to that tapestry which is India's multicultural heritage.
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