Then & Now: Tracing The History Of The Parsi Gara Saree

Ashdeen Lilaowala

The Parsis are an ethnoreligious group that descended from Iran, or Persia in medieval times to avoid persecution and to preserve their identity. They landed on the shores of Gujarat and were allowed to make their home here. The story goes, that when the king asked the refugees to prove that they would not make any efforts to replicate the persecution they had just faced, a Parsi priest mixed a spoonful of sugar in a glass of milk and said that the Parsis were like the sugar that would make the milk sweeter - perfectly integrating with the community. Since then, the community has contributed to India’s rich history and culture in all aspects, from music and cinema, to science, and to fashion.

In the 19th century, Parsis began trading with China, they discovered a silk fabric called gaaj, and brought it back home with them. With the yards of fabric that they brought home, their wives made sarees out of them and began embroidering them with motifs that were incredibly detailed and elaborate. They embroidered nature-based elements like plants and birds and sometimes even included Chinese-inspired dragons. These garas, as they came to be called, were mostly in rich jewel tones of deep purple, red, and emerald green.

Soon, the Parsis stopped trading with China, and the fashion for the garas died down by the 1930s. However, they started making a comeback in the 1980s, with updated fabrics like Shamu satin or Crêpe De Chine, that could hold the weight of the embroidery but could still be draped beautifully. They also had simple narrow borders called kors for the saree, which allowed for a more casual sari with embroidery just around the edges. During this time, the colour palette also expanded, and garas could be found in every colour imaginable.

Image Courtesy: @ashdeenl;

Generally, there are three types of garas – one with just the embroidered border, the second with more embroidery across the sari but still with large swathes of blank space, and the third with intricately detailed embroidery all across the sari. The third one is the heaviest and is saved for the most special functions like weddings. The third is also what is most commonly passed down from woman to woman and becomes a family heirloom. More than the craftsmanship of the saree itself, it is the emotions that the sari carries — who it was made for, the occasion it was made for, and the desire of future generations to preserve the aesthetic and the artistry of the sari.

Image Courtesy: @ashdeenl;

While garas in the past were entirely handmade, now they can be even made with a machine. But make no mistake, the only true garas are embroidered by hand, and depending on the level of detail can take anywhere between 30 days to six months. Buying a gara today is an investment. It goes from a bride’s trousseau, down from grandmother to mother to daughter. Maintenance of the gara is also imperative to keep it in pristine conditions –– right down to the way you fold it. While there are many people out there who make saris that look like garas, there are only a few artisans left who practice the dying craft. Ashdeen Lilaowala (@ashdeenl) is one of them. With his eponymous label, he works with both Parsi and non-Parsi tailors, training them in the art of hyper-realistic embroidery that is a staple of the sari and even using the same embroidery and patterns on other designs like lehengas and kanjeevaram saris to attract a wider audience. He also repairs old garas at his studio to promote sustainability and to keep it safe for future next generations.

Despite the ever-evolving nature of fashion, a gara is one thing that will never go out of style. The sari has evolved with the times, from an imported Chinese fabric to one that is made and sold in India. From the quirky motifs to the hidden history, the timeless elegance is undeniable. The gara is a unique member of India’s craft history, and its legacy deserves to be carried forward. Traditional Indian textiles speak volumes about history and culture, and the Parsi gara tells a story of innovation and a deep love of textiles, art, and craftsmanship.

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