Gara embroidery sarees, originally considered to be Parsi family heirlooms, because, became rare collector’s items because of their intricate work and exorbitant prices. Today designer Naju Daver has revived this ancient Chinese art form to make exquisite sarees, which have become prized possessions of women all over India.
He most striking and beautiful examples of ancient Chinese embroidered can be discovered on the gara, the famous Parsi sari of the last century. The Chinese gara a six – yard – long sari worn earlier by Parsi women had a shaky future in modern time till Naju Daver decided to revive it in 1986. Since then the gara has reached dizzying heights on the fashion charts making it one of the most coveted items in a woman’s wardrobe.
At her first exhibition in January 1986 There were just two pieces of garas amongst her many sequined embroidered Saris, but the response was overwhelming from the public,
“ A gara is an item which is expensive, therefore, people think hard before they buy one but once it is bought it becomes a collector’s piece which will go down generations.”
The gara history is as colourful as the garment is to behold. “ The gara was probably introduced by Parsi traders in the 19th century who used to travel to China to trade Originally, it was an item that was normally a labour of love created by the Chinese Patronized by the Parsi and worn for weddings and Navjote (a ceremony for young Parsi boys and girls in the Zoroastrian faith) ceremonies it is treasured and worn by girls of all ages and is today considered a rare fashion item worth possessing,” informs Naju.
Naju’s love for the revival of the gara was kindled when she tried to salvage a sari for a friend. At that time Naju, an expert embroiderer, seriously considered devoting he efforts to resuscitate the dying art. The original Chinese gara where quite bulky to wear as saris since they had embroidered borders on all four sides. The most favored colour was purples or violet. Several years after the introduction of the gara in India, Craftsmen in Surat in Gujarat managed to duplicate the embroidery. But the Surat gara is identified by its net and French knots, which the Chinese ones did not have. Besides violet, the colours popular were wine red, navy blue, white or off white with white embroidery in twisted cotton thread. At times, gold threads were also used. Unfortunately, colour fastness of fabric and threads was dubious thereby spoiling the garment. Here Naju has rectified it and changed the fabric to synthetic silk, which is easier to maintain.
Because of the visual beauty of the rich and intricate work, always hand done, it could take up to nine months to complete each gara. Decades ago a gara was a must in a bride’s trousseau. Today a gara may cost a large sum starting with Rs.2, 500 because of the lack of craftsmen. “ Since the embroidery and intricate every few days, the craftsmen have to be given a simple sari to break the monotony of the hard work so that they can return refreshed to the complicated motifs. A craftsman specializes in a particular motif – like flower, tree, house, figures etc. so that there is uniformity in the workmanship,” adds Naju. Most of the craftsmen are form all over India specializing in their particular motif. It is believed that if a Chinese craftsman embroidered birds he would do so all his life. This concept is also carried on in India.
A gara is not an easy piece to purchase. In fact it is well – nigh impossible because nobody makes such saris any more in China. During the Mao regime it was a banned craft since they preferred manual labour to artistic talents. “ For the last 50 years no garas have been produced in China and Parsis who owned a few family heirlooms have either sold them or cut them up due to disintegration,” adds Naju.
Naju, born into a family of expert embroiderers – “ her mother was an expert and her grandma and grandpa sat together and embroidered grandma’s engagement and wedding saris – was initially not fond of embroidery because it was made into an alternative by ‘ my mother to either do housework or embroider and I always chose the latter and even then would experiment with big stitches to fill up the fabric faster.” Though when she saw her first gara she was so dumbstruck by its beauty that she ended up making one for her daughter’s Navjote all by herself.
Although the motifs are hand embroidered, the finish is superb on the right side as well as the wrong. Each gara has its own story in the form of pictures embroidered across the length of the sari. The popular motifs are trees, flowers, leaves, birds, figures, houses, bridges, each coming alive with the help of vivid colours and stitches. There are district scenes of Chinese life pagodas, shrines, boatmen, riverbanks, soldiers and cranes. The embroidery is very close to each other and the more intricate the design the more expensive the gara becomes. There also are several types of garas with quaint names like “ Kanda and Papeta gara’ which literally means onions and potatoes that resemble large pink and yellow polka dots, where the pink denotes onions and yellow the potatoes. The ‘Karolia’ or spider design is actually a flower. The chakla / chaki motif (male / female sparrow) and the mor (peacock) are some of the other variations. “There are still some Parsis who do not wear a peacock design as they consider it inauspicious,” informs Naju.
Surprisingly, the interest in the gara is not just restricted to the women but even men are ardent admires. One of Naju’s male clients who had searched the whole of China for a gara for his wife was very happy to know that he could buy one right here in Bombay!
A gara could either be fully embroidered or have a border with embroidery sprinkled all over or just partially embroidered. The popular stitches are the crewel, stem and long and short stitch and the French knot. The shades for the embroidery depend on the colour of the base material and the type of embroidery. The popular choice of thread is off white, Pastels are also favored. As many as 20 – 30 different shades of a colour are used in one design, with perfect blending to give it the effect of a painting. The texture of the thread could be either cotton or silk although the latter is more effective. The border of a gara is the cynosure of all eyes in most cases. It expands into the pallav of the sari, which is draped in front when worn in the Parsi style.
Naju who tries to recreate the original designs from small pieces of embroidery in her collection has also modified some. She is also experimenting with other forms of garments with embroidery similar to the gara. Materials too have changed to synthetic as well as crepe silk and chamois satins. The background colours in vague are navy blue, black, red and white. At any given time, Naju has nearly 40 designs on display and each is exclusive.
The start of a gara means a drawing o a design on paper. After that a small sample in the actual colours is prepared. This is then given to the craftsmen to study. The design is then traced onto the sari. A single design is repeated several times on a sari but is adjusted perfectly to blend into each other. Each sari is put on a loom at which 4 – 6 artisans work. The embroidery is done on an assembly line system - one worker does one particular motif only. Today’s gara can be hand washed at home in normal detergent and ironed unlike the originals. The longevity of the present saris is better than their predecessors,
Because of better fabrics and thread.
Originally considered a Parsi family heirloom, today with the help of Naju’s revival of the garment the gara has become the prized possession of women all over India. The original Chinese garas are considered priceless works of craftsmanship but the biggest compliment paid to Naju Daver’s efforts was the comment after hours of careful examination that it must be an original from China!
Because of the beauty and grandeur of the gara, jewellery is never worn with it and “ definitely not gold, but if one must dress it further then it should be with pearls only,” advises Naju.
Naju Daver, has sot to fame with her dedicated revival of an art form that would have died had it not been for their intense love for beauty and tradition that prompted her to work tirelessly in the promotion of the gara. “ I treat it more as my hobby and not a business and very often I don’t even like to part with the saris because they have become a part of my life as I have watched them being created.”
By Meher Castelino.