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Parsi Embroidery (India)

A Parsee girl’s tunic (jubla) embroidered with birds, flowers and plants in silk thread on a mid-blue ground (Surat, India, c. 1870 A Parsee girl’s tunic (jubla) embroidered with birds, flowers and plants in silk thread on a mid-blue ground (Surat, India, c. 1870 Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, acc. no. 1426A-1874.

The Parsis of western India traditionally practise a form of Zoroastrianism, the teachings of the Iranian prophet Zarathustra, who is known in the West as Zoroaster. He regarded Ahura Mazda as the supreme being and who sharply distinguished between Good and Evil. It was the state religion of Persia prior to the Muslim conquest of the country from the seventh century AD.

Until comparatively recently, the two main groups of Zoroastrians were those living in Iran (especially around Yazd in southeastern Iran) and in Western India (especially in Gujarat, Kutch and Mumbai). The Indian Parsis (Parsi simply means ' Persian') descended from Iranian Zoroastrian refugees from the time of the Islamic conquests onwards. With the mass emigrations of the twentieth century there are now Parsi groups living in various Western and Asian communities.

The majority of the Parsis adopted Indian dress and language, but they retained their own religious and ethnic identity. Various items of Parsi clothing, especially for women and girls, were embroidered. Girls, for example, tended to wear a loose tunic (jubla), wide trousers (ijor) and a round cap, all of which could be embroidered. Married women might wear the outfit just described or saris that were associated with Hindu women.

Many Parsi families, especially those living in Mumbai, were involved in trade and had strong contacts with China, especially since the mid-nineteenth century when Parsi traders sold their products (especially cotton) in China (Canton/Guangzhou). There they came into contact with Chinese embroiderers. As a result, Chinese embroideries, often brought to India by Chinese traders, became a feature of a Parsi woman’s wardrobe.

Embroidered jubla, bands (kor) used for sewing on garments, especially saris, or even complete chiffon, gauze or satin saris (called gara) were elaborately embroidered in China. Their designs were often a mixture of Chinese and older European export patterns. Often the designs were embroidered on a coloured ground (purple, red, or black) using white silk thread, with a variety of stitches, such as Peking stitch, satin stitch and various types of knots. Red silk saris with white Chinese embroidery, for example, were worn by Parsi brides during their wedding festival (but not apparently for the actual wedding ceremony itself).

Because Chinese hand looms were smaller than Indian ones, Chinese woven fabrics made into Parsi saris normally have a lengthwise seam due to the addition of an extra, half-width of material (Lynton 1995:151). This type of sari is called a do-patti (two-strip) sari. Many of Chinese/Parsi saris were embroidered with flowers, leaves, birds, animals, people (in Chinese dress), and scenes of bridges spanning water. Black and violet were common colours for the ground, while wedding related gharas were in brilliant red or orange-red. In the early to mid-twentieth century, gold coloured badla decoration on navy coloured and other plain fabrics became popular, with applied borders with Chinese embroideries on satin bands, or sometimes sequins sewn onto a net ground.

Another popular garment among late nineteenth century Parsis was a white sari that was machine embroidered in imitation of broderie anglaise (Lynton 1995:150). Tunics, saris and sari borders made in China and brought to Bombay by itinerant Chinese traders were sold directly to Parsi women in their homes. The women would sew the borders onto their own saris. This trade disappeared in the late 1940's and early 1950's when the Chinese authorities closed China’s borders.

Parsi women, in their turn, soon started to imitate the originally Chinese embroideries and developed a more hybrid style, using a wider variety of motifs, including the cypress tree and the famous chakla chakli (opposing birds), both allegedly recalling the Iranian origins of the Parsis, but also the lotus and peacock, recalling their new habitat in India, while still using the Chinese peonies, roses, chrysanthemums, etc. They also changed the technique, making use of different stitches, including the (in)famous 'forbidden stitch' (khakha stitch, more universally known as the Peking knot). Now a disappearing craft, the old tradition of Parsi embroidery in Western India is being supported by the Parzor Foundation, with the help of UNESCO and the Indian government.

Source: LYNTON, Linda (1995). The Sari: Styles, Patterns, History, Techniques, London: Thames and Hudson.

V&A online catalogue (retrieved 29 May 2016)

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Last modified on Monday, 03 October 2016 18:08