For his most recent collection Vintage Tales, textile designer Ashdeen Z. Lilaowala has taken inspiration from old Parsi photographs. One of the standout saris in the collection borrows its motifs from a gara sari hand-embroidered by Lilaowala’s grandmother and now worn by his mother. “I’ve changed the flow of the roses and birds for the design," Lilaowala says, with a laugh. “Otherwise, my mother might kill me."

The Delhi-based Lilaowala grew up surrounded by Parsi textiles and developed an early passion for design. As a textile design student at National Institute of Design (NID), he undertook a project on the kusti (sacred thread won by Parsis) in collaboration with the Unesco Parzor Foundation, which preserves Zoroastrian cultural heritage, in Delhi. At the same time, he also participated in a project on the development of gara embroidery. “I travelled to China, Iran, and across India, documenting collections. We also did workshops across India to make people aware of the embroidery," he recalls.

After graduation, Lilaowala started an embroidery unit, and making gara saris for friends led him to launch his eponymous label in 2012. “When I started the label, I wanted to create something which wouldn’t just be like copying an old gara," he says. “There had to be some innovation, be it changing the colours, form or fabric." The designer’s signature saris are distinctively Parsi in craftsmanship, but the motifs are reinterpreted through placement and proportion. While many designers have dabbled in gara, the craft is the bedrock of Lilaowala’s aesthetics. With a following that extends beyond the Parsi community, Lilaowala has expanded into accessories and bridalwear and collaborated with labels like Ekaya. In 2018, he launched his maiden flagship outlet in Delhi. Sitting in the store, Lilaowala spoke to Lounge on the history and significance of gara, modern interpretations and breaking myths. Edited excepts:

An artisan at Lilaowala’s workshop creates an embroidery pattern.
An artisan at Lilaowala’s workshop creates an embroidery pattern.

How did ‘gara’ come to be a part of the Parsi community and clothing culture?

Embroidered textiles, ceramics and many other things were by-products of the Parsi trade with China for tea and opium. The (Parsi) community was prosperous, and these textiles were unique from what was available in India before. Once the women started travelling to China, they added their own touches and flair to it. That’s when the craft grew and it became an amalgamation of Chinese, Persian and Indian traditions with elements of European culture. We have full saris called garas, and then we have borders called kors. A lot of women on day-to-day basis would wear these bordered saris. The fully embroidered ones were a luxury, and worn on occasions or festivals. For everyday wear, borders were much more flexible—you could put it on a sari and remove it later. The children would wear ijars (loose trousers) and jhabla (tunics) on festive occasions, when they went to fire temples, etc. Gara became an identity marker for the community. At one point it was quite popular not only in the community but among the richer circles of Bengal, Hyderabad, and north India (as well).

What makes ‘gara’ distinct from other textiles and embroideries?

If you notice the embroidery, it’s very artistically accurate. Parsi embroidery is all about nature, a reverence for nature, so it’s full of animals, birds or flowers, but not in any abstract way. It’s all very realistic. You won’t see a highly digitized motif—a peacock has to look like a peacock, a flower will be in full bloom. It is a very clear artistic representation.

How do you reinvent the ‘gara’ traditions in your designs?

Traditionally gara was made with gajji silk and salli gach, a light Leno weave. The colours used are blacks, purples, maroons, reds, darker hues with lighter embroidery. We’ve worked on net and incorporated gara on bandhani and leheriya; our new collection includes organza. In a few collections, we have done white-on-white embroidery and pastel colours.

Does the reinvention also extend to the motifs you use?

I’ll give an example of one motif—cranes. They are very much a part of Parsi embroidery but you’d always see it in a scene. My first sari depicted a lake with cranes flying on top—despite the water, you just saw the cranes. There was no pallu, or border. It became a sort of marker for our design direction. With the next collections, we blew up the (proportion of the) cranes and did lotus ponds with dragonflies and butterflies. We have a polka dot motif called kanda-papeta (meaning onions and potatoes), made bigger for an obvious statement. These are small interventions—it’s not like we’re doing something very different, but we are taking the repertoire further.

In our new collection, we have used the trellis design. You find it in saris but it’s rare and limited to borders. We have a sari with three borders and saris with silver work. Then there is another stitch called the khakha stitch, a small Peking knot that we do with a curved ari needle.

Ensembles from Lilaowala’s collection ‘Vintage Tales’.
Ensembles from Lilaowala’s collection ‘Vintage Tales’.

Isn’t ‘khakha’ the forbidden knot embroidery?

Yes, it is. But the myth of forbidden knots causing blindness is, in my opinion, bakwaas (rubbish). Research can dispel a lot of myths. People say that gara fabrics are soft because they are woven underwater. As a textile designer, I can assure you that nothing can be woven underwater. There are always legends that travel and grow stronger, and we’ve been working on kind of pushing those things out.

Your designs also feature Chinese motifs—calligraphy, pagodas. Is it a tribute to the textiles’ roots?

Historically, I think there was this fascination about China. The pagodas and bridges were architectural wonders. It’s a historical design and we’ve taken elements from it to create our own motifs.

How has your clientele evolved over the years?

We have a good Parsi clientele, but our whole business is not based on them. We have customers from Delhi, and even in Singapore, Dubai and the US. A lot of women who want to wear a gara don’t want to buy things that look exactly like what they already have. I’d say we’ve been very lucky that the women who buy from us come back. If we are innovative enough to have created something new, they buy again. That’s the challenge—to take the same language and change it.

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