Lady Gara

In Mumbai, a group of skilled restorers helps a traditional Parsi garment survive through generations

Inside the Ratan Tata Institute, where work on gara saris is ongoing. GITANJALI DANG FOR THE CARAVAN
Elections 2024
01 October, 2011

ALMOST EVERY INDIAN HOUSEHOLD has its collection of heirloom saris. No family closet is complete without them. And no family closet is complete without a little visit from Tineola bisselliella, aka the Common Clothes Moth, and meddlesome time.

At the Ratan Tata Institute (RTI) near Tardeo in South Mumbai, they don’t claim to bend time or be experts in the feeding habits of Tineola, but they do know better than most that a stitch in time can save a sari—or some saris anyway. In the RTI’s embroidery department, a group of affable women and men is dedicatedly restoring heirlooms and creating new ones. Despite the department’s commitment to saris of every temper—they take on a variety of distress calls, including cutwork restoration—it isn’t long before you realise that the gara sari is the preferred child.

A crash course in the history of the gara: 19th century Parsi traders who travelled to China on account of work introduced gara embroidery in India. Originally a Chinese craft, the gara has long since been appropriated and popularised by Indian sari aficionados. As a result, although the country’s Parsi population is threatened by its fast-depleting numbers, the gara sari—another sterling contribution by the mild-mannered community to the nation’s cultural fabric—is readily available at several  stores across the country.

Over time, however, gara embroidery has transformed. The painstakingly hand-embroidered patterns are now achieved by a more convenient combination of hand and machine. The elaborate motifs of the past, which included pagodas and scenes from everyday life in China, have been overwhelmed by the safer, but ever-popular, floral patterns. However, every so often, the RTI does get a visitor who wants the whole shebang done anew. One went so far as to have an entire zoo embroidered on a sari.

The original gara appeared in two avatars, one where the embroidery trellised its way across the entire sari and the other where it stuck to the border. According to members of the RTI’s restoration team, border control, as such, is easier because the embroidery is extracted from the old fabric and simply, but carefully, reattached to a new length of silk. It is, however, quite apparent that the trickier cases, where individual flowers and such need to be restored—with sometimes up to five shades worked into a single flower—are the ones that truly test the restorer’s ability and hence are cherished the most.

There are things that can be restored and there are others that simply cannot. A recurring nightmare among those who own the original traditional garas is bleeding colours. A few spots of water are enough to cause colours to smudge over the intricate embroidery.

Despite easy access to the gara embroidery in workshops across the country, the RTI’s remains unique in part because of the people who work there. Their gang of restorers and embroiderers has remained unchanged for decades; a quick survey reveals that 20 years is the average time these folks have clocked up. This, combined with their zeal for preserving the past—an uncommon, if not rare, virtue in a country where the past is constantly contravened—makes the RTI workshop one of a kind.