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Did you know that...German looms manufactured sari borders?

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Well in advance of the British East India Company´s regulations of Indo-Chinese trade, several Parsee families had already established extensive trade relations with China. To a large extent they entered its cotton and opium trade, which became instrumental in developing a genre of Chinese embroidery, known as 'Parsee embroidery' or 'Parsee borders'. When this China trade declined, the Germans apparently entered the market, exporting their colourful embroidered borders to Mumbai, thereby substituting the Chinese variety.

This close contact with China influenced the daily lifestyle of the Parsees in a significant way. Wealthy Parsee homes of Mumbai were soon filled with Chinese porcelain as well as furniture and curiosity cabinets. But the single-most visible feature of the Chinese influence on the Parsees was the adaptation of the Chinese embroidery style to their women’s clothing – especially the sari. The Parsee community, mainly concentrated in Mumbai and Gujarat, developed a charm and affection for this peculiar brand of silken embroidery made in China.

The embroidered Parsee sari is known as gara – deriving from the Gujarati word garo, meaning a stretch or length of a cloth. Originally, the lengths of cloth were turned into garas by adding embroidered borders along the two lengthwise edges, which were readily available in the Chinese market. But by and by, the Parsee traders gave their own specifications to the Chinese embroiderers to suit a sari and the Gujarati manner of draping it – for example what kind of work needed to define the main end-panel and the secondary one, the density of the embroidery for the central portion and the sides along the borders, the colours or motifs. These borders were rather heavy what helped keeping in place the head and shoulder portion and provided the requisite fall at the bottom. Delicately scrolling foliage, with motifs of birds and animals – especially flying peacocks – defined the ornamental vocabulary.

This precious ‘Parsee embroidery' became so deeply entrenched into their lifestyle and culture that it became a convention to use it for almost all the rituals of passage of life, such as initiation, marriage and celebration of the New Year. Such borders were removed from worn-out garas and put on to new ones, and inherited by the daughters and daughter-in-law, thus making them items of heirloom.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Indo-China Indian trade declined considerably. Supposedly, at this time German-made embroidered sari borders began to flood the Mumbai market, most of them in the broad idiom of the Parsee sari borders.

A decade ago, a large number of folders with swatches of such borders surfaced in the Indian art market. The folders are invariably marked by a prominent rubber stamp inscription “MADE IN GERMANY” on the front side and contained the names of their Mumbai-based agents, such 'Dubash', located in Charni Road area, a stronghold of the community in Mumbai. Interesting are the dates of these orders from 1932 to 1935, and the hand-written notes in German in one of the design files, which refer to the colouring of the borders; such as ‘hellgrün’ (light green), ‘rot’ (red), ‘pink’ (magenta), ‘blau’ (blue). In some also scribblings of ‘Messrs. J.P. Balsara’, notably from Gujarat, are found.

Though the swatch folders verfify that these borders were imported from Germany, the location of their manufacture has yet to be established. In Germany, such colourful floral borders with exquisite scrolling flower motifs were used as decorative braids on elaborate local costumes. These so-called Trachtenborten decorated skirts, aprons, sleeves, scarves or caps for women and children, but hats, suspenders or jackets for men as well. It is likely that the manufacture of these floral borders was not limited to one town or region. Many areas with a fine handicraft and costume tradition such as Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, the Erz Mountains, Central Franconia, Swabia and Bavaria could be in all probability the places of origin. For instance Plauen, in the region of Vogtland in Saxony, was a major centre of lace and braid production, while Cologne was known as the hub for the so-called Kölner Borten (‘Cologne borders’) during the Middle Ages. Equally, the Alpine regions of Bavaria had various production centres for such particular borders.

But till more research is done in this hitherto unknown area of Indo-German relations all this remains guesswork.

Author: Dr. Jutta Jain-Neubauer

© German Embassy New Delhi

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