Parsi Zoroastrian arts and crafts draw upon a minimum of four cultural traditions, Iranian, Indian, Chinese and European to produce a hybrid form of astonishing beauty. Parsis brought to India the richest of Chinese silk weaving and their first significant contribution to the economic aspects of the arts and crafts of India was in the field of textiles.
Among distinctive Parsi crafts one of primary importance to the community is Parsi cuisine now being popularized all over the world, a cuisine that gathers into itself the best and richest from many landsThese arts and crafts range from traditional bone setting to sophisticated modern sculpture. An exhaustive catalogue of this vast contribution can only appear at the conclusion of this stage of the Project.
Religious Arts and Crafts
Kusti weaving, sudreh stitching, chalk designs, torans of silver, beads and flowers, diva na kakda were traditionally part of daily life.The Kusti and Sudreh are to Zoroastrians, the symbol of their faith but are often taken for granted. Few are aware of the craft and significance behind this daily ritual. While working on recording “arts and crafts” in Navsari, the project documented the intricate, ancient technique of weaving the Kusti on both the Old and New looms. This initial visit made Parzor realize that Kusti weaving called for a full craft study, especially since most weavers are aging.Under the aegis of the Project, in collaboration with the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) Gujarat and the NID of Ahmedabad, Ashdeen Lilowala of NID, worked with the weavers and has produced a monograph “Threads of Continuity”. His research records the technique of making the Kusti and Sudreh, documents social, cultural and religious usage as well as the ritual role of these garments in the life of Parsi Zoroastrians.This illustrated monograph was exhibited at Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Delhi. It attracted the attention not only of members of the community but also of international textile experts. This interesting piece of research would make a world-class book, informative and interesting.“Threads of Continuity”— Extracts from the book by Ashdeen Lilaowala.
“The Kusti Documentation work started with a Craft Study and Documentation of Kusti weaving practised and carried out by the Zoroastrian community. The emphasis was on the process followed, it’s significance in the Zoroastrian faith and it’s placement in the larger socio-cultural context. In order to understand the importance of the use of yarn, thread and fabric in religious rituals, auspicious occasions and in daily life I had to comprehend the different Rites of Passage. The study required me to document the craft being practiced in both Gujarat and Bombay, two major centers of Zoroastrian settlements in India. The information collected in the field has been recorded and analyzed in the form of text and visuals. The main document after compilation has been aptly named “Threads of Continuity, A study of the textiles used in rituals and customs of the Zoroastrian community.”The Kusti book starts with a chapter on the rites of passage, which deals with ceremonies performed from the time of pregnancy to birth followed by the navjote and marriage and ending with death. I have tried to understand the importance of these ceremonies and rituals by looking at the different attributes, which amalgamate to give meaning to them, as well as, the significance and symbolism of various materials and objects used during the ceremonies. It is vital to place these ceremonies in a larger socio cultural context and understand their relevance and significance in today’s society. I feel that today some customs are followed religiously while others have lost their relevance in the modern urban life style. Part of the community is not aware of the importance of several traditional practices. These practices are performed but as mere rituals, which are part of the Zoroastrian tradition. These rituals have over the years been reduced to suit urban and economic constraints. A certain level of laxity amongst the urban community has caused a vast distinction between ceremonies and rituals celebrated in cities, smaller towns and villages of India. I hope that the project can make people aware and appreciate our rich, diverse culture and the meanings of our practices.
Daily practices such as the kusti, divo, loban, chauk and a visit to the agairy are carried out by Zoroastrians all over the world. The sacred garment –sudreh and the sacred thread- kusti play an important role in the life of Zoroastrians and in everyday life. In the document I have looked at the religious symbolism of the kusti and its relation with the Sudreh. The making of the kusti and sudreh are part of a living heritage, which link craft and art to religious traditions. The tradition of kusti weaving is practiced in various parts of the country. Earlier a priest or his wife wove the kustis. Due to the diminishing boundaries between the priestly class and laity, women of the laity have also started weaving kustis. What was once considered a domestic skill necessary for every young girl, and taught at Parsi girl’s schools, has with the changing times become a specialized craft practiced mainly by elderly women.
There is a level of fear amongst most Zoroastrians that the craft is on a steady decline and drastic measures should be taken for the craft to survive. The craft at one level has reached a point where the religious significance has been over shadowed by a monetary motive. Use of alternative materials in kusti making is an issue, which has to be tackled. Most weavers feel that the craft will flourish “With the will of God”. In order for the craft to survive and be appreciated the community will have to be educated about it. The significance of a Kusti, and the technique of its weaving, need to be highlighted through stories and oral traditions of the religion.Being a textile design student it was essential to comprehend the weaving process, looms, tools and implements used during weaving, their evolution and ongoing developments. Study and analysis of the fabric structure, texture, material, count of yarn used etc. was carried out. The fabric structure of the kusti being unique was extremely complex and took maximum time to be fathomed.
I hope and anticipate that my effort to document the ceremonies, rituals and crafts may help further the progress of the community. It must generate interest amongst the youth, as we are the future of the community. It is high time that we the youth and the whole Zoroastrian community start to accumulate, study and treasure our fast depleting culture.”
UNESCO acts as a catalyst in Cultural Projects such as the Parzor Project. It is upto the community to raise the necessary funding for specific modules. Parzor is keen to publish “Threads of Continuity” as an affordable book for the Parsi community and Textile experts all over the world. To bring out “Threads Of Continuity” as a fully illustrated colour book, with its over 175 colour plates and 15 line drawings will cost around Rs 600,000. Parzor would like to appeal to the readers for donations for this purpose.
The history of Parsi furniture with its distinctive carvings again shows cross-cultural links.An amalgam of South Indian rosewood carving techniques with Chinese, Portuguese and Gujarati wooden designs this distinctive art form and detailed carving method needs historical study and research.
Parsi homes still contain distinctive furniture with glazed tiles, which reveal Iranian links. Much of this furniture is in need of restoration as well as protection to prevent it being taken out of this country.
The making of Sapat, special velvet, leather and wooden slippers traditionally worn at home and by priests, the Pagdi, Topi, Parsi Headdress are some of the traditional crafts of the Parsis.
Parsis also excelled historically in the craft of clock and watch making and repair. In 1744 Dhanjishaw of Surat was summoned to Delhi by the Emperor to repair a clock and given the title “Neksatkhan”, Lord of the Auspicious Hour Clock. The title Taleyarkahn also comes from this professional craft. Several Parsi firms e.g. Pundole & Sons were established and continue the craft of horology.
The bone setting, Vaid and Hakim traditions of the Parsis continue today in the Hadvaid and Madhivala families.
PARZOR has managed to record some of the techniques: See ‘Medical Section’ for Details on this.
The “life enchancing” faith of Zoroastrianism commands its followers to celebrate life. The Parsis have followed this injuction to the fullest and have always enjoyed the good things of this world. The performing arts in every culture have a very ancient heritage and are linked with religious observations and customs. Music and ceremonial songs accompanied traditional joyous events such as births, navjotes and weddings. The traditional celebration of life among the Zoroastrians has been recorded by travellers since ancient times. In Gujarat the local influences were added to create a distinctive school of Parsi Gujarati Garbas and Khyals and the cross cultural inter-linking of Persian and Indian elements needs to be documented because it is one of the early elements in the creation of our pluralistic modern Indian society.
Parsis were pioneers in Gujarati theatre, in adaptations from Shakespeare and other English classics. Plays were often translated into Urdu to tap the markets of North India. Similarly in music and modern dance, in films as well as in western classical and pop music in India, Parsi contribution included of adaptation and fusion of the Western and Indian traditions.
Parsis have pioneered the adaptation of the kutputhli puppet tradition to modern themes and messages. Collections of western musical scores and records, instruments both Indian and Western are found in many Parsi homes and need to be preserved.
The history of Parsi commerce and industry is closely linked with the art of weaving textiles. Centred at Surat, three of India’s traditional crafts the Surti Ghat, the Tanchoi and the Garo were pioneered by Parsi weavers. The Ghat was handwoven silk but so strong that it was compared to the strength of the Surat Ghat or Mountains, this is how this silk was named. The Sali Garo and Tanchoi were originally Chinese crafts, the tanchoi being named after the three (Tan) Parsi Joshi brothers from China (Choi). Gandhiji himself visited the Joshi family and invited him after Independence to organise the Tanchoi Centres, which today exist across India. Collections of these silks are necessary for the archives/ museum to be created in this Project.After leaving Iran the Zoroastrians from Pars came to adopt Indian costumes, including the sari. But they gave it the stamp of their individuality and Parsi saris with their embroidery and gorgeous borders form a distinct and elegant part of the textile heritage of India. The embroidered Parsi saris amalgamated Indian and Chinese silk-weaving techniques and Chinese and European embroidery stitches and motifs.The famous Tanchois of Surat (and later of Benares) originated with three Parsi Jokhi brothers (tan -Choi) who learnt the technique in China and brought it to India. The Parzor team has been able to locate some of the first original sample-pieces of Tanchoi made on the looms with the seal of the family woven onto them. The history of how this art was taught to the weavers of Benares and Tanchoi weaving centres set up in various parts of India through the urging of Gandhiji and Kamladevi Chattopadhya will be further documented by the Project. Parsi textiles and embroidery could make a fascinating fully illustrated book for not only a Parsi but a national and international readership.An in depth research module on textiles and embroidery is in progress. Ashdeen Lilaowala and other researchers have discovered very important intercultural symbols from both the Chinese and Persian traditions and have also been working on special stitches and techniques. Various elderly Parsi ladies who are among the few left who still know the intricate and rare stitches, which make up the beauty of Parsi embroidery, have assisted Parzor.Parzor is looking for support for these studies and the ultimate publication of this very important craft documentation.Recently a revival of Parsi kor embroidery is sweeping across India. This most attractive of the Parsi arts and crafts has produced invaluable garments fully embroidered by hand. The Gara, the Kor, Topi, Ijar are all examples which are embellished with perfect embroidery. The art was originally based on Chinese embroidery and contains motifs of birds, animals, flowers, scenes and stories often with clear Chinese influence e.g. Pagodas and Chinamen.A Revival of Parsi embroidery has begun with Parzor working under the DC Handicrafts Schemes for reviving craft heritage. Parzor has conducted workshops at Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Navsari and Delhi. A symposium has been held at Mumbai along with a Parsi textile exhibition. Click here for Ahmedabad , Delhi , Navsari , Mumbai .
To read about Parzor’s continuing work on Parsi textiles Click here.
To trace the historical origins of Gujarati theatre, the translations and adaptations of Shakespeare and the origins of the Parsi Comedy. Amateur Parsi dramatic societies have flourished in many locations, the Parsi Daramatic Soceity of Elphinstone College being formed as early as 1850. The last in the tradition of the great Parsi theatre families is the Yezdi Karanjia Group of Surat who possess vast archival material worth documentation. Costumes used in Parsi theatre can be collected as part of the archival/ museum programme. To read more about Parsi theatre, Click here.PARZOR has also compiled a full list of the play scripts donated by the Calcutta Amatuer Dramatics Club(CADC) when Parzor visited Calcutta . These represent 100 years of Parsi theatre performed regularly by the CADC. Mr.Noshir Gherda, who played an active role in the CADC, including acting as a beautiful lady, took the Parzor team to visit the CADC premises which have become neglected over time. CADC, which is planning to shift out of these building requested Parzor to preserve their collection of Parsi Theatre items for posterity. We invite researchers to explore the fascinating world of Parsi theatre which pioneered the modern theatre movement in India.
The traditional Monajats in Gujarati through which children were taught the meaning of prayers were sung daily. Women were the repositories of traditional ceremonial music and the Garbas of Gujarat were adapted to Parsi situations and legends. The Garbas / Khyal of the heroism of the women of Vyara and other historical events including the Sanjan landing were sung with pride over the centuries and helped to preserve and pass on the traditions, history and legends.
Dance and puppetry
The cross cultural influences of the west and east are apparent in dance as in puppetry where Meher Contractor was the first to revive and reinterpret this ancient performing art of India. Sangeet Natak Akademi National Awardee Dadi Pudmjee continues her traditions and uses puppets to carry social, environmental and other messages of importance to the public across India and the world.
Pioneers in Indian films include Sorab Modi winner of the Dadasaheb Phadke Award, J.B. Wadia of Wadia Movietone, Jehangir Bhownagary, Freni Variava. The late Parvez Meherwanji’s Percy was a pioneering attempt to explain the Parsi psyche to all Indians. In playback singing Parsi music directors have made their mark. Saraswati Devi the first Indian woman music director in films was a Parsi, Khurshid Minocher – Homji.The PARZOR project in its field trips has recorded information on many of the above aspects This information will form the seeds for deeper research into each aspect by individual scholars/students working with PARZOR.