Figure 1- A Pair of Magpies
The practice of love for a community takes shape in the most intimate of ways – conjugality. Yet, the intimacy is dictated by the needs of society. A heterosexual couples’ ability to procreate, places them as one of the foundations of society. Love, in a conjugal relationship need not necessarily centre itself around romance. Love plays out in the steps they take together; being responsible for each other, setting up a home together and preparing for the next generation.
Dwindling communities like the Parsis have been actively trying to keep their legacy alive by pushing for a baby boom. In 2013, a government funded scheme was set up known as the ‘Jiyo Parsi’ aims to encourage procreation among the Parsis community to maintain its purity and cultural heritage. The need to marry one’s kind and ensure procreation is driven home in the advertisements of the scheme. (to read more: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/jiyo-parsi-ad-campaign-gives-birth-to-controversy/article19467827.ece)
The Parsi community in India is primarily situated in Bombay. Originally Zoroastrians from Iran, they migrated to Gujarat in the 8th Century. They immediately integrated themselves in the landscape by taking up farming, commerce and trade and soon became respected in their field. In the 18th and 19th century when Bombay was growing to become a trading capital, many Parsis shifted. They became pioneers of trade as they conveniently owned most of the shipping and goods companies. Through trade they were exposed to different communities and cultures. Known for their cosmopolitanism, they adopted various cultural metaphors from other traditions and integrated them into their own lifestyle. The Parsi identity that has become a topic of preservation over the years is unique because of its ambiguous nature. It is marked by the sharing and absorbing of various cultural strands. The Chinese ‘Pair motifs’ replicated on Parsi clothing is an example of borrowing from other cultures. The significance of the Chinese ‘pair motifs’ in stressing conjugality and procreation synchronises with the ideals of the Parsi.
CONVERSING WITH CHINA
The Parsi connection with China was woven through multiple ways. Some worked through the East India Company while others privately engaged with Chinese traders. Spices, cotton, tea, opium and silk were traded. One of the most sought-after items were those made of Cantonese embroidery. Using satin stitch, “symbolic motifs were put together in a way that to a foreign customer was exotically Chinese whereas to the domestic viewer they appeared to be mere curiosities” (Shah and Vatsal 2010, 111). Shawls depicting Chinese daily life and flower and bird symbols catered to foreign markets in Europe and to the Parsis. Though the boatmen and pagodas have symbolic value in Chinese culture they were placed on these textiles haphazardly, showing that they were merely placed for ‘exotic’ appeal. The Parsi customer was present on both spectrums of the market- the foreign but also the domestic wherein symbols like birds and flowers were neatly themed in tandem with Chinese beliefs.
Every motif in China had an auspicious undertone to it. Winter- plum, spring- peony, summer- lotus and autumn- chrysanthemum. Animals and birds were paired accordingly with these flowers to symbolise luck, sorrow, love and wealth. One of interest, is the symbolism of the conjugal couple that is represented through a pair of animals or birds; the male and female. Pairs that are most commonly found on textiles are Mandarin Ducks, Magpies, Goldfish, Cranes and Partridges.
Figure 2- A Pair of Goldfish
The story of the Mandarin Duck revolves around the King of Song who once kidnapped one of his officer’s wives. The officer committed suicide out of grief of being separated from his wife. Soon after, his wife passed away. She wished to be buried in the same tomb as her husband but the King dismissed this wish and had two separate tombs constructed opposite each other. A night after, two trees uprooted themselves to push the graves together and created a canopy above the graves. Later, Mandarin Ducks would frequent the site and sing in a lamenting fashion as if they were incarnations of the officer and his wife. The ducks emphasise the power of conjugality and its strength to overcome separation and death. On textiles, the ducks are paired with lotuses which reflect harmony and eternal bliss.
Figure 3- A Pair of Mandarin Ducks
Magpies are believed to bring good luck and happiness to a couple. “According to Chinese legend, a famous pair of separated lovers is reunited once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month (qīxī 七 夕 ) on a celestial bridge made of made of flocks of magpies. As a result, a pair of magpies represents conjugal bliss and fidelity” (Welch 2008).
Figure 4- A Pair of Magpies on a Jhabla
GARAS and JHABLAS
In the Parsi collections pair motifs are found seated next to one another either facing each other or looking away but their physical proximity reflects their intimacy. The motif of the magpies were frequently found on Parsi clothing. So much so that they were given the term ‘Chakla-Chakli’ (which is a play on the word sparrow). Chinese motifs were primarily found on garas (sarees) worn by the women and jhablas (garments worn by children). The garas like the saree is an unstitched piece of cloth that is worn in the Gujarati style wherein the pallu is draped in front. As a result of trading, garas were prepared in China while sometimes silk was imported from China and it was manufactured locally in Surat. Over time, Garas were made using different fabrics and new motifs were incorporated but the Chinese ones remained. Were these motifs found in a pattern book from a workshop in China? Were they chosen for their symbolic value? Were some embroideries stitched based on what Indian clients customised?
These questions remain unclear. What is worth observing is the use of these motifs on womens’ garments like the gara and childrens’ clothing- jhabla. Unlike the pair motifs that connect the couple, the motifs found on these two garments highlight the essence of conjugality and procreation in a different manner. The gara is gifted by the mother to her daughter on special occasions like her wedding. The handing down of the knowledge of duties in marriage is embedded in the motif. Similarly, the pair motifs found on the jhablas are playful and sweet with birds and animals but they underline the significance of procreation. Regardless of whether the child understands it or not, he grows up with these pictorial imagery. They, like the magpie, goldfish and duck must find a mate within their community and seek to create a safe, harmonious conjugal foundation for the next generation to rely on.
Written by Rukmini Swaminathan.
Rukmini is a researcher at The Registry of Sarees. She is interested in textile, design and architecture history and hopes to explore her interests through these journal entries.
Hartman, Charles. 1993. "Literary and Visual Interactions in Lo Chih-ch'uan's "Crows in Old Trees"." Metropolitan Museum Journal 129-167.
Ptak, Chiara Bocci and Roderich. 2016. "The Entries on Birds in Liu Xun’s Lingbiao lu yi." Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient 297-352.
Rawson, Jessica. 2006. "Ornament as System: Chinese Bird-and-Flower Design." The Burlington Magazine ,Vol. 148, 380-389.
Shah, Shilpa, and Tulsi Vatsal. 2010. Peonies and Pagodas; Embroidered Parsi Textiles. Surat : Garden Surat Mills.
Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. 2008. Chinese Art; A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery . Tokyo, Singapore, Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing .
Figure 1- A Pair of Magpies
Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. 2008. Chinese Art; A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, 2008,83
Figure 2 - A Pair of Goldfish
Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. 2008. Chinese Art; A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, 2008,54
Figure 3- A Pair of Mandarin Ducks
Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. 2008. Chinese Art; A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, 2008,52
Figure 4-A Pair of Magpies
Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. 2008. Chinese Art; A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, 2008,82