Book Review

Parsis. The Zoroastrians of India. A Photographic Journey.
By Thrity Umrigar | Hamazor [publication of the World Zoroastrian Organisation] | Issue 4, 2004


If the Parsi community has a Renaissance woman, surely Sooni Taraporevala would be it. An award-winning screenwriter, she is also a well-known photographer, whose work has been exhibited in the United States, Europe and India.

For the last twenty-four years, Taraporevala has also been photographing the Parsi community in India, amassing a vast collection of photographs that capture her subjects at home and in public places such as weddings, the fire temple, the street and at the Tower of Silence. Along the way, she has captured all the rituals of Parsi life-the festive Navjote and wedding ceremonies, the public prayers at the shores of the Arabian sea, the lighting of the divas at the fire temple and finally, the last journey to the Tower of Silence.

Now, this labour of love has been assembled in a beautiful hardcover coffee-table book titled Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India A Photographic Journey (Overlook Press; $60).

There is such intimacy and immediacy to some of these photographs, that those of us born in India and now living in faraway places will feel our hearts involuntarily squeeze and sigh at the beloved familiarity and warmth of these pictures. The old men in their daglis, the bent old ladies in their cotton dressing gowns and head coverings, the elderly priests in their thick white beards and white sadras-all of these photographs feel as if they've popped out of our own individual photo albums.

Taraporevala has also shot several portraits of Parsis whose names and legends we grew up with-Sam Maneckshaw, Zubin Mehta, Freddy Mercury, Nani Palkhiwala, Dina Vakil, Farokh Udwadia. It will be a special thrill to readers of a certain age to see and recognize these faces, just as I suppose younger readers will rejoice at the photos of Simeen and Cyrus Oshidar, Navaz Bhatena and Shiamak Davar.

Some of my favorite photographs in this book are those of Taraporevala's own family-a wonderful portrait of her grandmother covering her face up as she laughs, her rail-thin grandfather dressed in baggy pants and a hat buying fountain pens at a roadside stall in Flora Fountain, and a candid, informal shot of the family spending an evening on the terrace of their building.

But as compelling as the photographs are, what really engaged me in this book was the accompanying text. The writing in the book ranges from a heartfelt, personal essay titled "My Bombay," where Taraporevala describes her close-knit, educated, cosmopolitan extended family, to interviews with a variety of subjects as diverse as Ratanshah Katila, a priest who lived in Udwada, to Cyrus Oshidar, creative director of MTV.

The book also has a lengthy introduction, which mixes personal and political history. It is a masterfully condensed history of the Parsis and even though many of the stories will be familiar to Parsi readers, Taraporevala has an amazing way of polishing an old story so that it sparkles. For instance, one line in the Introduction gave me chills: "Though most of us have no idea what we are praying, yet we have prayed these same prayers in an unbroken continuum from 1500 BC." That is truly an astonishing insight.

I was personally delighted to see that the last photograph in the book-as well as the photo that graces the cover-is my favorite Sooni Taraporevala picture. It features an old Parsi man in a sola hat gazing out at the wide expanse of the sea. His white pants are creased and a little too short; his brown suit jacket is tight and ill-fitting. In his left hand he carries a big, black old-fashioned umbrella. But the sky around him is the color of the sea-silver and baby-blue. Although we cannot see the man's face, something about the angle of his head, the tilt of his hat, makes me believe that he has a wistful expression on his face.

I fell in love with that photograph the instant that I saw it about four years ago. Something about this picture-something ineffable, something that goes beyond language-says Bombay to me. There's something terribly familiar about this big sky, this infinite sea, this solitary man.

Not all of Taraporevala's photographs have the same lyrical quality of this picture. But all of them serve another, useful purpose-they are vivid and permanent documents that testify to the daily life of a people who, according to the statisticians, may be on the verge of extinction. But look at the festive clothes, the warm bearhugs, the hearty laughs, the sheer vibrancy of the people in these photographs. Extinction is the last thing on their mind. As a caption on one of the photographs reminds us, "Parsis, love to laugh."

Sooni Taraporevala's book may occasionally make you laugh out loud. But mostly, it will make you do what all good art does-it will make you feel, think, smile, recognize. Above all, it will make you remember.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of a novel, Bombay Time, and a memoir, First Darling of the Morning. Her new novel, Thicker Than Water, will be published by HarperCollins next year.

An Exclusive:
Author interviews photographer, screenwriter

Thrity: Many of the photos in the book date back to the 1980s. When did the idea of collecting them all in a book first occur to you? What were the circumstances that led to the idea?

Sooni: From 1975 to 1980 I was an undergraduate at Harvard. That's where I took up photography - bought my first 'real' camera. In that period I came home twice and both times I took many photos in Bombay - including my own family, particularly my grandparents, granduncles and grandaunts , who I was very close to. In 1982 I moved back to Bombay and met Raghubir Singh who saw my portfolio - he's the one who suggested I work on a book on the Parsis. he said it hadn't been done, I had unique access as well as a feeling for the community. So that's how it began...

Thrity: You have gained renown as a screenwriter as well as a photographer. What is your primary identity? How do you think of yourself--as a photographer or a writer? Why?

I see myself as both - I was a photographer before I was a screenwriter though I have done a lot more professional work in screenwriting than in photography.

Thrity: Are there similarities between the two forms of artistic expression? What are they?

Sooni: The similarities are whatever you make of them. Personally - my photography spills into screenwriting through my ability to imagine visually. I prefer a style that shows rather than tells and I prefer minimum dialogue. My screenwriting spills into my photography through my love for story - many of my photographs capture a moment in time, and one can imagine a story around them, in the past and future. In fact I had married the two as an undergraduate. I had printed a set of 6 photographs - and for each photo had written an accompanying story.

Thrity: What are the circumstances that led to the photograph of the old man overlooking the sea that graces the jacket?

Sooni: It was ava mahino, ava roj - I have gone to Marine Drive every year to photograph. This was taken early in the morning. This old gentleman was at first witnessing other people praying - then he started praying facing the sea and I took the picture that has always been and continues to be my "top of the pops."

Thrity: Did living abroad for many years make you see your subjects in a different way? If so, can you describe that process?

Sooni: It didn't make me see my 'subjects' in a different way - though I began to see Parsis in a new light. Growing up in Bombay, as you did, one is always surrounded by Parsis - it was only when I left and went to America did I realize what a miniscule community we were - how 'irrelevant' we were to the world at large - nobody had ever heard of us (except for some super erudite intellectual types).

Thrity: Why was photographing Parsis an interesting subject for you?

Sooni: Because Parsis are close to my heart. Because I have this desire I guess, to inform and educate people about us - it's like saying "here we are! look at us! This is who we are, what we believe in, how we live."

Thrity: What are your current photography and writing projects?

Sooni: I have adapted Jhumpa Lahiri's book The Namesake, Hari Kunzru's book The Impressionist and Tony Kushner's play Homebody/Kabul - all for Mira Nair. I am hoping to start on a new photography project soon but till I do I'd rather not speak about it.

Thrity: What would you like readers of this book to know or understand about you?

Sooni: I'd like the book to speak for itself. It's intimate and personal as well as being a historical record. I believe that history is made up of individuals - I wanted to document the faces and voices of the community, for my children and others of their generation.


Hamazor | Issue 4, 2004

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