Parsis at Chemould Prescott Road

Chronicler of a community
By Sankhayan Ghosh | The Indian EXPRESS | March 04, 2013


Sooni Taraporevala’s photographs, being exhibited in Mumbai, provides an intimate view of the Parsi community.

An endearing aspect of Sooni Taraporevala’s photographic documentation of Parsis is the “insider’s view” of her community. It cuts out the exoticism an outsider might have brought in and makes the works a true representation of the lives of Parsis. Taraporevala also has access to places closely guarded by the community, such as the religious spaces and the Tower of Silence, where dead bodies are left to be fed to vultures. As a result, her work is among the most-detailed visual documentations of the Parsi community in 20th century India.

“An outsider may have looked at the Parsis as a specimen or symbol but, to me, they were just people I knew,” says Taraporevala, about a documentation process that began more than three decades ago. Her works were published in a coffee-table book in 2004 called Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India. Several images from the book as well as recent and largely unseen photographs form a part of an exhibition titled “Parsis” at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road gallery from March 5 to April 6. More than 100 works are on display.

Better known as the screenwriter of the Mira Nair films, Salaam Bombay! (1988) and The Namesake (2006), Taraporevala began photographing in the late ’70s. Growing up in a family of amateur photographers, she developed a visual flair quite early. The two creative streams, of words and images, eventually branched out into the broader disciplines of screenwriting and film direction (she made Little Zizou in 2009).

A self-taught photographer, Taraporevala honed her skills through practice, though she counts French photographer Henry Cartier-Bresson as one of her major influences. Her sense of symmetry, she says, has been shaped largely by studying the geometric precision of Bresson’s works. “I got a chance to send him my book through someone I knew. He sent it back to me with a note. That was a year before he passed away. I haven’t received a more precious gift ever,” she says.

Another aspect of Bresson’s style that runs through Taraporevala’s photographs is the candidness. The photographs are probably the closest glimpse into the intimate environs of Parsi homes, private parties and close-knit colonies. From her family and friends, to famous Parsis such as music conductor Zubin Mehta, the subjects in Taraporevala’s snapshots are presented unselfconsciously and in unguarded moments.

The backdrops add to the nostalgia. Rich details are packed into the frames and objects such as a vintage Cola poster and an iconic Parsi soda that appear as signposts to an era gone by. “I always try to capture the world around the subject. The context is important to me,” says the 55-year-old, who graduated from Harvard University in English.

Literature and completed her post-graduation in cinema studies at New York University.

One of her quirks is a fondness for elderly men and children as subjects. There are few photos of people of other age groups. “I grew up very close to my grandparents. Elderly people have the wisdom and experience, like a map of time. While children, as the cliche goes, are direct, without any agendas,” she says.


The Indian EXPRESS | March 04, 2013

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