|Parsis at Chemould Prescott Road|
A Portrait of India’s Parsi Community
Sooni Taraporevala is always photographing, from the changing streets of Mumbai to her family on quiet evenings at home. “My kids are fed up. They’re like stars warding off paparazzi,” she says. “But they love looking back at old pictures.”
These old pictures include shots of the Parsi community, Zoroastrians who emigrated from Persia to India and to which Ms. Taraporevala and her family belong.
On March 5, her exhibition “Parsis” opened in Mumbai. It depicts Parsis with the remarkable sensitivity of an insider who seeks to include others. It is a tribute of sorts to her family and extended family— friends, neighbors, and members of the shrinking but close-knit community.
The photographs move seamlessly from busy outdoor spaces to the quiet intimacy of living rooms and times of devotion.
Many were first published in 2000, in “Parsis: A Photographic Journey.” Ms. Taraporevala says she avoided controversy in her book, but with the exhibition she included photographs that could provoke debate about changing attitudes and practices.
An image of filmmaker Dinaz Stafford, during her traditional wedding to Matt Black, a non-Parsi, challenges orthodox notions that disapprove of marriage outside the community, particularly for women. “But the exhibition is a personal statement, not a political one,” said Ms. Taraporevala. “It’s my way of explaining who the Parsis are to the rest of the world.”
She also captures the eccentricity and humor of the community. In one photograph, an old Parsi man fumbles around the pocket of his dagli, a white waistcoat, on Bhaji Gully (vegetable lane), clutching three oranges and balancing a papaya in the other hand. He remains oblivious to the bemused fruit and vegetable vendors watching him. The fruit looks like it could fall and roll out of frame at any instant, but whether or not he would chase after it is left up to the viewer’s imagination.
To convey a more serious dimension of being Zoroastrian, Ms. Taraporevala takes her camera into agiarys, or fire temples, which remain inaccessible to non-Parsis. This dismantles some of the mystery shrouding Parsi places of worship and at the same time gently reminds the viewer that different faiths bump against each other in Mumbai, a city that prides itself on religious pluralism.
Another quintessentially Mumbai image depicts a Parsi man holding the Zend Avesta, the religion’s holy book, to his head as he prays beside two bare-chested Brahmin priests on Marine Drive.
The exhibition includes pictures from Ms. Taraporevala’s own life. In one, her grandfather seems to be admonishing the shopkeeper at Jaora Fountain Pen Depot as he tries to get an old pen repaired. “He had to raise his voice because he couldn’t hear very well,” Ms. Taraporevala explains. The finger-wagging urgency takes on a fresh vulnerability, but the indignation on her grandfather’s face remains comic.
Black and white gives way to color, which in turn gives way to digital—“a switch I made kicking and screaming,” Ms. Taraporevala says—but even recent photographs seem a relic of 1980s Bombay. Perhaps because of her instinct to photograph older people, or the endurance of certain customs and clothes, the exhibition evokes nostalgia for a less frantic way of life.
Ms. Taraporevala has long felt compelled to clarify her Parsi heritage within notions of “Indian-ness.”
“A writer once said to me that the Parsis have the worst PR,” she said. “Outside Bombay, the bastion of unchanging Parsi-hood, no one knows much about how we have contributed to India.”
With her exhibition, Ms. Taraporevala invites everyone to experience, for a little while, being Parsi.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, INDIA | March 17, 2013
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