Parsis at Chemould Prescott Road

Through a lens, gently
By Ramya Sarma | THE TIMES OF INDIA - The Crest Edition | March 16, 2013


Through a lens, gently  Walk into the cavernous Chemould Prescott Road gallery and you enter a world that you think you know... perhaps. There are people watching you from all sides, shyly, smiling, peeking from behind half-closed eyelids, trying to see you even as you try hard to watch them without being too obvious about it. And then they move on, going about their business, walking slowly along, waiting for a bus, chatting with a friend.

This is the quietly fascinating world of the Parsis, as documented by photographer Sooni Taraporevala over 36 years in her new show at the Chemould. The images have been captured on the streets of Mumbai and Gujarat and reveal vignettes of a realm peopled by a community that is gentle, perceived as eccentric and, in a quirky way, mysterious. This spirit is embodied by the slightly bent figure and intent face of Ratan Ratnagar, a neighbour that Taraporevala shot against the dynamic background of a fast-moving city bus. The Mystic Piano Tuner, as the image is called, could be someone you have seen somewhere in the hub of Mumbai, trying to cross the road, concentrated on getting to his destination without really noticing the rest of the world buzzing around him.

The Parsis are indeed of that ilk. They came from Persia, fleeing religious persecution, and settled in India to make life work for them and, unexpectedly, for the country they adopted. But with honest modesty, they claim to be very ordinary people. As Taraporevala herself says, "I do not know if there is anything special about the Parsis - it is such a small minority, hardly anyone in India outside Bombay knows much about the community. But in spite of it being such a small minority, the Parsis have contributed a fair bit towards the country. " These contributors are honoured in a special section which has photos of the painter Jehangir Sabavala, gallerist Kekoo Gandhy (whose spirit still wanders benevolently through the space he created in Chemould), sculptor Piloo Pochkhanawala, Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw, founder of India's nuclear programme Dr Homi Sethna and so many more eminent personalities who helped make this city and indeed the country what it is today.

But the true character of the Parsi is affectionately recorded in the rest of the collection. There is a row of rather bored people seated on fragile fold-up chairs at a function in Bombay;athlete Ayesha Billimoria working out at the Oval Maidan, her pink hair glowing against the hazy sky;a young lad in a faded Mickey Mouse Tshirt swinging from a fence;ordinary Parsis praying, eating, celebrating, just doing whatever they do at that time and in that place. And even though many of them do not look in the best of circumstances, there is an inherent pride in the way they walk, that unself conscious sense of being a special people. Very often, they are portrayed as being not quite special, but odd, in some ways bizarre, eccentric. Taraporevala agrees, "I think so - they are eccentric, and I think we take pride in our eccentricity and our being different. I do not see being eccentric as a bad trait. I see it as a good one!"

Taraporevala is familiar to many as the person who wrote the screenplay for Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay - for which she won the Lillian Gish Award for Women in Film 25 years ago. Born in 1957 in Bombay, she studied cinema at Harvard, where she and Nair became friends. She returned to India to start working as a photographer and went on to write screenplays for Mississippi Masala, Such a Long Journey, My Own Country, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and The Namesake. In 2009, she wrote and directed her own film, Little Zizou, about the love and hate between two Parsi families, and will soon direct her second film, a Hindi drama.

This exhibition is a follow up to her book of images, PARSIS: The Zoroastrians of India;A Photographic Journey. As she explains, "I used to take pictures of my family many years ago. Later, I started consciously working towards taking pictures of Parsis - I hope I have covered all aspects of the community. I am a Parsi, I grew up in Gowalia Tank near the fire temple. When I was photographing Bombay's streets I would see Parsis going about their own lives;some people I followed, I watched, standing on a corner. India is a wonderful place to be a photographer - mostly everyone loves their photos being taken. And the reaction I usually get is, 'What's so special about me?'"

The Parsis are a small and fast-depleting community, Taraporevala understands well. "I am the kind of person who wants to document something that could vanish, with no visual record, " she says. "It was never out of a feeling of superiority or of being special in any way, but a genuine need to save memories. The Parsis are a very small group, mainly because of low birth rate, high death rate. Also, we have that stupid rule of not allowing children with a non-Parsi father but whose mother is Parsi to be Parsi - stupid because we believe in gender equality, we were among the first to have women educated and to work outside the home. I have grown up as a Parsi woman who is completely equal to any boy, so in this aspect the attitude is highly unfair and needs to change. I think at least today women are taking it into their own hands and saying, 'If you won't allow us into your fire temples, we will build our own'. It has not worked yet because they have not had the money to build their own fire temples, but it will. It is only in Bombay that this is the case. In Delhi, spouses are welcome, children are welcome, and so on. "

Adapting to the changing times while maintaining their individuality as a people is something the Parsis have proved adept at. "The culture has adapted - look at the saris we wear, not Persian dress, " says Taraporevala. We use sindoor, or rice with sindoor;we speak Gujarati rather than Persian. We have been quick to change. And they live very long lives, we all know, and her photographs show. The secret to the longevity of the community - must be all the eggs we eat!"

'Parsis' is on till April 6 at the Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai


THE TIMES OF INDIA - The Crest Edition | March 16, 2013

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