Parsis at Chemould Prescott Road

“My Grandfather”, Sooni Taraporevala
By Rosalyn D'Mello | BLOUIN ARTINFO | May 03, 2013


Ordinary Parsis find a stage in Sooni Taraporevala’s latest photography exhibition

My Grandfather, Bombay,” 1985Picking just one photograph from an exhibition that seems to be spilling over with iconic images is undoubtedly challenging, but every now and then, it is a good exercise to isolate a single work within an elaborate body and examine how it can, miraculously, represent the whole. Titled “Parsis”, photographer Sooni Taraporevala’s show at Chemould Prescott Road — which closes on May 4 — is a retrospective of the 36 years she spent documenting the Parsi community which consists of descendants of Iranian Zoroastrians who sought refuge in Gujarat, off India’s Western coast, sometime between the eight or tenth century AD in an attempt to escape persecution by Muslim invaders conquering Persia at the time. Taraporevala, a Parsi herself, consciously began her project sometime in the 1980s, after an encounter with legendary Indian photographer Raghubir Singh that encouraged her to not only to work towards creating an extensive archive of the Parsi community, but to also make her foray into color photography.

The Parsi community, whose population has been on the decline for decades, has played an indelible role in the nation’s history and in the evolution of Mumbai as a commercial hub. But Taraporevala’s photographs are not limited to documenting their successes. Her photographs reflect an intimate engagement with the notion of Parsihood, proving how their identity, while affixed to a central religious belief, is the result of years of integration with Indian culture which makes its utterances unique. The community’s exposure to Western culture during the Raj combined with its proclivity towards adapting local practices, and the Gujarati language, its religious intonations and practices with its Fire Temples and the Tower of Silence, and its reputation for being somewhat eccentric are some of the undertones that Taraporevala’s extensive body of work explores. But what sets it apart, what makes these images iconic is what Taraporevala was able to do with the access she had to this community, being a part of it herself, and the manner in which she has been able to transform the everyday lives of this sparsely populated community while contextualizing the settings they inhabit. Whether it’s a photograph of the renowned conductor Zubin Mehta (a Mumbai Parsi), or portraits of local heroes such as Kekoo Gandhy, or young Parsi boys and girls at a Navjot ceremony, or owners of the now almost historical Irani cafes that, like the community, are also on the decline, Taraporevala’s lens leans towards capturing the decisive moments within the daily.

Contempory ArtWe nominated “My Grandfather, Bombay,” a photograph taken by Taraporevala in 1985, as artwork of the week for various reasons. To begin with, it is an excellent instance of street photography and it sits perfectly alongside some of the finest work in the genre done by photographers like Raghu Rai, Ram Rahman, and Pablo Bartholomew. In fact, it has much in common with some of Bartholomew’s images of Bombay from the 70s. But what makes it immediately personal is the title. We are led to believe that this is the photographer’s grandfather. And he isn’t caught walking in a park or standing solemnly by the seaside. He is at a fountain pen shop, one of the many that line the street near Flora Fountain which used to be the heart of South Bombay. Taraporevala’s grandfather, Aderji Taraporevala, was apparently a collector of fountain pens, and his expedition to the Bora and Mebsons shop was something he looked forward to. “In the photograph he looks like he’s yelling at the man, but he was actually hard of hearing,” Taraporevala told ARTINFO. “He used to tip him.” At the time when this photograph was taken, Taraporevala’s grandfather was retired, and he used to dress impeccably to go out, she recounts. “I grew up with my grandparents. We lived in a building without a lift, on the fourth floor, and till the end—he died when he was 86 — he used to go up and down comfortably, and he was always this thin.”

In her beautiful book titled “Parsis,” Taraporevala has a touching line about how, for her, photography has always been a form of magic. “Photographs freeze time and survive death. My grandmother did die, so did my grandfather… But not before I captured them on celluloid.”


BLOUIN ARTINFO | May 03, 2013

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