Notes from an exhibition: Parsis – The Zoroastrians of India

I don’t exactly know when, but I have been very fond of Parsis.

I guess it must have started from primary school, where i had some Parsee friends. I would be quite confused at their knowledge of Gujarati, which according to me was only spoken by Gujarati and Bohra classmates. For the longest time in school I used to think that Parsees spoke English at home, thanks to their absolute ease with the language, when the rest of us struggled to carry on conversations in English till we entered the secondary section.

In my engineering days i made great friends with this Bawa guy who literally exemplified his community – chilled out, eccentric, food-loving, fun-loving and so on. I have always been big on Irani and Parsee joints (I know technically, they are two separate communities) and thanks to my location, i have easy access to most of these joints. Parsee agaiaries have always fascinated me, simply because i have never entered one. My Bawa friend from college had once described it to me, and i remember asking him if i can enter, if i have him along: he said I couldn’t, it’s not allowed. Period.

I used to pass by the Jer Baug in my locality and would always keep wondering how good it would look from the inside. Only three years back i gathered enough courage to enter it, after 20 plus years of passing by it. I roamed within and it really felt like a different world altogether. Clean buildings with a yellow and white exterior wall, a couple of vintage cars and scooters, very very old Parsee grandpa standing in his balcony and abusing the fuck out of his servant, a playground at the other end and a canteen beside it.

As far as my exploration on the Parsee community went, I hadn’t even scratched the surface till then. That’s when i happened to pick up a Rohinton Mistry book. You know, one of those impulse buys at Flora Fountain.

I must have spent like 120 bucks on the book – Tales from Firozshah Baug – but it has been a wonderful viewfinder through which i got to see the Parsee culture from an insider’s perspective. I was engrossed with the book from the word go and to date i haven’t come across an author who has so wonderfully written about the Parsee community. I quickly followed it up with Such a Long Journey, which was a drama which revolved around a middle-class Parsee family. I couldn’t relate to the fact that there is such a thing as a middle-class Parsee family, but Such a Long Journey changed that assumption. It has been adapted into a film starring Roshan Seth and Soni Razdan, but unfortunately you just don’t get that movie here in Mumbai.

After reading those books, i just had a rough mental view of what Bombay must have been like back then; what life is like in a Baug and what kind of characters one can come across. Mistry’s books spoke of a Mumbai which i was born into, but somewhere along the years that Bombay is only found in the books and some places in Mumbai.

Just like i discovered Mistry, i accidentally came across a tome titled Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India, while i was passing some time at a book store. I picked it up, found a corner and just sat there browsing page by page at a very slow pace and seeing the world which Mistry had so wonderfully described in his books come alive in those photographs. I must have spent some two and a half hours just savouring the images in that book, reading every caption and admiring every photograph. The photographer was Sooni Taraporevala.

Sooni Taraporevala – I thought I knew that name. After thinking for sometime I figured out that she was the one who had co-wrote Salaam Bombay – a hard-hitting Bombay film, shot in the red-light district of Kamathipura, much before Slumdog Millionaire made Mumbai slum movies fashionable.

Some years back she made her debut as a director in a film starring her own little kiddo, titled Little Zizou. This was yet another window to look into the Parsee community and it had the who’s who of the Parsee world. Apart from the fun-side, Taraporevala has also explored a fanatical side of the community. Of course Homi Adjania’s Being Cyrus is another interesting movie which has the Parsee community-as-a-character as well, but i still prefer Little Zizou.

So last week when i came across Sooni Taraporevala’s interview in Mint Lounge, talking about her exhibition of over 100 photographs from her book Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India, i was overjoyed! I finally made it to the Chemould Prescott Gallery in Fort last week to see the exhibit.

There were over 100 images from her book, as well as some unpublished ones. The era that she has captured spans from the late 1970s to as recent as 2013.

One theme that tends to come to the surface is that a majority of the images feature either very old Parsee people or toddlers and kids. When i asked Sooni if it was a conscious effort or it just happened, her response was quite pointed, “It wasn’t really a conscious effort, but i have a natural affinity towards older generation and kids. Also during my younger days in the 80s, the middle-aged younger Parsees weren’t really that interesting as photography subjects. But the current generation of teens and youngsters is much more vibrant and make for great photographic subjects.”

Pointing out to the portrait of Ayesha Billimoria, a 24-year old athlete training for the 2016 Olympics, Sooni validated her point. The portrait shot at the Oval Maidan, shows Billimoria in mid-air while she is warming up. The bright pink hairdo is what stands out and grabs your attention. “Just look at that portrait. I don’t think our generation in the 80s would ever streak their hair pink,” Sooni said.

The portrait of the old man staring into the sea which has graced the cover of Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters, is one of Taraporevala’s famous photographs. It just makes you stand still and ponder over what the old man is thinking.

Portraits of the older generation are quite charming. Some notable ones that i particularly loved include: the candid moment where she has captured her parents dancing – the photograph immediately showing which of the two is the shy one; the huge street photograph of an old gentleman (most likely Sooni’s grand-father) getting his fountain-pen’s nib fixed somewhere in Flora-Fountain – beautiful grain in this image; the arresting side-profile of an old gentleman smiling on his 90th birthday party and so on.

Other aspect which you take away from the exhibition is the religious one, wherein Taraporevala has shot some photographs of the interiors of an Agiary, a space to which no other community than the Parsees have access to. I really admired the photograph where one priest’s costume is left to dry on one of those wooden benches. A lot of these photographs look like they have been made in the Gujarati towns of Udwada or Navsari (just guessing) showcasing the life of priests in that part of town.

The third thing that struck me about the exhibit was that it was more of a time-capsule. I was born in 1984 and this exhibition surely is a trip back to that era. One particularly telling image is that of Eros theatre showing Audrey Hepburn starrer ‘Wait Until Dark’ – where the thing that really made me look at the image was the sheer number of Maruti 800s and Fiats, and most of them in either white or grey colours flooding the parking lot in front of the theatre. A striking contrast to today’s multi-brand car market.

Or that image which has a bald gentleman checking for some kinks  in a type-writer at the Godrej type-writer factory.

Or that very famous picture titled Mystic Piano Tuner waiting to cross the street and a double-decker BEST bus passing by providing the coolest red background.

An ode to simpler times.

One can easily see the influence of Henri Cartier Bresson in some images such as the goat beside the staricase or the Zubin Mehta portrait or the one with air-filled stage cloth mimicking the shape on the standing priests’ costume. These images worked for me more because of their geometry than the subjects itself.

At the left side of the entrance is a special space dedicated in the memory of renowned Parsees who have passed away. It includes portraits of artist Jehangir Sabavala, Mid-Day and Afternoon founding Editor Behram Contractor aka Busybee,  her grandfather getting his fountain pen fixed, a photographer in his studio and so on.

All-in-all this is one beautiful exhibition, if you want to know more about the daily life of a Parsee in India, relive those simpler days and look at a body of work which holds back a mirror to a community whose numbers are dwindling by the day.

It is on at the Chemould Prescott Gallery, Fort, from March 6 to April 6. Timings 11pm to 7pm.

PS: Now when i think about it, maybe the fact that i was born in a Parsee hospital may have somewhere sown the seed of my fondness for the community.

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