Parsis at Chemould Prescott Road

Around Town
By Nergish Sunavala | Time Out Mumbai | March 01, 2013


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

Ordinary Parsis find a stage in Sooni Taraporevala’s latest photography exhibitionIn 1985, photographer, filmmaker and screenwriter, Sooni Taraporevala, took a picture of her neighbour Ratan Ratnagar on a Mumbai road in front of a speeding BEST bus. The photograph, titled “The Mystic Piano Tuner” – a reference to Ratnagar’s profession as well as his interest in spirituality – is the poster image for the exhibition Parsis that will be on display at Chemould Prescott Road this fortnight. The show’s images, shot mostly in Bombay and parts of Gujarat, span 36 years and focus on ordinary people from the community.

Ratnagar died some time ago but the photograph unlocked many forgotten memories. Zubin Balaporia, a member of the band Indus Creed, told Taraporevala, “Like a good western classical music snob, he [Ratnagar] once told me that my piano was going out of tune constantly because I played... jazz!” Another client recalled that Ratnagar was such a gifted pianist that she’d stay at home on the days he was scheduled to visit to convince him to give her an impromptu concert. “He was a very interesting person,” said Taraporevala in a telephone interview with Time Out, “[even though] you may not think it just from looking at his picture.”

Despite coming from a family of amateur photographers, Taraporevala wanted to be a criminal lawyer as a child. It was only while studying English literature at Harvard University in the 1970s that she grew interested in photography and filmmaking and took a number of classes in these subjects. In 1977, she borrowed money from her roommate to buy her first camera, a Nikkormat, and then skipped a semester to take photographs in Bombay.

She ended up focusing her lens on the older generation of her family. In the book Parsis: A Photographic Journey, published in 2000, Taraporevala wrote, “For me, 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.”

The book is a result of encouragement from Raghubir Singh: in 1982, the National Geographic Magazine and Life photographer suggested that she refine her focus to the Parsi community. “What had begun nostalgically and personally,” wrote Taraporevala, “grew into a more objective project that encompassed a world larger than my immediate family.” The book has pictures of Parsi celebrities like Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw, former attorneygeneral Soli J Sorabjee, journalist Behram Contractor and poet Adil Jussawalla. The exhibition, on the other hand (save for a section dedicated to late greats), “is not about personalities, it is not about the achievements of a community,” said Taraporevala. “It is a visual journey through neighbourhoods, homes and streets.” The images on display include a Parsi gentleman (easily identifiable by his red velvet topi) offering prayers at Marine Drive, three elderly Parsis out for an evening drive and a 1985 image of “a Parsi and Nepali in a BEST bus, rubbing shoulders in cosmopolitan Bombay”.

While most of the photographs in this exhibition have not been published in the book, there are a few overlaps. For instance, a 1980 black and white image of Taraporevala’s grandmother, Aloo Taraporevala, laughing and shielding her face with her hand. She will also be showing an image of her grandfather, Ader Taraporevala, at Bora and Mebsons, his favourite stall in Flora Fountain, having his fountain pens repaired. In the picture, he appears to be yelling at a nonchalant stall owner but Taraporevala explains in the caption that this was because Ader grew partially deaf in his later years.

You’d recognise anywhere, the picture of a man in a sola topi looking out at the sea. “It has been on every jacket of all [language] editions of Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters,” said Taraporevala. “It has come to be associated with that book more than with my own book, which is fine with me because he [the man in the picture] has travelled the world.” 

While going through pictures taken in the ’70s and ’80s, Taraporevala is often stunned by how much the city has changed. “I look at these long stretches of road that have no cars and I think, ‘Oh my god, that was a long time ago’,” said Taraporevala. Thirty years ago, Taraporevala also got unrestricted access to Parsi agiaries and even the Tower of Silence. “Now I cannot get a mile near Doongerwadi with any kind of camera,” she said. A section of the book is also devoted to young Parsis, which includes MTV VJs Shenaz Treasuryvala and Cyrus Broacha, and dread-locks-sporting filmmaker Kaizad Gustad. These images thrust the reader unceremoniously back into the 21st century and call to mind a stark reality: that only 23,000 Parsis will probably remain in 2020.

Parsis will start on Tue Mar 5.


Time Out Mumbai | March 01, 2013

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