Parsis at Chemould Prescott Road

Precision Images of Parsi Community
By JohnyML | Cart an Art


JohnyML JohnyML, art critic and curator writes a weekly column for CAA.

A walk through the images of Parsi community in India created by Sooni Taraporevala in a exhibition titled ‘Parsis’ at Chemould Prescott, Mumbai




There is a problem in writing about well established artists and their works. While appreciation should be the guiding principle, only the academic approach could eke out differences and a critique of the established works. Or the maximum that an art critic do in those moments is to invest all his energies to create a myth, one more to the several myths that have been already created around them. Let us take the example of Michael Angelo’s David or Rodin’s Thinker or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. When they are shown in a show, what kind of critique could be generated on those works? One could depend on the established theories and histories and even stories to understand and appreciate the works in question with a sense of awe and wonder. Judgement could be the last thing when it comes to an established artist or a set of established works of art. But what a critic could do in those moments is to kiss the memory of the artist, or the works displayed or someone who is with the critic.

fiatThat’s what exactly happened to me when I stood before the photographic works displayed at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Titled ‘Parsis’ the show has the seminal photographic documentation of the Parsi community in Mumbai and surroundings, by the noted film writer and photographer, Sooni Taraporevala. Feeling the immensity of Taraporewala’s documentary photographs that capture the members of her own community in various moods, I felt like kissing the memory of the artist. But I don’t know anything about the artist than having seen the films written by her; Mississipi Masala and Salam Bombay. I could not kiss the works of art because it would have created some commotion amongst the gallery executives and viewers. I could not kiss the fellow art lovers whom I had met in the elevator and then in the gallery for it would have created a scandal and brought in some physical damage to my name and fame. So I resisted the urge to kiss. In fact I kissed each and every image on display in my mind even when I was resisting that urge to kiss.

Stand aloneSooni Taraporevala belongs to the Parsi community and for a long time she was not aware of the fact that she would be the one who was going to document her community and would be instrumental in making a few everlasting images of the community in general and its members in particular. Taraporewala got her first camera when she was a student in Harvard University in late 1970s. Later in 1980s she got the opportunity to be guided by the pioneer of colour photography, Raghubir Singh. Taraporevala, as a young intellectual and photographer had not yet zeroed in onto her own community till she was advised to do so by Raghubir Singh. Documenting her community became a passion, then an obsession and finally a mission. She published her seminal volume of these photographs with an authentic study of the community in 2000 and republished in 2004. The book titled ‘Parsis: A Photographic Journey’ has become a holy book of images as far as the Parsi community in India is concerned.

The man in sola hatOne of the most successful communities in India, Parsis have made their distinctive mark in all fields of life since their migration to the Indian soil from Iran. They came to the western coast of India, camped near Udwada in South Gujarat and sent a messenger to the Gujarati king. The king responded by sending a glass full of milk to the clan. But the Parsi clan leaders were intelligent enough to answer the king in the same ‘milky’ way. They mixed two spoonful of sugar in the milk and sent it back to the king. The king was telling them that there was not an inch of space in the country and the Parsis were telling the king that they would blend in the way sugar blends in the milk. The king was happy and they were given settlement in his Oont Wada (Camel Stable). The name Udwada comes from there. One of the first Agiaries (Agiary- Parsi temple) was established in Udwada. A self protecting community, as promised by the elders they blended with the Indian life. The community produced many pioneers in all the fields of socio-cultural and politico-legal life of India. Parsis make the most successful business community in India.

ReligiousParsi love for maintenance and protection of genes are phenomenal and legendary. Perhaps that is the reason why Parsis are well known maintainers of vintage cars, bikes, furniture, buildings and so on. They preserve culture and they preserve it absolutely. Parsis, though a successful community, also have hierarchical divisions within them. While some live a royal life, some lead very humble ones. But both these classes maintain their culture and their belongings. It must be genetic peculiarities that lead to their longevity in life. Sooni Taraporevala’s photographs show all these aspects of the community. Her photographs capture the very essence of their physical and spiritual selves.



Old couple standingThese photographs have an intrinsic quality of decisiveness. They are arrested events or narratives. The man with a ‘daftar’ on his shoulders standing still against a moving Best Bus or the Parsi gentleman standing and staring at the skyline of Bombay are the people caught in their decisive moments. Decisive moment is a term that Henry Cartier Bresson had introduced to qualify his works. In that moment the whole narrative of the image stands still and the precision of that moment makes the artist as well as the onlooker imagine the image as the ultimate peaking of all events. Sooni Taraporevala, in her documentary style photographs which spans almost three decades now sticks to this decisive moment. Each photograph in this show has that moment of wonder that makes the viewer feel that there could have been no other moment to click than this one.

White curtainIn a way Sooni Taraporevala’s photographs are not just the photographs of their community. Though it is an exclusive documentation, indirectly it reveals the milieu within which the subjects of these photographs have taken shape. A Parsi gentleman standing in front of a pen doctor, two Parsi ladies going by a Vintage Car or the portraits of the luminaries from the Parsi community, all of them are pitted against their milieus, their formative environments. From mundane to the religious, from the elegant to the chaotic, from the cultural to the natural, everything that belongs to the Parsis becomes a subject for Taraporevala’s photography. It is one of the most recommendable shows that I have seen recently.

Sooni TaraporevalaI was looking for a hand to kiss even after quenching my thirst for kissing those images. Finally I found one in the air, where I conjured up the image of a goddess, who could make images out of eternity and maintain them for eons and I kissed her in her hands and fell down at her feet and begged her to give me more and more shows like this in Delhi.


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