April 05, 2013

Sooni Taraporevala’s 'Parsis' Exhibits at Chemould Prescott Road Gallery, Mumbai

The Mystic Piano Tuner, Mr. Ratnagar, Bombay, 1985  

Photography often draws on different sentiments to connect the viewer emotionally with the images on display. While the degree of the connect with photographs is often determined by how closely the viewer can directly relate to the subjects photographed, it can however be extended to include the associations the viewer has made with their own impressions of the subjects over the years, impressions largely based on the portrayal of the subjects in different mediums of mass consumption, films, literature, and the media.

Add to it the viewer’s own infrequent personal experiences involving the photographed subjects, and curiosity goes up a notch, seeking to “know more” about ‘them’. And when mass media screams ‘a community on the verge of extinction’ the curiosity acquires an urgency as if goading a potential gallery visitor into “go and see them before they disappear” will somehow deign to pull “them” back from the brink – “them” being the Parsis.

And so I believe was partly the reason that drew me into visiting Sooni Taraporevala’s photography exhibition “Parsis”, currently underway at Chemould Prescott Road Gallery, Fort, Mumbai. The exhibition of photographs ends on 6 April [now EXTENDED to 4 May]. Visit it.

The point is – motivation to go and see a photography exhibition must necessarily derive from more than a mere “let’s see what the photography exhibition is about”, and must instead spring from a personal frame of reference that can extend the experience of seeing the photography on display beyond mere frames. It must necessarily widen the viewer’s frame of reference to acquire further meaning to the motivation that originally enthused them into making the trip to the gallery. It should at some level strengthen existing sentiments positively and make the experience memorable.

When Krishna and I made our way to the Chemould Gallery in Fort to see Sooni’s portrayal of the Parsis, we did so with mixed feelings.

While we were curious of a glimpse into a well respected community framed by one of their own, we were aware of the tenuousness of the link that now binds the Parsis with their adopted homeland, India, given the steady decline in their numbers over the years, imbuing our visit with a touch of poignancy.

To step into the gallery to see the Parsis was to do two things at once – see them in a way that few ‘outsiders’ have managed to, delighting in the charming simplicity of Sooni’s portrayal of a gentle and genteel community seemingly at ease with mores that characterised the past than those of a turbulent present, and reflect over an illustrious legacy made all the more poignant by fears, not all of which are unfounded, concerning their survival as a vibrant community of traders, businessmen, artists, art patrons, educators, industrialists, philanthropists and the like.

Unlike other photography exhibitions I’ve been to before, I stepped into the Chemould Gallery not expecting to be surprised as I’m wont to do with photography exhibitions, but rather seeking to reinforce and strengthen or reorient my own impressions of the Parsis gathered over the years, most notably from the books Trying to Grow and Tales From Firozsha Baug by Firdaus Kanga and Rohinton Mistry respectively, both Parsis, and as also from Rohinton Mistry’s other celebrated book, Such a Long Journey.

Then there were the films revolving around the Parsi community – Pestonjee [1987], and Percy [1985], the latter a Gujarati language film adapted from Cyrus Mistry’s short story. I saw Percy on Doordarshan many years ago, and for some reason the film haunts to this day.

And who can forget the kindly souls, Parsi widowers Homi Mistry and Nargis Sethna, from Basu Chatterjee’s Khatta Meetha (1978). Khatta Meetha engaged audiences with the light-hearted ‘turmoil’ that stirs up when both families learn of Homi Mistry’s impending marriage with Nargis Sethna. Then there was Basu Chatterjee’s other film Baaton Baaton Mein (1979). Need I say more?

While I haven’t seen Little Zizou, Sooni Taraporevala’s own film portraying her community, I was as a result doubly curious and keen to go see her photography show. She’s done well with her portrayals, more so with her B&W images than colour.

In some ways, at a sub-conscious level I must’ve been seeking to put a face to the characters appearing in these books and films while also hoping the faces would be framed in the settings I had come to imagine from their descriptions in literature and films portraying the community.


Chemould Presscott Road is a large gallery by Bombay standards. a wooden staircase leads up the old Raj era building.

We took an old lift up three floors. On the wall along the stairwell hang posters from past exhibitions, several from as long back as the 1960s.

One could linger around the framed posters for, many belong to artists who were beginning their journeys back then when they were little known. Many of those names are now feted and grace India’s Art Scene as mastheads, their works drawing phenomenal sums.

The posters are simply made, with none of the flourish one has come to expect in these days of digital technology.

One of the posters announces the opening of the late M. F. Husain’s Impressions Of Kabul, a series of drawings exhibited at the Chemould Gallery between August 18-31, 1965. 

A large door let us in. And like with the posters we go back in time, to a Bombay of a timeless variety.

Upon entering the gallery, the section to the left is announced thus:


The section showcases photographs of eminent Parsis, some of whom are well know across India, notable among them JRD Tata, Dr. Homi Bhaba, Dr. Homi Sethna, Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw, Nani Palkhivala, the pioneering photographer Ms. Homai Vyarawala.

Among the famous names are photographs of other lesser known members of the community, now departed; among them photographers Sam Tata, Pandit Firoz Dastur, cricketer Polly Umrigar, Ratan Modi, Behram Contractor (Busybee) and Sooni’s grandfather Ader Tareporevala at Bora and Mebsons having his fountain pens repaired pause my eye, centring the gaze on faces.

The B&W image showing Band leader and accordionist Goody Seervai playing his accordion in front of the mike sporting ‘Chicago Radio’ at what appears to be an event is particularly interesting. In this picture on mute I can imagine the accordion lending its voice to the evening.

In the context of the community, the label ‘Gone But Not Forgotten’ rung an ominous tone.

Most of the photographs show the Parsis up and about in Bombay, framing their lives in the unrelenting chaos of the city even as it sheltered many a quiet corner or so I believe because a picture can cut out the chaos beyond the frame.  

But surely the elderly Parsi woman standing in the door and throwing her head back and laughing away behind the shoulder high gate in Poona must live in a quiet lane, of the kind one might associate with older parts of Mumbai which in turn many would readily associate with the Parsis even if the demographic has changed from back then.

Parsis and quiet kind of go together, atleast in the public eye for it’d take a brave man to bet his last rupee on it. The pictures on display however reinforce this impression. Maybe it has to do with the age group Sooni has portrayed, mostly the elderly, and by consequence, a certain quiet dignity within the frame.

It’s easy to imagine an old neighbourhood when looking at the pictures, neighbourhoods that’ve been spared the hullabaloo of thriving neighbourhoods home to migrant communities as opposed to long-time residents.

While people lend their personality to the place, the opposite can be equally true. Neighbourhoods lend their character to the people who live in there.

I was particularly taken in by the B&W photographs framing the community in Navsari, and Udvada in Gujarat.

For some reason the B&W image of a Parsi family on the terrace of Cozy building showing two elderly Parsi gentlemen lounging in chairs while a middle-aged man with prominent sideburns, a half-smile playing on his lips, leans over the parapet, looking down on the lane below reminded me of Freddie Mercury even though there was little or no similarity between the explosive Parsi rocker and the serenity on this man’s face.

Walking along the gallery walls, each simultaneously a revelation and the imagined, it’s impossible not to be moved by the images the photographs evoke in the mind’s eye, images that don’t exist on the walls but are instead extended by the viewer’s own perception of a ancient people, their lives, and their ways.   


Queens Mansion, Prescott Road, Fort

In some ways, it is perhaps fitting that the Chemould Gallery currently exhibiting Sooni Taraporevala’s photography exhibition “Parsis” is barely a stone’s throw away from the J. B. Petit High School for Girls on Maharishi Dadhichi Marg in Fort.

Designed by George Twigge in the Italian Gothic style, the well known girl’s school was built in 1860 and was originally known as Ms. Prescott’s Fort Christian School, admitting students irrespective of caste, creed, and ethnic origin.

Among the school’s benefactors at the time was Premchand Roychand whose generous donation of Rs. 50,000 toward the construction of the girl’s school came with a rider that when it came to admitting Indian girls to the planned school there’d be restriction on their numbers nor would they be turned away on account of inability to pay fees.

It was this condition that the well known Parsi businessman, Jehangir Bomonjee Petit, would later use effectively in the High Court when arguing against the handing over of the school, by then renamed to Frere-Fletcher School, to Cathedral Girl’s School when faced with serious financial difficulties threatening its survival.

Jehangir Bomonjee Petit argued that Cathedral Girl’s School discriminated against Indian students and that handing Ms. Prescott’s Fort Christian School over to Cathedral’s Girl’s School would breach the conditions laid out by one of its original benefactors, Premchand Joychand.

Subsequently the school was turned over to the Parsi gentleman J. B. Petit and a Board of Trustees in 1921. Upon Jehangir B. Petit’s demise, it was renamed after him. The name still stands – J. B. Petit high School for Girls.

As benefactors, businessmen and individuals, the Fort precinct is in many ways synonymous with the Parsis. The D. N. Road that the lane in which the J. B. Petit Girl’s School stands is itself named after Dadabhai Nowroji, a Parsi. He was     

The leafy lane bridges D. N. Road to the east, and M. G. Road to the west, together home to imposing 19th century buildings constructed in various architectural styles using local building material, stones named Porbunder, Hemnagar, and Kurla.

It’s approaching late afternoon when Krishna and I find our way to the Queen’s Mansion on Prescott Road after first taking the opposite lane past J. B. Petit High School.

                                                               Opposite Queens Mansion, Prescott Road, Fort

From the sidewalk the Raj era stone buildings rise stolidly. Where trees do not obscure their facades, parked buses and tempos do. On the pavement lined by trees a young couple is cosying up in the shade of a tree, seeking privacy between the tree and a parked school bus. The girl is in the all enveloping black burka and hurriedly withdraws from the embrace as we pass them, giggling as she does so.

I wish I had carried by DSLR camera along.

It’s not enough to capture the moment in the mind’s eye if the moment is to be preserved for posterity of sorts.

Sooni must’ve realised the need for it somewhere along the way. And I’m glad she did.

Note: Sooni Tareporevala’s Parsis is currently on at the Chemould Prescott Road Gallery, Fort, Mumbai until 6 April [now EXTENDED to 4 May].

It’s worth going a long way to see it.


Beth said...

How I wish I could, Anil! Thank you for this fascinating post and glimpse of a world I know so little about.

Indian Bazaars said...

Would have loved to see this exhibition. Thanks for sharing the photographs. Even today, coming back to Bombay, the familiarity of the place comes also from chance encounters with Parsis on the streets, going past the Ratan Tata Institute shop at Hughes road, the Cusrow baug at Colaba or the beautiful old buildings at the Dadar Parsi colony!

Susan Scheid said...

Such a wonderful post! I wish this exhibit would travel westward, as I'd love to see it. I have only the flimsiest notion of the part Parsis have played in Indian culture, from the movie Earth. Perhaps it is completely off base, but I did take away some of the sense that your piece, and the poignant photos you display here, reveal.

desi Traveler said...

What a wonderful post about the Parsis. The sprinkling of story about the school adds to stories of the great philanthropy activity the community is known for...

NRIGirl said...

I must confess I didn't read the post in full. When I read it was about photographs couldn't resist scrolling down to savour them - the photographs. They are worth a thousand words!

My favorite is the man at the beach. I wonder though why there aren't many women in these pictures... May be Parsi women didn't venture out much?!