When we hear the term ‘Parsi’, there are a few images that crop up in our minds that we associate with the community because of their representation in the media. The Gujarati-speaking, dhansaak-eating, cap-wearing labels are just some superficial signifiers of a Parsi. There is an entire gamut of quaintness and fervour that the community as a whole brings along with it, and that is much more than just the stereotypes.
National Geographic award winning photographer Shantanu Das, who firmly believes in the everlasting fabric of the natural environment, has captured some of the most candid and timeless moments in which the essence of the culture, rituals and traditions of the ethnic community have been preserved. An exhibition of his photographs is being hosted by the prestigious Tao Art Gallery in Mumbai from November 29 to December 4, 2019.
The opening event of the exhibition was held at the gallery on Friday by the ever-so-gracious hosts Parvez Damania and Ratan Luth, who are avid art connoisseurs and are proud of their ethnic heritage. The evening was graced by the presence of veteran actor Jeetendra, fitness guru Mickey Mehta, food critic and actor Kunal Vijaykar, Bombay Parsi Punchayet chairman Yazdi Desai, Della group founder Jimmy Mistry, theatre personality Raell Padamsee, painter and art curator Bina Aziz, Tao Art Gallery owner Kalpana Shah, among other prominent personalities from the Parsi community.
Parvez Damania and Ratan Luth had their guests enthralled by their personal involvement in bringing out the intricacies of their culture in the photographs showcased. The hosts and many of the attendees were seen in traditional Parsi attires. The men wore daglis (traditional white coat and pants) and feto (the ceremonial hat) while the women wore garas (traditional embroidered sarees), thus expressing their solidarity in the celebration of their unique cultural heritage.
Ratan Luth, Parvez Damania and Shantanu Das with guests at 'Parsis - A Timeless Legacy' photography exhibition at Tao Art Gallery
Photographer Shantanu Das at 'Parsis - A Timeless Legacy' photography exhibition at Tao Art Gallery
Kunal Vijayakar at 'Parsis - A Timeless Legacy' photography exhibition at Tao Art Gallery
Ratan Luth, Parvez Damania and Kunal Vijayakar at 'Parsis - A Timeless Legacy' photography exhibition at Tao Art Gallery
Parvez Damania, Jeetendra and Shantanu Das at 'Parsis - A Timeless Legacy' photography exhibition at Tao Art Gallery
Raell Padamsee at 'Parsis - A Timeless Legacy' photography exhibition at Tao Art Gallery
Ratan Luth and Mickey Mehta at 'Parsis - A Timeless Legacy' photography exhibition at Tao Art Gallery
Art gallery owner Kalpana Shah at 'Parsis - A Timeless Legacy' photography exhibition at Tao Art Gallery
Bina Aziz, Aarti and Kailash Surendranath at 'Parsis - A Timeless Legacy' photography exhibition at Tao Art Gallery
The collection of photographs, clicked by Shantanu Das and curated by Parvez Damania, is chosen from pictures captured during Das’ travels to many Parsi inhabited places all over India. The moments captured by the photographer are not restricted to the city but have also been taken in Udvada, Navsari, Surat and Kolkata. Damania and Das has previously collaborated for a coffee table book with their focus on the village of Udvada and its Zoroastrian heritage.
The Gujarati town of Udvada is home to the ancient Iran Shah Atashbehram which is one of the eight fire temples of the Zoroastrian religion in the country. It is a site of pilgrimage for the Parsis, as it was in Gujarat that they had settled after arriving in boats from Persia. Several photographs in the exhibition encapsulate the contribution of Parsis to the rich architecture that can be seen in many places in the city.
The main concern that was the undercurrent of this exhibition was the struggle to hang on to their distinctive identity as the number of Parsis across the world were diminishing at an alarming rate.
Commenting on this, Parvez Damania said, “We thought of this exhibition to enlighten people about the life and presence of the Parsi community, who may be small in number but have made a tremendous contribution to India. Few artists have dedicated time to documenting Parsi people, and fewer have had permission to document what are often very private and personal traditions.”
He also spoke about the pride that the community takes in being one of the most progressive in terms of education and revealed that it is one of the reasons why young and ambitious Parsi men and women refrain from starting a family. They have either migrated to Western countries or married outside the community which has caused a decline in the population of Parsis.
Ratan Luth, who is an educationist and the founder of Fravashi Academy, added, “This exhibition is an effort to document and preserve the culture, rituals and traditions of an ethnic community that is rapidly diminishing in number. It is important that the Parsi legacy is remembered and maintained for the current generation and generations to come, to ensure it is not lost forever with the passing of time.”
As forward as Parsis may be in different walks of life, they are proud flag bearers of what is arguably the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. The photographs candidly portray people in prayer and celebration as they uphold the sacrosanct boundaries set by their religious edict. Some of the photographs that stood out and were Damania and Luth’s favourites were - one with two Parsi priests and a Parsi boy on a Jawa motorcycle with a sidecar, Parsi women dressed in exquisite garas at a wedding, a vintage Parsi-owned motorcar on the road and architecture with sloping tiled roofs dominating the Udvada skyline. All the photographs were brilliantly captioned by writer-editor Mark Manuel who was also present for the event.
There were few photographs depicting older generation Parsis which brought a sense of loneliness in the rather exuberant community. Speaking about this loneliness, Bombay Parsi Punchayet chairman Yezdi Desai said, “Basically there's loneliness because our youngsters are getting educated and want to go abroad. Once they go abroad, they want to live that quality of life and come back to India. So most of our youngsters are basically starting new generations abroad. We have rising Parsis in Australia, Canada, North America, England, Singapore, New Zealand.”
Among those genuinely fond of the zealous race of Persians was the owner of the gallery, Kalpana Shah who had previously held a similar exhibition with photographer Shantanu Das. Her affection towards the Parsi people, in general, made her want to showcase the new exhibition. She said, “I love Parsis, I love their nature, their humour, their intelligence and they have contributed so much in the society, even though they are very few in numbers left now. That is quite alarming. So this show just shows their different lifestyles, moods, you know natural, many pictures are so natural, how they live. And these are taken in Calcutta, Surat, Navsari, Udvada, Bombay. So I found it interesting.”
Talking about how an exhibition like this helps the Parsi community, Della group founder Jimmy Mistry said,
“It kind of brings out your culture. Anything that brings out your culture and talks of your lineage makes you feel proud and nice.”
He emphasized the need for the younger generation to be aware of their unique culture. As an established architect himself, he has also added the Parsi touch to some of his own projects. He said, ”If you look at my building in Dadar, the whole purpose of that building that I did, architecture of that portion, (is so that) the current generation feels proud of its lineage. Because you show everything in ruins and say we used to be this, but today we are gone. So I wanted to show Persian history and heritage and architecture in pristine glory.”
He further claimed that more efforts should have been taken by the older generations to hold the younger generations close by recounting the delicate and peculiar details of what it means to be a Parsi. The true essence of religion to him is the awareness of the customs, traditions and culture.
The evening was an ode to the sweetness that the Parsi community has brought to our country as they have made massive contributions to the society. The values of immense self-respect and non-violence that they believe in are reflected in their temperament at all times. The exhibition is an effort to preserve and celebrate the legacy of this delightful community.