A timetravel through Parsi portraits

It is spring in Delhi. Brown leaves — that seem to have been shaded by Rembrandt — fall off the peepal trees at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). Inside the sandstone building, colourful portraits have begun to chatter — about an old story, yellowed by time. The exhibition, “Painted Encounters: Parsi Traders and the Community”, goes back 250 years — an elaborate, extraordinary time travel through images — to reveal men, women and children, their plush drawing rooms and cavernous opium factories, and the ships on which they set sail to Canton in China. There the men sold balls of opium and bales of cotton. They also got their portraits painted — by Chinese, English and unnamed artists.

by Charmy Harikrishnan | Economic Times

a-timetravel-through-parsi-portraitsThe works here, startlingly, are not so much about the artists as they are about the sitters. The portraits are not quite about colours and brushwork as they are about the small community of Parsis —what they did, where they traded and how they lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. These paintings demand more from the viewer than a gentle appreciating nod. They require you to step away and prod deeper. Then you see a grand panorama unfurling, you see how these portraits are part of the big picture — of early colonial history; commerce with China, especially opium; the building of the city of Bombay; and the newly acquired love, even fetish, for art among the nouveau riche Parsi businessmen. You have to read these paintings along with nautical maps showing trade routes and ledgers detailing marked-up prices.

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Then you see characters either fighting the English East India Company or making money in alliance with it. You see artists setting up ateliers in China Town and making cheaper “export paintings” for the foreign traders flooding the place.

Lamqua, the Chinese artist in Canton, whose studio made souvenir portraits of Parsi merchants and shipbuilders, has been described as painting with a brush in each hand. Before Made in China, there was the cutprice Painted in China.

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Trade Wins There is a portrait of a man wearing a white tunic and a red cape, his hand clasping a string of beads or pearls, his feet encased in mojris. His face is pasty, his moustache gently curls. There is an air of opulence about him, and yet sombreness fades into ashen helplessness in his countenance. He is Naoroji Rustom Manek Seth, the first Parsi to travel to England in 1723. The backstory of that portrait is about the early encounters between the English East India Company and the Parsi traders.

Naoroji’s father Rustom was a prominent broker for the Company until the Brits got wary of his growing wealth and influence. This is detailed in the book Competition and Collaboration by David L White. That conflict changed the equation between the sahibs and the Parsis. The Company eventually tried to check Naoroji and brothers, by accusing them of making a profit of 14% from selling goods to Company; 12% more than what was allowed. Finally, Naoroji went on an unprecedented voyage to England with his wife and children, and enough Indian clothes and goods to cover the journey. He negotiated with the directors of the East India Company and won: the first win by the Parsis against the Company.

There is another painting — of a trader Framji Bhikaji Panday, one of the Parsi merchants who made his fortunes from cotton maritime trade. Sacks of cotton and a huge balance dominate the painting. But the big money came from elsewhere: the opium carcanna (factory). Lithographs after WS Sherwill (c 1850) show enormous pillars in the Drying Room of the Patna Opium Factory, the floor covered with endless mounds of opium; the drug is piled in rows from floor to ceiling in the Stacking Room; the Balling Room has men moulding balls of opium, while boys, in loin clothes and tufts of hair flying in the air, run between them, carrying precise ingredients.

When Amitav Ghosh wrote about the Ghazipur opium factory in his novel The Sea of Poppies, he had said he relied on the accounts of JWS MacArthur, who headed it, and “on a volume of etchings of the opium factories of Patna and Ghazipur, made by a British artist in the 1860s”. In an email, Ghosh says, “I was indeed referring to Sherwill’s lithographs.” In Sherwill’s works, the Indian men are dwarfed by the gigantic halls and columns: they are blotches of brown, figures in shadows, while the sahibs in coattails and top hats and with walking sticks loom prominently. But while Ghosh interrogated free trade in his novel, it is celebrated in the exhibition here. Ghosh had said, elsewhere, in an interview to a magazine that “the Ghazipur and Patna opium factories together produced the wealth of Britain”.

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Opium, Oil & Gunpowder So much wealth that Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, who made his fortune from opium trade, had an annual turnover of over £1 million in the mid-19th century. Curators of the exhibition Pheroza Godrej, art historian and wife of industrialist Jamshyd Godrej, and Firoza Punthakee Mistree, an expert in Zoroastrian studies, refer to JJ’s wealth in an article titled “The Lure of China and the Art of Parsee Portraiture in the 18th and 19th Centuries”. They write that in May 1849, JJ requested for “remittances of £150,000 from his trading partners in London” for a single shipment. Eight years later, just two months before the Revolt of 1857, the building of JJ School of Art would open, named after the generous benefactor who gave `100,000 as endowment. That is how the smell of opium blends hallucinogenically with turpentine and oil and gunpowder.

Mistree says, over a phone conversation, about the beginnings of India’s premier art institute: “It was in 1851 that JJ became part of the selection committee of the Great Exhibition of London. The next year, he gave the donation of ` 1 lakh. In 1853, the art classes began and, in 1857, the school building was opened. Art schools were established to wipe out the native perspective of artists. European techniques took over. It was part of the Europeanisation of the Indian heart and soul.”

There is a portrait of JJ at the exhibition: wearing white with rich red drapes and curved furniture in the backdrop. Mistree says, “The 19th century Bombay society was very stratified. It was only in Canton that the Parsis rubbed shoulders with the British and began to assimilate a lot of European life.” By the 1830s, Godrej and Mistree write, “no wellto-do Parsi home was without Chinese porcelain and other decorative items from China and Europe… their homes were copies of grand European houses filled with furniture, chandeliers, glassware, porcelain and paintings… The money from the China trade allowed them luxuries of every kind.”

The portrait of JJ’s daughter — also by an anonymous artist — shows young Pirojbhai against a similar background of opulent red velvet and a scrap of blue sky through the window. But she has a book open on her lap: the grand sign of education. Paintings like these had another purpose in Bombay society that had taken to portraiture as a marker of status: these were given as calling cards to important visitors. “Portraiture was an elitist pursuit,” says Mistree. “It was even propaganda, to establish the individual’s position in society.”

Godrej and Mistree write that Jejeebhoy ordered many portraits of family, friends and business partners. Yet, his interest was functional rather than aesthetic. He used “portraits as aide-memoire to remember friends”, they write. “In his letters, he demonstrated neither an appreciation of the art of portraiture nor did he express a desire to be painted by a notable artist. Yet, he gave precise instructions for the size of the canvas.” He wanted canvases to be exactly 3 feet 2 inches in length and 2 feet 3 inches in breadth, and the framing to be done in England!

There is a portrait of a Parsi woman by the Chinese artist Sanqua who worked in Canton in the latter half of the 19th century. Mistree says that with the introduction of photography in the mid-19th century, Parsis would send photos through captains of opium clippers to have cheap portraits made by the artists in Canton. Since women were forbidden from entering the factories of Canton, it is possible that this unknown, rich Parsi lady’s portrait was made from one such photograph despatched across the seas.

The other exhibition at NGMA, “No Parsi is an Island”, curated by Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania, looks at 14 artists across 150 years, including the 19th century Parsi painters who stepped out of the JJ School of Art: like Pestonji Bomanji, who was a contemporary of Raja Ravi Varma, but has been eclipsed by the painter prince. Says Hoskote: “Adajania and I have argued that Bomanji should be recognised as the equal of Ravi Varma. In the course of our ongoing work on Bomanji, we have come to the provisional conclusion that, while both artists drew on the same stratum of patronage — native aristocracy, the mercantile elite, colonial officials, and the colonial state system — Ravi Varma was able to develop a mass market through his oleographs, with their mythological subjects, while Bomanji remained committed to a more formal studio practice; with the result that his fame, considerable within the world of connoisseurship, did not extend to the larger multitudes.”

Under 70,000 From the portraits of elite Parsis, ensconced in their drawing rooms and trading places, you reach, in “No Parsi is an Island”, the frenetic frenzy of social classes of Bombay in Gieve Patel’s masterpiece Off Lamington Road.

While both the exhibitions were shown in a different form in Mumbai in 2013-14, this time it is part of The Everlasting Flame International Programme, under the Union ministries of minority affairs and culture — it took Ahura Mazda to eventually bring the two together. Says Hoskote: “This collaboration evolved out of a process of discussion among the various partners — among them museum professionals, cultural producers and ministry officials — over the last year.”

Writer Keki Daruwalla says: “These exhibitions shows how a community has grappled with art and life. We are a diminishing community (just under 70,000 in India, at last count). These works are all that will be left of us.” Hoskote agrees: “This project marks a historic endeavour to contextualise the contributions made by a micro-minority to the larger cultural history of an India evolving from the late-colonial to the postcolonial period.”

Union minister for minority affairs Najma Heptullah said at the inauguration of the exhibition that it was the first time her ministry had taken such an initiative. She said she had always loved the Parsi sense of humour and knew how to cook the patrani machhi — which is all commendable — but will the ministry’s Hamari Dharohar (Our Heritage) programme have an exhibition of Aurangzeb in 2018, which will be the 400th birth anniversary of the Mughal emperor?