The indomitable Parsis

The Parsi story seen through three very different exhibitions in Delhi that chronicle their art and aesthetics, their early history and their unique brand of spiritualism

Pestonji Bomanji’s ‘Feeding the Parrot’ instantly draws attention to its illumination, where it is light that speaks through the portrait. The woman’s enduring sad eyes (although the profile shows only one eye), the caged bird, her lone earring, the half-sunlight caressing the folds of her soft headgear, her blue dress (with a vermilion cloth in her left hand) — a tangible anchor which sustains life. It promises her the world outside her mapped, trapped, late-colonial inner space. The troubled eyes of the child, almost rendered invisible, seem trapped in a cage where the only solace is the subdued light. The influence of the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer is striking. The caged parrot and the light outside appear as moments of revelation and freedom in this 1882 canvas. If it is a remembrance of things past, then, surely, Bomanji’s portrait is looking outside Vermeer’s predictable ambience — the embroidered carpets and purple curtains draped forever like floating walls.

by Amit Sengupta, The Hindu

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Tea and prosperity: The Parsi traders asserted their economic independence as stoic, resilient, relentless traders across long distances and geographies on unknown waters. The painting ‘Loading Tea at Canton’

Bomanji’s painting is part of the new exhibition ‘No Parsi is an Island’, curated with brilliance by cultural critics Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote, focusing on Parsi artists from the late-colonial period to the present day. On display at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi, the paintings tell a story seldom told — an almost undisclosed visual narrative of Indian cultural history. Look at Bomanji’s ‘A Parsi Girl’, draped in purple and yellow with bangles on her little hands, her little feet in leather slippers. A curtain overhangs a painting of what is perhaps a palm-leaf manuscript writer, the little girl pointing to the eclectic graffiti of innocence she has drawn on top of the painting. The blue floor and the paint brushes on the side suggest it is a studio, but the studio itself becomes a feminist compass of a cosmic space and a zone of possibilities. There is hardly any light here, but the little there is, in colour and shade, promises optimism and a certain defiance. Like her little finger pointing at her aesthetic adventure, spoiling the bigger painting.

In contrast, Mehlli Gobhai turns a parched surface, almost like a piece of parchment, into a work of rough, textured luminosity, like hands with skin that knows the sea, the salt and the full-moon tide. His paintings are both stone and leather, shimmering water on a moonless night, and a cool courtyard where a sleepwalker can walk with lucidity, measuring the surface with his mind.

Sorab Pithawalla’s ‘The Dawn of Prohibition’ is a 1937 classic. Modelled on Bollywood actor David Cheulkar as a young man, celebrating his bottles of drink, a half-smoked cigarette on the table, his scarf complementing the green glass of the bottle; this is a portrait of a man in contented repose, slightly tipsy. The dawn is no longer an illusion and he is cocking a snook at the anti-booze brigade.

The paintings and portraits are a tribute to various influences, from European and Dutch traditions, Vermeer and Rembrandt, to the legendary JJ School of Art in Bombay. Among others, there are Nelly Sethna’s meticulous ‘textile sculptures’ hanging like oriental landscapes, and artists sharing contrary space with each other: Pestonji Bomanji (1851-1938), MF Pithawalla (1872-1937), his son Sorab Pithawalla, and Jehangir Ardeshir Lalkaka (1884-1967) — the last, a portraitist who blended British royalty with his idea of orientalism/ nationalism, the first Indian to be appointed deputy director of the JJ School of Art.

The curators of the show write: “From the second half of the 19th century to the present, artists of Parsi origin have participated actively in the domain and debates of Indian art. Far from remaining anchored within the ethnic and religious harbour of their birth, they have charted vivid, memorable voyages across the ocean of transcultural exchanges. They have been dynamic and productive navigators of the ‘in-between’, that richly hybrid threshold space of exchanges among diverse peoples and practices (…)”

‘Painted Encounters: Parsi Traders and the Community’, curated by Peroza J Godrej and Firoza Punthakey Mistree, also at the NGMA, resurrects Parsi aesthetic encounters in the early colonial period, against the backdrop of their adventures in China (including the opium wars), their often dubious, strategic and steadfast alliances with the East India Company, and their relationship with the ‘natives’. The Parsi traders asserted their economic independence as stoic, resilient, relentless traders across long distances and geographies on unknown waters. In their quest for prosperity, they defied the illegalities and dangers of the times. The paradigm shifts in their personal lives and social lifestyles led to a desire to document and preserve these narratives. This, in turn, led them to the art of portraiture, first celebrated by Chinese lithographs in Canton, where the smoke of the opium and the unbridled wealth of the opium trade first uplifted the leap of imagination for the Parsis. Opium was perhaps only one of the big trade elements; there was also indigo, Indian silk, saltpetre, pepper, lead, quicksilver, tin and copper. From China, there was Chinese silk, pearls, jewels and tea. The long journey from Calcutta to Canton became the new Parsi pilgrimage, documented by artists and portraitists.

From Bharuch to Surat to Bombay, and all the docks and ports in between, or from the sprawling sweatshops of Patna to the Calcutta dockyards, the paintings and early photographs became the narrative of the aesthetic life of the Parsi trader and adventurer. The huge black-and-white representations of the opium factories of Patna, with bare-bodied natives trapped in sweatshop labour, presided over by cane-wielding officials of the East India Company, gets juxtaposed with the Parsi traders in flowing white confabulating in the docks, and the Chinese opium smokers in Canton, in an eternal daze, often carried on stretchers by the slaves of the trade. There are many dark ironies in the layers of smoke and haze that constitute this ‘art narrative’ of the early colonial period.

There are moments of lovely relief too. The Tata family in multiple moods, in black-and-white, serene and still, as if untouched by the turmoil of the journeys and the distances, detached from the quest for the adventure of life and wealth. A remarkable moment is shared by the ‘silent movie’ of Sooni Tata and Lady Meherbhai Tata, with their European-style puffed sleeves, meticulously carved ruffled blouses and silk dresses, holding white roses in their delicate fingers, mesmerised by their own imagined images.

Another remarkable portrait, by ‘anonymous’, is that of Dhunbai Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney (1860-1940): proud, grand and beautiful, her eyes and eyelashes transparent and forthright, staring beyond the frame. The wealthy Readymoney family, with a substantial stake in the opium trade, make a nice, happy picture.

For those interested in the spiritual origins and natural elements in Zoroastrianism, and its humble history across West and Central Asia, the exhibition ‘Threads of Continuity’, curated by Shernaz Cama, with Dadi Pudumjee, Ashdeen Lilaowala and Kritika Mudgal, will be a soft and sensuous journey. It showcases the journey of Zarathustra, the monotheistic stoic and prophet. No one listened to him in the beginning, except his cousin, his only follower. And that is why he chose to travel across distant landscapes. His greatness lies in simplicity: good deeds, good ideas and truthfulness; life as a moral battleground between the forces of goodness and evil, in which man is only god’s hamkar, or ‘co-worker’. The principle of celebration is the celebration of nature: fire, water, earth, sky, man, woman, animal, plant, moon, stars, sunshine; all things animate and inanimate. The fire temples still burn, though few and far between, and despite prosecution, exile and condemnations, they live across the globe, few and far between, sometimes not even five families in an entire country (as in South Korea). And yet, the Parsis rejoice in their quiet, collective, aloof, eccentric sublimity with Zarathustra’s early saying: To be my own true self and so my best…

The ‘Threads of Continuity’, on display at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), also features precious collections from the fabulous Tehran Museum: metals, goblets, locks, keys, necklaces, jewels, fireplaces, wood, ceramic objects, pendants, paperweights, gift coins and porcelain magic lights. There are also ancient manuscripts, some the size of a matchbox. They would, once upon a time, hang these matchbox manuscripts around the neck, like a necklace.

(No Parsi is an Island and Painted Encounters: Parsi Traders and the Community, NGMA, Jaipur House, India Gate, Delhi, March 22 to May 29, 10am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Threads of Continuity, IGNCA, Delhi, March 22 to May 29)

Amit Sengupta is executive editor, Hardnews