Photojournalist Mobeen Ansari has spent close to a decade capturing facets of the Parsis — a community that has contributed immensely to the building of Pakistan
Walking around Jamshed Baugh, a quiet Parsi neighbourhood in Karachi, photojournalist Mobeen Ansari spotted an elderly woman sitting on her porch, lost in thoughts. In her bright pink frock, a wrinkled palm cradling her serene face, Mobeen thought she was a perfect candidate for a portrait shot. Just as he was about to click her picture, their eyes met. She noticed the camera in his hand and rushed inside her house, only to come out with a metal rod.
Article by Tessy Koshy | The Hindu Business Line
A thousand words: Vignettes of the life, rituals and festivals of the Parsi community in Pakistan – IMAGES COURTESY: MOBEEN ANSARI
“I thought she would throw it at me or beat me up with it. But to my surprise she started banging the railing next to a door with it. Out of nowhere a clowder of 30 cats came running to her,” Ansari tells this correspondent during a meeting in Dubai earlier this year and later in an email interview. That heartening image of Perin Keikobad, a retired Pakistani banker who now spends most of her time feeding and looking after stray cats, found a place in the lensman’s book Dharkan: The Heartbeat of a Nation published in 2013.
By featuring her Ansari not just paid tribute to Perin’s unsung act but also found an opportunity to get to know the small yet significant Parsi community of Pakistan. Followers of Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion from Persia, the Parsis of Pakistan are mostly based in the port city of Karachi. Builders of some of the oldest hospitals, educational institutions and hotels of the city, there are only around 1,000 Parsis living in Pakistan today.
Through his lens Ansari (32), also a film-maker, artist and trekker based in Islamabad, has been capturing facets of this dwindling community of people in the country for over nine years now. Besides Perin, one of the first people he photographed for Dharkan was the late Ardeshir Cowasjee — a fearless Parsi journalist, who was fondly called ‘The Grand Old Man of Karachi’.
“When I photographed him in the summer of 2010, I did not have much of a portfolio. I had not conceptualised the book Dharkan and it was still a photo series. After I gave prints of the shoot to Ardeshir, he encouraged me to expand it into a book,” says Ansari, who lost most of his hearing ability to meningitis when he was three weeks old, a disability that he believes helped him understand what it means not to be a part of a majority.
His first book Dharkan presented portraits of iconic and ordinary heroes of Pakistan who shaped the country. It featured yet another Parsi, the celebrated author Bapsi Sidhwa, who was raised in Lahore. Impressed by young Ansari’s zeal to build tolerance by photographing minority communities, she helped him launch his book in the US. “We became very close friends. On the book she signed — to my adopted son,” Ansari says.
Over the years, as Ansari’s friendship with Cowasjee and Sidhwa grew, he was introduced to more Parsis. Invitations to dinners, weddings and other celebrations started pouring in. “These friends would alert me about important events on the Parsi calendar and I would fly in to Karachi to capture them. When the Parsi high priest Berjise Bhada became a close friend, I accompanied him to religious ceremonies at Agyaris (fire temples) and at Parsi homes,” he says.
A series of photo shoots followed. Ansari photographed the lighting of a fire urn, a thanksgiving ritual performed before the start of an auspicious occasion, and a table readied for Navroz, the Parsi New Year. He photographed a young couple exchanging rings surrounded by the priest and family members, the men dressed in traditional white dagli (overcoat) and feta (black hat). Some of these images eventually found their way into Ansari’s second book — White in the Flag. Published in 2017, it depicts the lives and festivities of religious minorities of Pakistan.
Although Ansari discovered the Parsi community intimately through his friends only in his 20s he had been hearing stories about them right from his childhood. While growing up he had heard several anecdotes about the community from his grandmother, whose best friend was her classmate Rubyna Colombowalla, a Parsi. The two were in school together in Jabalpur in pre-Partition India. Ansari’s grandmother kept in touch with Rubyna even after she migrated to Pakistan but stopped writing letters because of tensions between the two nations.
The photo series is also an ode to the people who contributed immensely to building Pakistan. The most notable contributions of the Parsis in Karachi are the Mama Parsi schools, Nadirshaw Eduljee Dinshaw University of Engineering and Technology, BVS (Bai Virbaiji Soparivala) High School, Parsi General Hospital, Avari Towers and Luxury Hotels.
But young Parsis have now migrated to other countries for higher education, job opportunities and for security reasons. According to the 2015 edition of the A&T Directory, which carries details of Parsis in Pakistan, there were only 1,416 Parsis left in Pakistan. The number, as reported by The News International in April 2019, has dwindled further to 1,092. “It is really sad that the first monotheistic religion in the world is facing extinction. Unfortunately, its followers in Pakistan are ageing today and due to migration only the middle aged are left behind,” says Natasha Mavalvala, who works with the Saudi Arabian Airlines in Pakistan and is closely involved with the Karachi Zarthosti Banu Mandal, a Parsi women’s welfare organisation.
Mavalvala, who features in Ansari’s book White in the Flag, recalls how the photographer inundated her with questions about Parsi culture and traditions. “I have never answered so many questions regarding my community or my religion,” she says. “Through his photographs, Ansari has captured the essence of our culture. As a community we tend to keep a low profile. But this nation was built by the Parsis and we are proud to have been the forerunners,” she says.
Tessy Koshy is an independent journalist based in Dubai