What does it mean to be Parsi? An art exhibition provides an answer

2We have chosen to treat the ethnographic framework of the exhibitionary occasion – a celebration of the culture of the Parsi micro-minority – as a point of departure rather than a limiting condition. The 14 artists gathered to form this exhibition, together with the contexts they inhabited and negotiated, afford us the opportunity to conduct three related research explorations.

First, by focusing on artistic practices that have dipped below the radar of art-historical attention, we have been able to inquire here into the lost histories of Indian modernism. Pointing this optic back in time, for example, we focus on Pestonji Bomanji’s allegorical asides and references to Indic tradition, which pass unnoticed in more mainstream interpretations of his work, where he is projected as a salon painter, or as an artist whose patronage and choice of subjects were overdetermined by his ethnic and religious identity as a Parsi and a Zoroastrian.

How then do we account for the presence of the Ajanta murals in the upper right-hand area of his painting, Feeding the Parrot (1882), which otherwise seems to evoke a scene of quintessential Parsi domesticity? Far from being merely the first portrait painter produced by the JJ School of Art, Bomanji was a foundational presence and deserves to be set beside Raja Ravi Varma in the history of modern Indian art.

Second, many of the artists in this exhibition demonstrate what we regard as vibrant expanded practices. It is vital to us to reflect on and represent the way in which they ranged across visual domains and political urgencies, the work that they accomplished beyond the studio and the gallery, engaging with diverse economies of cultural production such as music, dance, theatre, cinema, the crafts, literature and publishing as producers, interlocutors and collaborators.

We cherish the notion of expanded practice as an exemplary model at a time when artists are being socialised (and to a considerable extent routinised) within the protocols of an art world mesmerised by the precarity of its own institutions and increasingly framed within a neo-liberal economy.

No Parsi is an Island is also an argument against the canon formation that has been underway in Indian art since the 1990s, and which promotes an art-historical and critical tendency to subsume the first two generations of postcolonial Indian artists under broad and misleading rubrics; for instance, by aligning them in collegial or adversarial relation to influential formations such as the Progressives, Group 1890 or the Baroda Group.

In the process, the contributions of cultural actors who did not subscribe to such allegiances have been marginalised in discourse or have been rendered invisible. Until relatively recently, this was true of Sabavala, who charted his own course independently of groups and formations; however, sustained critical and curatorial attention to his work has prompted a reassessment of his work, a resonance of which has been felt in the recent increase in attention to his oeuvre in successive auctions.

Neglect, indifference or ignorance have even more particularly attended figures whose practices were hybrid and would today have been described as inter- or trans-disciplinary, such as Nelly Sethna, who combined her practice of weaving with a vigorous concern with research, writing, documentation and activism geared towards reviving non-metropolitan arts lineages.

She became a major contributor to the revival and transformation of the Kalamkari lineage in the southern Indian town of Masulipatnam, rescuing it from decline. We re-defined Sethna’s tapestries as “textile sculptures” and presented them in the first edition of No Parsi is an Island in the form of a pavilion to be viewed in the round. In Delhi, we presented her works as a double colonnade under the dome of Jaipur House, with Homi Sethna’s film on Kalamkari projected on the inner surface of the dome.

And third, we have borne witness to the “worlding” of many of the artists included in this exhibition. We employ this key concept after Heidegger, to indicate the continuous and regenerative process of being-in-the-world, embracing its circumstances and potentialities, and mapping forms of belonging within it.

Another key concept that arises from worlding is that of “relatedness”, which we dramatise through the connections between some of the Parsi artists and their friends, colleagues and collaborators beyond the community. For instance, we have expanded Gieve Patel’s presence in the exhibition to include works by his closest artist friends and colleagues, whose presence informs his life and work, as his does theirs.

These works include Sudhir Patwardhan’s iconic 1977 painting, “Irani Restaurant” and his “Riot” (1997), as well as Atul Dodiya’s “Dr Patel’s Clinic, Lamington Road” (1995) and Anju Dodiya’s “Arachne” (2012). Patel is thus shown in the amplitude of a community formed around long-term conversations, deep friendships and common interests. Hence our leitmotif and title, set against the perils of communal insularity and ethnocentrism, and adapted from the Metaphysical poet John Donne’s famous admonition on the indivisibility, connectedness and shared destiny of all humankind: “No Parsi is an Island”.

In tandem with Donne’s meditation, folded into our title, we propose Keki N Daruwalla’s poem, Migrations, as a prelude to the exhibition. In this poem, the Lahore-born Daruwalla retrospects on the consequences of the Partition, postcolonial India’s birth trauma. He brings the inherited memory of an ancestral diaspora from Iran to this meditation on a historical experience that is all too often seen as a Hindu/ Muslim binary, despite the strong share in it of the Sikh community as well as other religious and ethnic groups. Migrations is a complex poem with many potential addressees: it reminds Parsis that they do not have a monopoly on the condition of displacement; it reminds others that the Parsis were also affected by the Partition, and that they have had, and continue to have, a stake in the larger subcontinental narrative.

In this spirit, we may observe that the work of Parsi artists connects them to larger questions, concerns and urgencies, and to the activities of colleagues, in every generation under review here. They have not simply articulated a Parsi “identity”, as though this were static and pre-programmed; nor have they cherished a splendid isolation from ambient historical circumstances. Rather, they have participated vigorously in debates concerning, at various times, colonial modernity, nationalism, an Indian modernism, and the globalised contemporary cultural space.

In the process, we show how they have developed enduring and productive relationships outside the community: through a particular form of pedagogy; through deeply personal decisions such as those of marriage, friendship or ideology; through collegiality, collaboration and intervention, or the establishment of an affinity with a cultural idiom outside the Parsi ethos.

Through this exhibition, we are concerned to demonstrate the Parsi artistic experience, not as an a priori construct, but rather as a material actuality unfolding in relation to varied cultural economies and political ecologies, manifesting itself through a variegated range of outcomes. In the process, the artists in our exhibition have expanded the notion of what it means to be Parsi, beyond the limits of ethnic-religious identity laid down by social sanction and scriptural argument within the community.

No Parsi is an Island: A Curatorial Re-reading across 150 Years, curated by Nancy Adajania & Ranjit Hoskote, is on at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, till May 29.

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