Threads of Continuity: Exhibitions on Parsi Life and Culture

Ongoing exhibitions – “The Everlasting Flame” at the National Museum, “Painted Encounters, Parsi Traders and the Community” and “No Parsi is an Island” at the National Gallery of Modern Art and “Threads of Continuity” at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts – explore Zoroastrianism and Parsi life, history and culture.

A view of "Threads of Continuity" at IGNCA. Credit: Shernaz Italia.
A view of “Threads of Continuity” at IGNCA. Credit: Shernaz Italia.
Delhi has the unique distinction of hosting, for the first time ever, four major exhibitions on Zoroastrianism. This, for a Parsi living outside the cocoons of Mumbai and Gujarat is in itself quite amazing, and for the people of Delhi, where Parsis are such a tiny minority, a total revelation.

The original inspiration for these exhibitions came from an academic exhibition and conference held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, called “The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination,” from October to December 2013. This was followed by two exhibitions of a totally different kind in Mumbai, in December of the same year, for the World Zoroastrian Congress titled “Across the Oceans and Flowing Silks from Canton to Bombay 18th to 20th Centuries” and “No Parsi is an Island”.

Although people did go and see these exhibitions, they were minuscule in number. Shernaz Cama, who was the coordinator of the SOAS exhibition and belongs to PARZOR – a UNESCO initiative for the preservation of Parsi Zoroastrian culture – wanted the reach of the exhibitions to be much broader. Meanwhile, the ministry of minority affairs asked if they could promote a Parsi initiative. Cama immediately suggested mounting exhibitions on Parsis. The National Museum, the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) were asked to make dates available and the curators to choose their locations.

The results are happily here for all to see.

What is Zoroastrianism? Who are the Parsis?

Having been born and brought up in Delhi, these were questions I was often asked, even though Parsis had begun to weave themselves into the fabric of the city. I remember giving the oft-quoted, and in all probability mythical story, of refugees from Iran landing in Gujarat between the 8th and the 10th centuries and hence speaking Gujarati and wearing the sari Gujarati style. Growing up, one had one’s Navjot (initiation ceremony), learnt by rote prayers in a language that was dead, discovered a bit more when on holiday in Bombay to meet relatives – and that was about it.

These exhibitions have finally given us as a community an understanding of where we came from, who we were, what we have made of ourselves over these centuries, and above all where we are headed.

A vast expanse of time and space

“The Everlasting Flame” at the National Museum is a visual narrative of the history of Zoroastrianism.

The Fire Temple. Credit: Shernaz Italia
The Fire Temple. Credit: Shernaz Italia
The most interesting feature of the exhibition perhaps, for non-Parsis, is the replica of a Fire Temple – the inner sanctum (where non-Parsis are not allowed), the objects used, the clothes a priest wears and of course the fire. Playing softly in the background, like a hypnotic chant, are the prayers.

The first exhibit is a tablet from 2100 BC. Interestingly, it tells of payment to women in “Pearls of Barley”. So, was there egalitarianism then? The Cyrus Cylinder, which comes much later, is now considered the first Declaration of Human Rights; yet, there is this tablet and barley is a grain used to this day.

The exhibition takes one through the various Persian empires – Achaemenian, Parthian, Sassanian. At their prime they were larger than the Roman, Egyptian and Greek empires. Yet hardly anything is known about them. There are over 300 objects spanning several centuries and originating from an area stretching across Europe, Central Asia, India and China.

On exhibit from The Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg are murals from the excavations at Penjikent near Samarkand, and at Samarkand itself. The Hermitage has been conducting these excavations since 1947. Many of the paintings, murals and artefacts painstakingly restored are devoted to the epic of Rostam. Also on exhibit is a series of paintings called the “Ambassador’s Paintings” that show an unusual depiction of Navroze.

The exhibition features ancient manuscripts from the British Museum; exquisitely calligraphed and illustrated copies of the Shahanameh; coins that date back to ancient Persia, Akbar and Jahangir; terracotta plates and figurines; remnants of pottery; engraved silver and bronze plaques; bowls; vases; horns; plates, and of course, the majesty of Persepolis.

There are beasts real and imagined, elegant columns, graceful arches, and staircases ending in the sky. The exhibition covers a vast expanse of time and space.

From monochrome to colour

A jhabla on display. Credit: Shernaz Italia
A jhabla on display. Credit: Shernaz Italia
After these spectacular exhibits, we enter a room called “The Parsi Salon” or the “Red Salon.” (Finally some familiarity!) Confronting us are original garas, or saris with Chinese embroidery on Gaggi silk – family heirlooms in most Parsi houses – jabhlas, a smock-like blouse that all of us wore as children, and sets of traditional Persian shalwar and kamiz that have been worn from ancient times into the present. Surrounding the rich costumes are commissioned artworks by famous practitioners of the J.J. School of Art, mainly portraits of the rich and famous.

Oddly enough, it is this room that has also drawn criticism by some for being out of sync with the rest of the exhibition. The main reason for this is that the aesthetics of Zoroastrianism are austere, spare, and monochromatic. But here in this room, we are suddenly surrounded by colour and modern aesthetics. The room has been a hit with visitors, though.

Painted encounters

The Red Salon. Credit: Shernaz Italia
The Red Salon. Credit: Shernaz Italia
The NGMA features two exhibitions of paintings, called “Painted Encounters, Parsi Traders and the Community” and “No Parsi is an Island”.

“Painted Encounters” is for me a kind of visual translation of Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, which describes Parsi trade with China. Curated by Pheroza J. Godrej and Firoza Punthakey Mistree, the works, numbering over two hundred, take us from the emergence of the Parsi traders to their presence as a force to reckon with in the early colonial world. Traditionally, Zoroastrianism, and indeed Zoroastrians, had never been exclusive. They not only welcomed people into their faith but also respected others following their own. The Persian Empire actually opened up the Silk Route from Persia, through central Asia and India, up to China. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Parsi merchant with an innate ability to shift comfortably between several languages and firmly ensconced within the British Raj, expanded trade from India to China, West Asia and Europe. Parsi traders comprised one of the most important mercantile communities, developing links with the European traders very early on. They were also instrumental in building the dockyards and ships to facilitate that trade. Canton was the end point.

The exhibition starts with pictures of clippers, mainly carriers of opium over the seas to Canton, and of the factories – called Hongs – at Canton or Guanghzou. Some of the paintings in the collection are by William Daniell, characterised by his precision and eye for detail. He depicts the boats of the Chinese boat people that supplied the Hongs with food, vegetables and fruit, transporting them out to the clippers that waited to take them back to Bombay. We have here outstanding panoramic views – detailed maps, exteriors of buildings, interiors of Courts of Justice, the Pearl River delta – and paintings on glass, ivory inlaid with gilt, paper and canvas, as well as pictures of Surat and Bombay, as they were then.

Opium factory at Ghazipur. Credit: Shernaz Italia
Opium factory at Ghazipur. Credit: Shernaz Italia
Tea and silk then take centre stage. We view homes of Chinese merchants in intricate detail. There are also descriptions of the food these merchants served at banquets, such as this one: “Bird’s nest soup with plover eggs, jellies of every kind, roast suckling pig, roast duck, shark’s fin, abalone, sea cucumber, jelly fish, sea food of every kind, ribs delicately prepared with apricots, squabs, duck eggs, snow fungus, winter melon and roasted snails”.

There are portraits of the merchants, lithographs of the opium factory at Patna (it is actually at Ghazipur), and household items – beds, chests and the blue and white porcelain of Canton.

After this extravagant journey, we return to India, to Surat, where it all began for the Parsis in the 17th century, when they became brokers and commission agents for the Dutch and British. This beginning comes to life in the exhibited paintings of early brokers, a Dutch cemetery, an old British factory and early Bombay.

It is very hard to dispute the close association between the Parsis and the city of Bombay, which bears clear testimony to their contribution.

Portraits. Credit: Shernaz Italia
Portraits. Credit: Shernaz Italia
The last part of the exhibition concerns the early Parsis of Bombay – the Wadias, the Jejeebhoys, the Petits, the Readymoneys and the Tatas. Beautiful portraits of them and their families, and paintings of their homes and clothes, are a fitting tribute to them.

“No Parsi is an island”

Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania, along with Pheroza Godrej, have curated the other exhibition at NGMA, “No Parsi is an Island”.

The exhibition took full shape over a lunch meeting when Pheroza told Ranjit and Nancy that she was working on an exhibition on Parsi merchants and the Opium wars. She asked them whether they were interested in taking the narrative forward. Nancy, who calls herself a “Cultural Parsi,” said they would be happy to do so, but emphasised that they were not interested in portraying a limited, insular understanding of the Parsi community. This was how the title “No Parsi is an Island” was conceptualised. Ironically enough, Pheroza, Nancy and Ranjit later had an argument over this title with other curators, who rather liked the idea of Parsis being an island!

The exhibition allowed the curators to think about how artists of Parsi origin negotiated the interior world of that community and the cosmopolitan landscape that was opening up. It thus depicts the artists as working in contexts wider than just their art, giving glimpses of how they intervened in civic activism and the conversations in which they partook, such as those between the largely-forgotten Adi Davierwalla and Piloo Pochkhanawala.

After the British took over post the 1857 revolt, much thought was put into meaningfully and gainfully employing the masses and inculcating within them a European way of thinking. Art schools comprised one of the mediums through which this was done. Foremost amongst the new art schools was the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art in Mumbai, which holds pride of place to this day. Amongst the first to be trained at J.J. School of Art was Pestonjee Bomanjee, who enrolled as a sculptor under John Lockwood Kipling, the father of Rudyard. The friezes at the entrance of Crawford Market building, now almost invisible because hidden by vendors’ wares, were designed by J. L. Kipling and executed by his students. From the 2nd half of the 19th century to the present, artists of Parsi origin have participated actively in the domains and debates of Indian art, the three curators of this exhibition themselves being prominent amongst them.

Across both these exhibitions, we can see that westernisation took root and grafted itself rather easily into the Parsi thought process. Bomanjee’s paintings are often ethnographic depictions of Parsis of that time – their clothes, customs and homes.

Needless to say, the existence of a large collection of Parsi portraits can be attributed to the wealth gained by Parsi traders during the 19th century in Canton, and also documents their evolving tastes at the time. As they emulated the British, subtle changes in their fashion, lifestyle, furniture, Cantonese porcelain, and business style came about.

Threads of Continuity

A view of the exhibits. Credit: Shernaz Italia
A view of the exhibits. Credit: Shernaz Italia
The title of the exhibition at the IGNCA “Threads of Continuity,” which is curated by Cama, Ashen Lilaowala, Dadi Pudumjee and Kritika Mudgal, evokes the very heart of Zoroastrianism by referring to the sacred thread called kasti. “Threads weave together the material and the spiritual in a cosmic Aiwyaonghana or bond of unification,” says Cama.

The cosmic tree of life at the centre of the exhibition is made of 72 threads that signify the 72 chapters of the Yasna, the text that forms the basis of the Zoroastrian “Faith in Action” culture, of which the Zoroastrian tenet of “Humata, Hukta, Huvarashta,” or “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds,” is the guiding force. As we walk through the exhibition, it becomes apparent that while some threads are physical and tangible, many others are metaphorical. All of them bind Zoroastrians to their past and will, hopefully, guide their future.

Beyond the tree of life, we find the section on Cyrus the Great, whose tomb was desecrated by Alexander’s soldiers and on which was the poignant inscription: “O men, I am Cyrus, son of Cambyses, founder of the Persian Empire… Grudge me not these few feet of land to lay my body as I was once the Master and Emperor of Asia.”

One of the most interesting items following this section is a picture and reproduction of a water harvesting system called the Badgir. Another outstanding replica is of the statue of Darius with a missing upper body. The pleats on his robe are inscribed along the right-hand side in cuneiform in three official languages of the empire, Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, and along the left-hand side in Egyptian hieroglyphs. The king is wearing a Persian dress with a dagger in his belt.

From Yazd, Iran, we come to the present day. Most strikingly, we view the original firman signed by Abdul Fazl and stamped with the royal seal, granting land as a gift to the first Dastoor Meherjirana at Fatehpur Sikri during Akbar’s reign. We also view images of Parsi homes, establishments and garas, and portraits of the rich and famous.

A flame sparked by a Bronze Age prophet has burned through known history. A civilisation and its tradition have endured, its thread unbroken.

It is a community that is now at a crossroads, faced with choices about which route to take. The Zoroastrians have been just one thread in the tapestry of humanity, yet their pioneering spirit has made them a vital part of the warp and weft. A philosophy that has always respected all creation, not just man and woman, and that values compassion and justice above all, can only continue to offer the promise for a better life.

Published on The Wire

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