Picture-perfect Parsis

The tiny community’s love affair with portraiture comes alive through Ahmedabad-based art curator Anil Relia’s private collection

Like sugar in milk, the Parsis promised to blend in with their adopted country when they arrived in Gujarat around 7th century AD after fleeing religious persecution back home in Persia or Paras. Even as they made good their promise, the Parsis — who grew to become one of the most affluent communities in India — have also always retained a distinctive identity in the country’s multicultural melting pot.

Few, however, are aware of the important role they played in the evolution of art in India. When it comes to portraiture, it is the Parsis who made the style truly come into its own in this country. And few know this better than the Ahmedabad-based art curator Anil Relia. He had started his mammoth collection with an unknown ‘Parsi man’s’ portrait some four decades ago.

“Born in Surat, I whizzed past on my cycle, always intrigued by the Shahpor area inhabited by several Parsi families. The peculiar smells, the everyday rangolis and their neatness attracted me. As destiny would have it, my first neighbours in Ahmedabad were Dhan and Noshir Anklesaria. They became my window to Parsi culture and uniqueness,” he says.

At his much-lauded ‘A Parsi Delight’ exhibition, held in Ahmedabad last December, on show were portraits made on canvas by Chinese and European artists, by Raja Ravi Varma and others inspired by him, and graduates of the JJ School of Art, including many who were Parsis. Also on display at the Amdavad ni Gufa gallery were photographs, and newspaper and book prints — about the community, and by them in a few cases.

In India, the Parsis were among the first to foray into portrait paintings. While most other communities were reluctant to have their images captured owing to a superstitious association with death and decay, the Parsis saw these portraits as their ticket to prosperity and posterity. European-style portraiture art was in vogue in western India from the 18th century, especially among the wealthy Parsi trading community. In fact, Parsis with business interests in China had their family portraits made by Chinese artists using photos (photography had been invented by 1840) as reference.

Many of the Parsi patrons of portraiture also rose in rank among the British. In one portrait, Jehangir Nowrojee, a Bombay-born Parsi who went to England to study shipbuilding, is seen in the company of a prosperous merchant and steam boat agent named Oliver Miller White. Relia’s research led to an interesting discovery — the painter, William H Baker, who has several of his works in the Louisiana State Museum, had done portraits of White’s children. White had commissioned the portrait with his Parsi friend.

The Ravi Varma connection

Historically, Indian art was about miniature paintings using natural dyes and fabrics. As many Indian artists started to apprentice under Europeans, they were exposed to oil painting techniques and realistic art forms. They also took black-and-white photographs and painted over them. Raja Ravi Varma was one of the first to hop onto the illusive realism that was born out of British influence.

Varma’s paintings of Indian gods, goddesses and mythological characters as realistic human figures in ornate costumes were a sweeping hit with not just the Indian royalty but also the British and the Parsis.

Bai Jerbai Nusherwanji Wadia (1852 to1926), watercolour on photograph the bombay photo co   –  The Bombay Photo Co

Interestingly, on the advice of the Baroda king’s minister Madhava Rao, Varma set up a press in Bombay by importing a lithograph machine and employing two German technicians. The money came from portraits commissioned by wealthy patrons. Most of Varma’s Parsi portraits date to the 1890s, with the well-known one being that of Bai Sunabai Temulji Nariman, a philanthropist who supervised the Parsi Lying-In Hospital founded by her husband, Temulji Bhicaji Nariman.

Historical ties

In 1891, a gripping criminal case was documented first as a painting for the newspaper Kaiser-I-Hind. On April 25 that year, Bachoobai A Godrej, wife of Godrej Brothers Co founder Ardeshir Burjorji Sorabji Godrej, and Pirojbai Ardeshir Kamdin, Godrej’s second cousin, had climbed to the viewing platform of the 85m- high Rajabhai Tower, where some miscreants had allegedly accosted them and the two women leapt to their death to escape them.

The specially commissioned painting featured the portraits of both women with the Rajabhai Tower in the background. The newspaper, founded by Framjee Cowasji Mehta, covered in detail the controversy surrounding the tragic deaths, and the case continues to intrigue the public till date, with petitions for reopening the trial still active.

Ahead of time

At a time when the colonial British rulers started art schools in India to tweak culture and education for political gains, the Parsis wholeheartedly embraced these efforts. Jamsetjee Jeejeeboy, the first Indian knight and baronet, founded the Sir JJ School of Art to popularise oil painting in India. Many Parsis took up painting and won accolades too, such as Pestonji Bomanji, a salon painter, and the father-son duo MF Pithawala and Sorab Pithawala.

The Parsis were also the pioneers in setting up printing presses in India. “Initially they started specific publications for Parsi women to create awareness, but later included the general populace as well. Albums containing varied information on culture, history and people were soon circulated with newspapers as special editions,” says Relia, who has several of these albums in his collection. As photography made its way to India, it was again this small community that started photo studios in the western parts. The famous Taraporewala studio was run by Jehangir Taraporewala, who learnt photography in Germany. He found Parsi women very comfortable in front of the camera.

If a picture of a community could be painted through their participation, the Parsi portrait would indeed be a spirited one.

Runa Mukherjee Parikh is a journalist based in Ahmedabad and the author of Your Truth, My Truth

Published on Business Line