The first chapter entitled "Young Priests" contains an interview with the principal of a Zoroastrian seminary called a madressa, where young boys from priestly families reside and are trained full time, along with their regular schoolwork. They are obliged to learn whole books of prayers by heart, religious knowledge, Iranian history, and the many Zoroastrian rituals. The photographs show them in the classroom, at rest and at play. This is followed by an interview with a young priest initiate, Sooni's cousin Danesh, with accompanying photographs of him and his friends at play. This tendency to incorporate much personal material alongside relatively banal interviews is one quibble I have with her approach. The accompanying photos are a little repetitive and not of the same high quality as many others in the book.
|Priests perform the afringan and farokhsi ritual on a death anniversary. Wadiaji Atash Bahram, Bombay 1982||High Priest of Udvada, Ervad Kekobad Dastoor imparts some words of wisdom to Kayrus and Rustom Unwala after performing their navjote. Bombay 1999.|
|"My grandmother Aloo praying.|
Cozy Building, Bombay 1984"
|Buying fruit at Bhaji Gully. Bombay 1986|
|Cyrus Broacha, MTV VJ, answers his mother's phone call on the set of his show Love Line. Bombay 2000|
"Faith and the Faithful" outlines some of the religious practices and explains what goes on inside an agiary (fire temple), to which non-Zoroastrians are not admitted. It is generously illustrated with photos of the simple prayers and various rituals that take place inside, as well as ones of Parsis praying in public and at home. It should satisfy the curiosity of all who wonder what happens inside those mysterious walls. A few of my favourite photos can be found here -- one of elderly ladies with soft grandma skin in softly draped saris worn Parsi style, holding bunches of roses on a visit to an Atash Bahram; the interior of an agiary lit only by hundreds of oil lamps; and Sooni's grandmother Aloo, praying at home in the wonderful glow of a typical cosy domestic scene from the 1970s and 80s, complete with black and white television and black telephone with dial.
The chapter entitled "The City" is the longest. It starts out with an interview with Jamsheed Kanga, an ex-Municipal Commissioner of Bombay/Mumbai, in which is discussed the role of Bombay in the story of the Parsis, and also the decline in the entrepreneurial spirit among Parsis today. It is followed by a personal account of the author's family with accompanying photographs, and an interview with a polymath restaurant owner and film critic. The photographs vary from life at the racetrack, the clubs, people out and about, and in the baugs (exclusively Parsi housing colonies) and homes of Bombay. It also takes a peek at a couple of venerable Parsi institutions, the Godrej factory and the Ratan Tata Industrial Institute.
The good and the great are represented in the chapter "Legends". The Parsis have produced more than their fair share of these -- from Zubin Mehta, the internationally renowned music conductor, to Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw, as well as top surgeons, industrialists, artists, writers and sportsmen. Photographically, it is one of the weakest sections of the book, as I feel many of the inclusions are there to make up the tally of achievers, rather than on the artistic merit of the photographs themselves.
"The Village" looks at life in the slow lane, mostly in the town of Navsari and the pilgrimage centre of Udvada, where the holiest fire temple, the Iranshah Atash Bahram is located. Parsis are overwhelmingly urban nowadays, and these small pockets of rural or small town existence serve to remind us of how different life was not too long ago. Some young movers and shakers appear in "Generation Next", mostly in the media and entertainment industries. "Rites and Passages" focuses on the two main milestones in the life of any Parsi, the initiation ceremony or navjote, and the wedding, both of which are celebrated with great gusto.
And finally, the "Last Journey" touches upon a practice by which most people know something about the Parsis - how they dispose of their dead. The famous Towers of Silence are located in the still untouched and beautifully wooded acres on Malabar Hill, cheek by jowl with the swankiest addresses in town. The corpses are laid out in specially consecrated walled enclosures, for the vultures and elements to take care of. Just one disposal practice among the many which humans have evolved, and yet somehow exciting the prurient curiosity of outsiders.
This is the second edition of the book, which was originally self published in 2000. The original contained photos taken over a span of twenty years, from 1980 to 2000. The new edition has only minor changes, the most obvious being the change of image on the front cover, to one of a man in a sola hat, umbrella hooked over his arm, looking out to sea on a wet, monsoony day. It is one of the most evocative in the book and makes a wonderful cover. In the new edition, Sooni has also included a handful of more recent images, mostly of personalities she is paying homage to, such as Zarir Cama, the former CEO of HSBC bank who was a sponsor of her book project.
To my eyes, the photographs range from the sublime to the banal. And curiously, the earlier work is far superior -- there is hardly an image made after 1986 that is half as good as those produced in the early eighties. These latter, especially the colour ones, are taken without the use of flash, (in the use of which Sooni is not particularly adept), and are suffused with a beautiful nostalgic glow. They are more quietly observed documentary in nature, as opposed to the later more brash accumulation of scalps.
|At the end of each Zoroastrian year, ten days are reserved to invoke the souls and fravashis (guardian spirits) of departed ones. During these days called muktad, the souls are invoked with prayers and the fragrance of flowers. Wadiaji Atash Bahram, Bombay 1985||A Parsi and a Nepali in a BEST bus, rubbing shoulders in cosmopolitan Bombay. 1985|
The whole exercise is drenched in warmth, affection and pride for the community to which the author belongs, and she is very well placed to document its intricacies, as some aspects of religious and cultural life are barred to non-Zoroastrians. At times it reads like an extended play eulogy, by concentrating so heavily on celebrities and achievers, but it would surely do any Parsi proud to have it on their coffee table, as they serve phudino chai and bhakras to their guests! And up until very recently, there was an almost complete absence of any pictorial books on the Parsis, so this will certainly go a long way to filling the gap and explaining the Parsis to the rest of the world.
Book Description: A collection of exquisite photographs taken over a 20-year period, documenting the Parsi community in India. "Demographically, we are a dying community-our deaths outweigh our births. [..] Demographic trends project that by the year 2020, India will have achieved the dubious distinction of being the most populated country on earth with 1200 million people. At that point, Parsis who will number 23,000-0.0002 per cent of the population, will cease to be termed a community and will be labelled a 'tribe', as is any ethnic group below the 30,000 count. It is a fact that obsesses us..."
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