Portraying the Parsis’ past
sometimes an idea or project that has been crying out to be done, takes
so remarkably long in being realised. This is the thought that crossed
my mind when, a few days ago, I was at the National Gallery of Modern
Art in Mumbai. A fine, engaging show of Parsi portraits, under the
attractive title of "Portraits of a Community", had just
opened there. People, many of them recognisably Parsi, were thronging
in, absorbing the range of painted images that hung on the walls,
reading with eagerness the information panels that told them something
about the images. Occasionally, one felt a palpable excitement run
through a group as someone recognised an ancestor in a portrait, and
pointed the fact to others; a brief discussion would ensue about the
identity of a sailing ship, or a mansion, that appeared in the
background of some work; a sense of pride one could see spreading like a
glow on many a face. Why have we not seen these works before, or at
least seen them in this manner, or in such numbers, was the unasked
question on nearly every lip. Why indeed? Mumbai, Parsis, and art: do
they not all go together? But then, as I said, sometimes an idea that is
obvious takes inordinately long in coming through.
In many ways, the exhibition was an act of celebration. The Parsis are no ordinary community, and their enterprise, their vision, their philanthropy, all need to be celebrated. There is not enough space here to go into the history of the community, but one has only to recall some of the names to realise how completely interwoven is their history with that of our land: Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Madam Cama, Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Nowrojee Wadia, Cowasji Jahangir 'Readymoney', Jamshedji and JRD Tata. Each name has a resonance, and conjures up images: voices raised for patriotic self-assertion and, eventually, for freedom; the building of business and industrial and shipping empires; the founding of great seats of learning; the commitment to civic and philanthropic causes. And the portraits forcefully drew attention to individuals through whom a whole age, the texture of times gone by, can be felt.
Many of the exhibits were commissioned portraits. But most of the works go well beyond all that, and possess distinct artistic merit in them. The academic style, the mannerisms, the frozen posture, are, of course, all there. But one also sees great penetration of character in some of the works. The portraits are not all by Indian artists. One encounters a Ravi Varma in the show, as does one the celebrated Parsi painters—Pestonji Bomanji, M.F. Pithawala, Jahangir Lalkaka. But a sizeable number of works are by itinerant European artists who were commissioned by celebrated Parsi houses. Again, the works are not all oils on canvas, there are engravings and lithographs, paintings on ivory and glass—some of them by Chinese artists or done in the Chinese manner—and a wide range of photographs, the last section dominated by the looming figure of Raja Deendayal, the most celebrated Indian photographer of his day.
There is an occasional departure from gravity, as in pictures of the first all-Parsi cricket team, or of young cyclists standing in a row, about to take off, photographed by "Rembrandt Studios" of Bombay. Or, yet again, in a group portrait of the Batliwala family in which someone, finally, smiles.
One knows that Parsi women were among the earliest of Indian women to participate openly in public life; one is therefore not surprised by the number of women who figure in this show. But this reminds one of the imprint some of these remarkable women left not only upon their own community but also upon the city of Bombay, and indeed, in many ways, upon the country as a whole. There is Pirojbai Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy whose interest in public charities is legendary; Soonabai Godrej, passionately fond of western music; Hirabai Cowasji Jahangir who came to be known as the 'Mother of the Community' because of her community services; Meherbai Tata who championed women's causes wherever she went. And in their portraits, all these distinguished women gaze as confidently at the painter or photographer as their men counterparts did, exude the same quiet air of self-assurance and engagement. In this group, however, my favourite is a group portrait of unidentified women, with children at their feet, in which they all sit gravely, hands resting lightly on their knees, as if about to rise for issuing a command, or at least clearly aware of the power that they wield. In public or private.