Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Life of Parsis and legend of Sidi tribe on showcase

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New Delhi: The daily lives of a shrinking Indian community that produced legendary businessmen like the Tatas, and a marginal Indo-African tribe, which has embraced the language and culture of the country, are up on display here in a new twin exhibition.

The exhibitions, totalling close to 200 richly captured photographs between them, were opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art by noted photographer Raghu Rai last evening.

While the first display titled “Through a Lens, By a Mirror” by Sooni Taraporevala, carefully captures the everyday lifestyle of the esoteric Parsis, the second “A Certain Grace” by Ketaki Sheth, delicately documents the quotidian living of the Sidi tribe, Indians of African descent who are spread in western and southern parts of India.

For Taraporevala, photographer and an award-winning screenwriter of “Salaam Bombay” fame, who pursued the Parsi community for over three decades to capture them in frames, it was a journey close to “her own roots” and “expansion of her cultural vocabulary”.

“For me, photography has always been a form of magic. Photographs freezes time and survive death. My grandmother died, so did my grandfather and granduncle and a host of aunts and uncles who took with them an entire world. But not before I had captured them on celluloid. Their photographs still give me some measure of, perhaps, childish comfort,” Taraporevala said.

The 125 frames by the 56-year-old photographer, who wrote Jabbar Patel’s National Award-winning biopic on Ambedkar and recently penned and directed a Parsi-theme movie “Little Zizou”, explores the myriad perspectives of her own family and the community, well known for their “progressive outlook and contribution to society”.

So, she has photographed people as they go about their daily lives, successfully narrating emotions of her subjects as they make conversation, attend family functions, at home or in the streets of Mumbai, a city which is considered a Parsi bastion.

While Taraporevala’s mix of colour and black-and-white photographs absorbs the finer nuances of the community and their legendary sartorial legacy, Sheth’s 65 monochromes impressively reveal the lives of the Sidis, who over the past many centuries came to India, but have now culturally adapted the language, cuisine and attires of the land.

“For six years I travelled through much of Gujarat, Bombay, Goa, Hyderabad and the forests near Manchikere in Karnataka, where the Sidi live. It has been a long journey and my singular reward has been the friends and portraits I made on the way. These portraits bear witness to the quotidian of a community on the margins: the Sidi at home, at work, in celebration, in prayer, at births, deaths and marriages,” Sheth said.

Reflecting on the exhibition, Rai called their work “insightful and not just a mere plain documentation.” “Both their works are very important. And, they have done it with sensitivity to capture not just portraits, but their emotions and cultural heritage.

“While Ketaki’s done it in a more meditative style, Sooni’s work is like seeing a documentary. But, they offer wonderful insights into the lives of these two communities, their emotions and also draw a social narrative as both these communities are just left with few thousand people only,” Rai told PTI.

The Sidi today remains a very small group of 35,000-70,000 people, whose ancestors, historian say, came to the country in the 17th century when the Portuguese brought slaves from their trading posts in Africa to Goa, their colony in India.

Known to celebrate their African roots in colourful ethnic costumes, the Sidis in Gujarat have also adopted Gujarati as their lingua franca, a sign of their assimilation within the “cultural folds of India” and any distinction now is only surface as the “Sidi consider India as their home”.

Reflecting on the twin communities of India frozen in frames through contemporary photography, Rajeev Lochan, director, NGMA said, “These are exciting and aspiring times for practicing photography as art, as it allows the subject to be interpreted and understood on many levels”. “Sooni’s photographs have beautifully chronicled the Parsi community whom the artist now considers her extended family….The admirable and inspiring works by Ketaki Sheth truly exploit the dynamism of photography as a creative medium,” Lochan said.

The community is on the wane and only some 60,000 Parsis are left today in India, with some having migrated outside the country.

Some of the noted personalities from the Parsi community are industrialists J N Tata, J R D Tata, statesman Dadabhai Naoroji, legendary rock band Queen’s frontman Freddie Mercury and musician Zubin Mehta.

Incidentally, India’s first woman photojournalist was a Parsi woman called Homai Vyarawalla, who died at 98, January last.

The exhibition is on view till November 3. (PTI)

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