Through a lens, by a mirror


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Photographs by Sooni Taraporevala

Sooni Taraporevala’s extended portraiture of the Parsi community spanning over three decades offers a vivid and persuasive account of this micro-minority’s ability to manage its internal contradictions while negotiating a demanding present. The Parsis adapted early to westernisation and colonial modernity, yet the community is today divided by acrimonious debates on ethnic purity and Zoroastrian doctrinal correctness. In Taraporevala’s exhibition of photographs at Bombay’s Chemould Prescott Road Gallery, we encounter the figure of the Parsi in two different registers. There is the Parsi pictured as embodiment of an expansive, sophisticated cosmopolitanism. But there is also the Parsi cast as insular resident of a central or south Bombay neighbourhood, oscillating between geniality and melancholia, holding on to the consolations of the most ancient religion in the world even while besieged by perplexing social, political and cultural flux (the colonial era spelling has not been updated in the sign found at the entrance to every fire temple: “No admission except for Parsees”).

A photographer who takes her own birth community as her subject faces a dual risk. She could either exacerbate the distance from her subject to counter the danger of over-identification. Or she might lapse into sentimentality and lay herself open to the charge of auto-exoticism. Taraporevala works around this dilemma by neutralising the ethnographic gaze: she ‘worlds’ the community, representing it in a weave of everyday social interactions. She never isolates the Parsis within a citadel of their specific desires, fears and aspirations. Instead, she portrays them as active participants in the social palimpsest that is Bombay, contributing to its diverse tensions, frictions and enthusiasms. Even a seemingly quiet image of isolation, ‘Passing Time’ (1985), with its elderly man dreaming at a window-sill, is inscribed with the insistent presence of the city. A sign below the window reads, ‘Vote for Shiv Sena’, injecting the tremor of divisive and demagogic politics into the frame.

Taraporevala’s protagonists are often framed in a threshold space, a window or a balcony, a point of linkage between the domestic interior and public space. The photograph of Pandit Firoz Dastur, the prominent vocalist of the Kirana Gharana: his unusual (for a Parsi) vocational choice of classical Indian music (usually the preserve of Hindu and Muslim exponents) carried him well beyond the limiting contours of the community. On the Bombay waterfront, a different kind of spatial dynamic is in play between a fervent Parsi worshipper and a group of people conducting a Hindu ritual, strangers wrapped in their distinct spiritual universes. On a surface reading, ‘Shared Devotional Space’ (2007) affirms our belief in the city as a hospitable space for people of all religions, despite being wracked by riots in the early 1990s. At a deeper level though, Taraporevala’s image points us towards the realisation that Indian society is a tapestry of innumerable micro-minorities, rather than an array of clearly defined identities. Monolithic definitions such as ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ dissolve in the multiplicity of local caste-groups, lineage structures and kinship circles.

Sometimes Taraporevala deliberately lets her frame go for a walk, losing her protagonist in a crowd, only to gain in narrative density. From 1985 comes the humorously titled ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’, a series of images focusing on a worshipper conversing with relatives who come and go at a traffic signal in south Bombay, witnessed only by the photographer and a slumbering dog. By serialising a sequence of everyday actions, the photographer compresses time and space deftly, according dramatic intensity to the infinitesimal shifts in people’s postures and their environment. The temperature of the series changes sharply only when a beggar approaches the women, provoking a palpable tension between social proximity and distance.

The marginal figure exercises Taraporevala’s imagination — whether it is the anonymous beggar, a fakir of lack, in ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’ or the protagonist of ‘The Mystic Piano Tuner Mr Ratnagar’ (1985). The elderly piano tuner is clearly a man of straitened circumstances, plying a disappearing trade, his tools carried in a school bag. ‘The Man in the Sola Hat’ (1985) would perhaps qualify as the only painterly photograph in ‘Parsis’. At the waterfront, a man wearing a colonial anachronism stands with his back to the viewer, as if he were in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting, ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’. The light in the photograph can only be described as Bombay blue, moist with salmon pink tints. In this sublime atmosphere, the protagonist contemplates the ever-elusive horizon. This deeply moving image epitomises the stereotype of the Parsi as Raj nostalgist, and yet, on the other hand, the telling detail of the trousers fraying at the hem reminds us that the distance between shabby gentility and the sublime is not as great as we would prefer to imagine.

Compositionally, ‘The Man in the Sola Hat’ is the most formal of Taraporevala’s images. This is unusual in an oeuvre that, for the most part, privileges informality. By this, I do not imply that her photographs are in any way haphazard. Rather, I mean that the photographer has given herself permission to construct her frames in a relaxed manner, treating her protagonists with a tough empathy, without imprisoning them in a classical pictoriality or an affected formalism. Taraporevala’s informel gaze, as I would call it, lets history imprint itself on the Parsis even as they leave the traces of their laughter and resilience in Bombay’s many-voiced air.

(The exhibition will be on at the Chemould Prescott Road Gallery, Mumbai till 6 April)


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