I came across this article from the New York Times archives, from 1902. Its titled ‘Millionaires of the Orient. Vast Wealth of the Indian Parsees, the Progressive Merchants of the East.’ Click on the link below to open the pdf.
Yesterday, no the day before actually, I saw the movie ‘Little Zizou‘. Its directed by Sooni Taraporevala, and its the first time she has directed a film. She is a script-writer of repute, with films like Salaam Bombay and the Namesake (both directed by Mira Nair) to her credit. ‘Little Zizou’ is about the Parsi community, and is a good close-up look. I found the movie a quite slow, with the feeling of nothing really happening initially. But I did like the way she wove different aspects of the community together, such as the obvious rift between the liberals and the fundamentalists, the importance of the Parsi press, issues facing Parsi youth, old Parsi mansions and properties in the smaller towns and villages going to ruin, and other such issues. The film is true to life, shot on location, and nowhere do you feel it has departed from reality. The acting is pretty good too. But somewhere it does lack the emotional punch, which was there in Salaam Bombay and Namesake. And the attempts at humour seem a little lame.
Non-Parsis who hang around Parsis will enjoy the movie. The masses of India won’t have a clue what the movie is about, as in a lot of parts of India (barring the metros and the Maharashtra-Gujarat zone) people don’t really know of the existence of our community. Some Parsis feel the movie has shown us in a bad light, but I don’t think so at all. The fact is, these are issues faced by the community today, and these issues are even threatening the very survival of us bawas. There are many positive aspects of the Parsis too, but at a time like this, we need to realise what the problems faced by the community are, and do something about them, instead of basking in self-glorification, especially of our past accoplishments. We should know, and more importantly acknowledge the good and bad aspects of ourselves. A community, a nation, or even a person, who cannot come to terms with their reality is doomed.
The last movie on Parsis that I saw was ‘Being Cyrus‘, and I did like it a lot. It was very different, and though based in reality, it was very dramatic, and definitely had strong stereotypes and exaggerations. It was pure entertainment, it didn’t claim to be a documentary of any kind, and more of a black comedy, with a touch of mystery. Some members of my family did not like that movie at all, claiming it showed us in a very bad light, that we all came across as plotting murderers and crack pots. I thought they were being absurd and we had numerous arguements about it. Seems like we are a really touchy community when to comes to how we are portrayed on film.
Now there was another movie ‘300‘ based on a graphic novel, that showed ancient Persians in a pretty bad light. Any normal person seeing the movie would think that Spartans were the brave, the wise and the good, and the Persians were the scheming, underhand, evil lot. Most people watching the movie with me did not realize who ancient Persians really were. (they were the first Parsis) Thought technically brilliant, from a historic point of view it was totally skewed. Movies that are showing a real event of history, especially a famous one like the battle of Sparta, need to be a little careful in the way they show things, and they should try to be unbiased. Another film that showed Persians in a similar light was the incredibly boring Alexander, which had a brief, but pretty unjust view of ancient Persians. You don’t have to show the person who lost the war as a vile and evil character.
If you are showing reality, try to be as real as possible, like a documentary, otherwise show complete fantasy, which is very clearly not reality, even to the dumbest audience. A mix of ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’ doesn’t usually work well and results in a confused film like Slumdog Millionaire. People who have never read a shred of history see these films, and they believe them to be true.
A film, like any work of art or expression, is a point of view, and so it is personal to a large extent, but it can’t be inflammatory.
This is a painting by the Italian artist Paolo Veronese (Paolo Caliari; born Verona 1528 CE, died Venice 1588). The explanation of the painting in the book Art, the Critics Choice, Watson-Guptill Publications is as follows. “The work is a historical painting or narrative based on a classical legend, and it was painted for the private villa of the Pisani family. The historical story revolves around the magnanimity of Alexander the Great. After he defeated the Persian king Darius at Issus, Alexander spared his enemy’s family, sending them a message to say that Darius was alive and that they would be protected. The next day he went to visit them with his general, Hephaestion. As they entered the Queen Mother knelt before Hephaestion, thinking that he was Alexander. Hephaestion stepped back in confusion, but Alexander saved Sisygambis from her embarrassment by saying that it was indeed no error for Hephaestion, too “was an Alexander”.
This may have been a theme with which the Pisani family identified, or it may simply have been chosen for the opportunity it offered to display a knowledge of ancient history. Some of the figures, particularly the family of Darius, are almost certainly portraits of members of the commissioning family.”
Its amazing the liberty the artist has taken to bestow Darius with a totally different identity. Nobody in this painting looks even vaguely Persian.
In my last post I spoke about Kaevan Umrigar’s research links for his films. He has kindly sent me the link where we can view his 5 Parsi films and here it is:
The films are definitely worth seeing, especially if you are a Parsi reading this, you must see them. We as a community are blind to many aspects of ourselves. The film ‘Invisible Parsis – Poor of a Prosperous Community’ documents the life of poor Parsis, a category that most of us think doesn’t exist. It is the story of their struggle, how some Parsis were left behind, even in an ‘advanced’ community. The aspect of Parsis who work for meagre pay in the agiaries, or towers of silence is also well brought out. In this day and age of six-figure pay packets and swanky corporate jobs, there are Parsis struggling to make ends meet. I’m sure there are lots of Parsis out there, who will decry this film saying that ‘look at how far we have come, see our Tatas and Godrejs’. And while I agree that these are achievements we are all proud of, it does not justify us shutting our eyes to other issues, or the negative side of our community.
Another one of these issues is covered in the film ‘Parsi Wada, Tarapore – present day’. There are several small towns and villages in India, especially in Maharashtra and Gujarat, where the Parsi population has dwindled drastically in the last few decades. The sprawling homes, the rusted iron gates, the towers of silence, the zoroastrian library, have all been left to spiders, dust, and in some cases the shiv sena. It bears the depressing look of a place and culture that has vanished, that is dead, that has been swallowed by the forces around it that proved too strong for it too withstand. They are left covered with grafitti and plants and dirt. Very soon, these places are going to pass out of living memory of the Parsis. People are going to look upon the the Parsi homes there as today we look upon the remains of the Indus Valley civilisation, or other dead cultures. The best part of this film is that it has no dialogues, as the images are strong enough to be a wake-up call, and the director has used sound very effectively.
The other films deal with the issues of inter-caste marriage, looking after old family members, and the loneliness of old Parsis.
“We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.” – R. D. Laing
There’s an interesting blog where I came across these links about Kaevan Umrigar, a film-maker from FTII, Pune, India. He travelled around to numerous small towns and villages in Maharashtra and Gujarat as part of research for his film on Parsis. Its a real eye-opener to see these pictures, especially for urban Parsis like myself. There are, actually there were many Parsis in rural areas, but now there are barely a few families left, sometimes just one individual, or in some cases none at all. The houses have gone to disrepair, lying empty, and will be taken over by other poor families.
The fate of our fire-temples also hangs precariously in the balance, in these smaller places. In some places there is only one single priest left, who is dedicated to the agiary, even if there are no Parsis there. After that priest goes, who is going to look after these places?
You can see Kaevan Umrigar’s research here, its definitely worth a look:
Once upon a time there was quite a large Parsi population in Pakistan, especially in Karachi. They contributed significantly to the urban landscape of the city, and many buildings, institutes and hospitals are named after them. I think now there are very few Parsis in Karachi. While browsing through a Marg magazine I read an article on the Parsi contribution to the city of Karachi in Marg Magazine. I also came across link about the Nusserwanjee building which is a part of the Indus Vally School of Art and Architecture.
If anyone has old pictures of the Parsis of Pakistan, please do feel free to share them with me.
Yesterday I heard some really surprising news. A fire-temple, or agiary, as we Parsis call it has been opened to public for a one month duration for the first time ever!! The fire-temple was built 85 years ago in Vadodara and recently underwent restoration. One of the senior members of the community felt that the restoration would be seen only by a handful of people, since there are few Parsis in Baroda now. The holy fire has been moved to another secluded spot where only Parsis can view it.You can read about it here:
This is quite an event in the 1000 year history of Parsis in India, and may be some kind of turning point. Its definitely history in the making for our miniscule community. Eventually all walls have to come down.
King Cyrus the Great, builder of the Persian Empire, is considered to be the founder of the postal relay system which employed messengers on horseback by day and night. The king’s stables were set up at intervals to the distance a horse could travel in a day without becoming exhausted. Each stable had grooms to look after its horses. An intelligent man was appointed to each station who would deliver to one courier the letters brought by another. This was called “post-riding”. Xenophon wrote of the mighty ruler’s mail service, “A letter traveled faster than a crane could fly.” The Greek historian Herodotus praised the Persian postal system, “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
The clay cylinder discovered in Babylon in the fifth century records the victory King Cyrus over Babylon in 539 BCE. It is a declaration concerning the human rights in occupied cities. In G.S. Wegener’s book ‘6000 years of the Bible’, he describes the victory of King Cyrus, “The Persian king Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and in doing so put an end both to the rule of Babylon and the captivity of the Jews. Their longing for homes and for the holy city of Jerusalem, their weeping ‘by the waters of Babylon’, were over. Two years later they returned to their own country… The Persians are perhaps the only example in history of a people who called themselves ‘liberators’ are really being liberators and not oppressors.”
Centuries later, Julius Caesar adopted the Persian courier system of using mounted messengers, later developed by Emperor Augustus.
Here are some pictures of the agairy (fire-temple) at Bhuj, a small town in Gujarat, India. On 26th January 2001, India’s Republic Day there was a massive earthquake, with Bhuj as the epicentre. The agiary however escaped with a few minor cracks. Here are some pictures of it. I really want to visit this place. There are so many fire-temples in small places across Gujarat and Maharashtra, looked after by a few dedicated families. I wonder what is going to become of these places of worship, which have been quietly standing for years, after the present generation of priests passes. There doesn’t seem to be anyone who is going to look after them.
Most of these agiaries are lovely old, strong buildings, many of them over a hundred years ago. They are in quiet spots, with large sprawling properties, lots of trees, and an old well, forgotten by the rest of India, as it struggles to surge ahead. These were built at a time when there were a good number of Parsis in such places, but today most of them have migrated abroad, or to the larger cities of India. And just a few people, often only the priest’s family still lives there and maintains the place.
Thanks Rustom for the pictures!
Image courtesy: yahoo groups (thanks keta 🙂
For more pictures of India a hundred years ago, see my other blog: