The Persian connect

Two significant exhibitions highlight the ancient link between Mumbai and Persia

“Why is everyone crowding around to see this small clay drum?” a bystander wondered aloud during an ongoing exhibition at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay (CSMVS), unaware that the museum‘s director-general was within earshot. The object in question, broken in places and marked with the ancient Babylonian cuneiform script, is the ‘Cyrus Cylinder‘, a rare Persian artefact, that is the centrepiece of one of the most expensive showcases in the city. “It may not look very handsome or appealing,” director-general Sabyasachi Mukherjee says, “but it is of incredible historic significance that people should know about.”

Other visitors either are more informed or are taking the help of explanatory notes to understand the buzz around the cylinder. They know that it is believed to be the earliest declaration of human rights and that it was buried in Babylon in 539 BCE by the Persian king Cyrus. He was admired by many world leaders for freeing slaves and supporting the practice of individual religions. These ideas are mentioned in the inscriptions on the cylinder, which sits in a climate-controlled room on the first floor of the museum along with 32 artefacts from a time when Zoroastrianism thrived in Persia. It was excavated in 1879 in Iraq during an expedition backed by the British Museum. Aside from United Kingdom, Iran and the United States, India is the only country to have showcased this relic. The other objects include gold plaques, coins, seals and armlets.

About 1,300 people, including those from Kolkata, Delhi and Ahmedabad and foreign tourists, visited the show daily in the first week. However, the numbers are not as high as those from last year’s show ‘Mummy – The Inside Story’, when queues stretched from the museum to Kala Ghoda. At a time only 50 people can view the display. So far, ardent guests have been school children, history students and participants of the recently-concluded 10th World Zoroastrian Congress, with which the exhibition’s launch coincided. It is said that Cyrus was likely a Zoroastrian himself and the Parsi community, Mukherjee notes, is eager to learn more about the connection.

Another exhibition that has caught the interest of Parsis is unfolding across the street from CSMVS at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). Unlike previous presentations on the community that focused on its history in Iran or its entry into India, this show talks of Parsi wealth, which grew tremendously with the trading of opium, tea and cotton with China. It also explains the influence these business ties had on Parsi households as well as how they contributed to industrial growth, philanthropy and art in Mumbai.

It took just 15 months for Pheroza Godrej, founder of the Cymroza Art Gallery and wife of Jamshyd Godrej, and her team to set up the extensive show. Godrej’s past experience of working on an exhibition of restored Parsi family portraits helped. Furniture and massive wooden chests with bold Chinese carvings as well as tanchoi silks, traditional smocks and garas with Chinese-style embroidery are among the many objects displayed across four floors of the NGMA. They were borrowed from the Alpaiwalla museum, CSMVS, institutional collectors and private treasuries among other sources.

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