Parsi Art in Mumbai

The rotunda of Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), accessible after flights of elegant, orbicular stairs, has transformed into a cradle of eclipsed histories. Upon entering the ongoing exhibition, No Parsi Is An Island, you encounter two large, ornately framed portraits by artist Pestonji Bomanji—Feeding the Parrot and A Parsi Girl, both from the late 1800s.

During the incipient and vibrant years of Bombay’s Sir JJ School of Art, under John Lockwood Kipling and John Griffith, Bomanji was chosen for the Ajanta mural project that Griffith initiated. Students had to copy all the murals of the Ajanta caves. Pestonji did this for about a decade, during which his technically mature style and worldview of an in-between mind took shape.
The 14 artists featured in this show, covering a period of 150 years from the 1880s, belong, of course, to the marrow of their time, but their extraordinariness lies in their crossing the boundaries of religion, ethnicity and language. They certainly belie the popular perception that the Parsi is an inward-looking creature, fiercely protecting his identity and lineage.

The collated messages and technical superiority of some of the works would stun the viewer. In his detailed canvases that evoke a sense of melancholia, Jehangir Ardeshir Lalkaka restores the religious image in the secular space of domesticity. Sorab Pithawalla and his father M.F. Pithawalla excelled in genre depictions—the portrait, indoors, barn life, still-life—without ignoring the social. Their works have the props of a newly emergent bourgeoise life. In a 1937 work The Dawn of Prohibition, Hindi film actor David models for a portrait by Sorab—a tipsy-looking, picaresque figure with a bottle of alcohol placed conspicuously in front of him.
The machinistic sculptures of Adi Davierwalla and Piloo Pochkhanawala, minutely carved works in welded metal, scrap and steel, almost forebear the splintery aesthetic of today’s Wolverine. Davierwalla was trained in engineering and technology, and as a sculptor, used that training, along with references from Greek mythology and Christian symbolism, for his edgy, futuristic works. A beautiful paean to the wave form, Undulating Red, and his own photographs of his sculptures, have never been exhibited before this show.

No Parsi Is An Island embodies what was left after the wealth gathering, or rather another kind of Parsi enterprise that emerged after the wealth from opium
trade and ship-building settled. It is an extremely valuable recording, and an affirmation of the modernist who is not necessarily part of a canon or school, one who is de-islanded, or in Adajania’s word, “worlded”. He has been missed in the history of Indian modernism.

No Parsi Is An Island is on, 11am-6pm, till 28 January (Mondays closed) at the NGMA, Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall, Fort, Mumbai. A tour of the show is planned for 17 January. For details, call 022-22881969.
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