Everlasting Flame: Ambitious exhibition on bright Parsi heritage
Showcasing the rich heritage of the Parsi-Zoroastrian community, the Everlasting Flame exhibition is perhaps the most ambitious in recent times. Gargi Gupta talks to director Shernaz Cama
It’s just two days to the inauguration of Everlasting Flame, the two-month-long exhibition on Parsi culture and history organised by Parzor Foundation, of which Shernaz Cama is director, and preparations are at fever pitch.
But Cama is remarkably focussed as we sit at the dining table, discussing everything from Zoroaster, the founder of the Parsi faith, and his influence on the Romantic poets, to Din-i-Illahi, the new religion formulated by Mughal emperor Akbar as a result of his interactions with Parsi spiritual leader Dastur Meherjirana. Also up for discussion are photographer Sooni Taraporewala, symbolism of flowers in Parsi embroidery and the trade and cultural interactions between Persia, India and China over the ages which left traces on every aspect of Parsi lifestyle. Cama speaks animatedly and is enthusiastic about sharing information.
In many ways, Everlasting Flame is the culmination of Cama’s life work – her efforts to excavate and preserve the cultural heritage of the Parsi-Zoroastrian community in India, which is dying out almost as fast as its numbers are shrinking. Over the years, Parzor, founded by Cama amongst others in 1999, now supported by UNESCO, has notched notable successes. It has succeeded in reviving interest in the craft of the Parsi Gara embroidery to a range of new practitioners among the tribal women of Gujarat. It has finished a major restoration of the Meherjirana library in Navsari which has, among other artefacts associated with Parsi history, a 16th century sanad or charter with Akbar’s seal on it given to the Dastur Meherjirana. “That will be part of the exhibition,” says Cama excitedly.
Since past two years, Parzor has been running a programme called Return to Roots, in which youngsters are taken to Yazd in Iran, one of the main centres of the Zoroastrian religion, so that they can learn about their heritage. Another Parzor program called Jiyo Parsi, which ran a campaign two years ago asking Parsis to have more children, however, ran into controversy with people accusing community elders of being regressive. Cama is unrepentant. ‘This is a community which has just one child aged 10 years or less between eight families,” she says, adding that she was very happy to have received a card from a woman who had despaired of ever having a child, informing her of the first birthday of her daughter.
“Thanks to Parzor, we’ve succeeded in building a connection with Iran,” says Cama, disclosing that the Islamic country with which India has not had very easy diplomatic relations of late will be sending 27 items – many deemed as national treasures. “Among them is the world’s largest free-standing Achemenid statue. It’s from the year 536 BC and has the names of all 23 countries written along the fold of his gown in cuneiform.” There are other artefacts, less old, less precious, that Cama is equally proud of, among them cupboards, music boxes, paintings, photographs, pan daans, and a model of HMS Trincomalee, a legendary frigate built by the Wadia shipbuilders in Mumbai. Many of the artefacts come from Cama’s own collection, including her wedding sari.
Taking up three of the largest cultural institutions in the capital – the National Museum, the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, with talks and events spilling over into other places such as the India International Centre – and supported by three central ministries and several private organisations, Everlasting Flame is probably the largest and most ambitious exhibition in recent times. “We have enough to put up five more exhibitions,” Cama sighs. And she’s hoping, after the exhibition’s done, to begin thinking of a museum to Parsi culture somewhere in Gujarat.