Documenting the Parsis

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

The race that is talented and yet-so-limited, has a rich culture and history. Two projects are trying to preserve it in unique ways

Parsis — the one community that is so tiny in numbers and yet so significant in so many ways. Be it the Indian Armed Forces or Bollywood, they are everywhere and how! Now a community that talented and unique definitely has the curiosity of all. But how many of us really know about the Irani gentlemen and ladies who came all the way across the ocean to India decades ago? Briefly, yes. But barely anything beyond that.

Here are two projects initiated by some great minds to take care of it — the MUYA (Multimedia Yasna) project undertaken by the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the Photographic Project documenting the elderly Parsi community by Kurush Umrigar and Charvi Thakkar. Both of these were on display at the recently-concluded Iranshah Udvada Utsav 2019 in Udvada, Gujarat.

The SOAS MUYA project
The MUYA Project 4D Yasna experience was one of the most-sought-after at the Udvada festival held in the last weekend of December. Through it, for the very first time, students from the UK brought to India, the 4D Goggle Experience created by the SOAS Centre. It showcased the Yasna Prayer Ceremony of the Parsi Community and engulfed the viewer in its history and cultural significance.

A handful of people across the globe have had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the 4D Goggle Experience by SOAS. “The Parsi religion is, unfortunately, threatening to disappear which is why we have chosen to digitise the religious manuscripts and the 4D experience is part of our project,” said Ruzbeh Hodiwala, one of the students working on the project. These are a combination of PhD and post-doctoral students.
Most of the Yasna rituals have been shot at the Dadar Athornan Institute in Mumbai where religious priests are taught. The Yasna is one ritual that is performed by priests since only few people know how to do it, the students told us. “It is almost already dead in Iran and very few people perform it in Navsari (Gujarat) and Mumbai,” another SOAS student added.

The Multimedia Yasna examines the performance and written transmission of the Yasna, the core ritual of the Zoroastrian tradition, whose oldest parts date from the second millennium BCE. Composed in an ancient Iranian language, Avestan, the texts were transmitted orally and not written down until the fifth or sixth century. 

The oral tradition continues to be central to the religion and the daily Yasna ceremony, the most important of all the rituals, is recited from memory by Zoroastrian priests. The interpretation of the Yasna has long been hampered by outdated editions and translations of the text and until now there has been no documentation and study of the performance of the full ritual. The project MUYA examines both the oral and written traditions. It has filmed performance of the Yasna ritual.

The project, based at SOAS, University of London, is funded by the European Research Council, and is running for a couple of years, said Kerman Daruwalla, another PhD candidate at the SOAS.

Parsi photo project
Just saying ‘an old Parsi woman’ or ‘an old Parsi uncle’ makes one visualise the face of the individual, doesn’t it? That is because the community has extremely distinct features, and that is precisely what Kurush Umrigar, 35, and Charvi Thakkar, 33, are trying to capture and archive for generations to come.

At the Udvada Utsav, some of these pictures were on display at a stall in the exhibition centre where we also spoke to the two youngsters at work. Under ‘The Parsi Project’, the duo clicks and showcases black and white portraits of elderly Parsis across the world, along with some anecdotes.

The project chronicles the characteristics and personalities that are unique to the elders of this fascinating community. “We hope to turn this project into an exclusive coffee table book, which will serve as an archive of this soon-to-be-lost generation. Since subjects for the portraits are best found via word of mouth, we are hoping to spread the word. We look forward to recommendations of people who are in their late 80s or older,” said Umrigar. 

On asking why that particular age group, he answers, “Honestly, because we barely will have individuals who will live that long in a few years from now,” and we don’t disagree, given our lifestyles.
It is a self-funded project so far but the duo hopes to raise funds through their Collector Edition Archival Print Sales and individual funding too. “But we don’t want to ask for money. We would rather have people buy the portraits and help us raise funds,” said Thakkar.

“This is the first-ever visual archive of the community. We were shocked when we first realised there was none and hence began this project around four years ago,” added Umrigar, who along with Thakkar left his full-time job to pursue the project that the two call, “a race against time.”

Related News

​ ​