Friday, 31 August 2007

Fading Glory of the Parsis

Though Bombay is a city that is all-inclusive, that does not mean that there are not quite firm divisions between communities. These different communities may meet and barter on the street without differences, but back inside their homes they will pursue markedly distinct ways of life.

One of the most intriguing communities (to me) is the Parsi one. Parsis, aka Zoroastrians, are a religious group, originally from the area covered by the ancient Persian Empire, who started coming to India around 900 CE. In the nineteenth century their fortunes, in Bombay in particular, seemed to have taken a huge lift-off, and some of their members became very powerful.
The fact is that South Mumbai (the old part) is absolutely riddled with statues, and most of them seem to be of the great Parsi merchants and entrepreneurs who, alongside the British, virtually ran the city in the 1800s and early 1900s. Frozen in their monuments, they sit on stone thrones, and stare out at the city that seems to have been moulded by them.

However, what’s odd is that the Parsis’ status, influence, and even numbers, seem to have dwindled at an amazing speed over the last half-century. Their population in Bombay has almost halved since the Second World War. Certain individuals shine out, but mostly the Parsi tone in Bombay now appears to be one of faded glories.

The previous paragraph is of course a generalisation, but, if you want to see just how faded the glories can become, check out Mumbai’s painfully wilting Parsi History museum….


Museum unregarded
The Time Out Guide to Mumbai doesn’t even mention the FD Alpaiwalla Museum (though, oddly, it does mention the Khareghat housing estate, aka “colony”, in which the museum is located).
At first this would seem a strange omission – after all, the museum has some ancient artefacts, which it claims are nearly 4000 years old, and a beautiful sixteenth century carved gate from Gujarat, which alone would give it high prestige. And then there are also antiques from the Persia area, including stone tablets with cuneiform writing inscribed on them, which are fascinating. (Well, they are to me).
Despite its small size, just that of four large rooms, the museum has got some nice pieces.
Parsi Museum exterior,Mumbai
But, the full story is that… it’s dingy, dilapidated and under-serviced.
The visitor’s book, speckled with age, told its own story – twenty entries in the last six months. And, certainly, I never saw another soul in the hour was there.

You begin to wonder who’s running it – and why they do so little to promote it…
It’s almost as though the committee/trustees/whatever prefer it that no one comes there!

For example –
There are no directions to the place inside or outside the housing colony.
There’s no sign on the front that outlines opening times, admission details, or contact information.
No photos are allowed (not even for a fee, as at most Indian museums).
There were no souvenirs on sale, nor information leaflets to be had.
There is no website (This really gets my goat. C’mon guys, this is the 21st century, and a webpage can cost you nothing. Just do it!)

The sweet lady who occupies the office next door reinforced that no photos were possible. Why?, I asked. Because the committee does not allow it. Why does the committee not allow it? She then completely confused me by saying that the exhibits were rotated from the main collection, as if that explained the policy somehow.
However, I was now intrigued and asked – so, what other exhibits are there that you have that I might want to see next time, and when does the next rotation cycle kick in?
She seemed nonplussed, as though the idea of my wanting to return was completely crazy, and then she said – ah, sorry, I don’t know, and there is no catalogue of artefacts anyway…
I was stunned.
She said apologetically: “There is no money. The government does not give grants”.
I thought: I’m not surprised – you do your very best neither to attract visitors nor to entertain them…

Whoever is on the committee should be awoken from their coma and get responsible. Now!


It actually could be rather good…

Because, the fact of the matter is that this could be a decent small museum with a unique selling point in that it is dedicated to a surprisingly influential but tiny community. And it has some interesting (ok, ok, they are a bit dry – but I liked them) displays.
One top attraction is the Mother goddess terracotta figurine dating back to 1800BCE – who has one hand cupped around one of her breasts in an oddly modern pose – and which is from Iran itself.

The great Parsi businessmen whose photos are on the wall – such as Nariman, Mehta (whom Zubin Mehta is a descendant of), Jamshedjee Jejeebhoy, Dadabhai Naoroji (who was elected as a British MP in 1892, believe it or not), Godrej, Tata, Modi, and Petit – must surely be staring down in huge disapproval. The priceless collection of porcelain, the furniture and the antiques are all just gathering dust, as far as I can see, and all those Parsi business instincts are being turned on their head.

(Just a side-note here. Parsis aren’t universally liked in Bombay even if they are respected. They got very pally with the British during the Raj, and became almost more British in their mannerisms and outlook than the British themselves. The well-off Parsi homes that I’ve seen do look as though they could be in Surrey! As a result, some Mumbaikers look askance at them, feeling they made a devil’s pact with the “oppressors” during the 1800s.)

There is also a practical need for this museum to be successful.
Parsis won’t need reminding that the Battle of Nehavand in 641 was nearly fatal for their religion and culture. The Muslim Arabs were in the ascendancy at that time and their blitzkrieg across the Middle East meant that it took just thirty years for them to overrun the old Assyrian Empire. Zoroastrianism has survived in that part of the world of course, but only in tiny clumps and under duress, and of the 120,000 Parsi/Zoroastrians left in the world, just under half are in Bombay, having originally come there as part of the Parsi diaspora. (A lot of them also went to China, which I only learnt thanks to the museum).

And now there is a similar crisis. As I said, their numbers are in big decline. You see, you can’t convert into the faith, and if a Parsi’s child is born of a mixed religion marriage then they are not allowed to be of the faith either. In a mobile and free-choice world, such rules spell possible disaster for the community. (There is dispute about who can become a Parsi - check the link below to the Wikipedia page).

See – another reason to get this museum up and properly running.


Donate the lot

Poor old Alpaiwalla. He put most of this collection together and then died in 1952 just before the museum opened, and now look at what’s happening.
Somehow, I think he’d be just as happy if the whole collection were handed over to Bombay’s main museum, the CSMS, which is doing a fine job under difficult circumstances. Surely, the trustees there would make a decent job of looking after it.
It just needs some courage from the apparently sleeping committee to go ahead and donate the lot asap.

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Links
'Yahoo Travel' entry on the Alpaiwalla Museum
Wikpedia's Section on Parsis
UNESCO Project to preserve Parsi Heritage

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(Addendum -- Bet you never thought an Englishman could write a piece about Parsis without mentioning vultures, or the rite of The Tower of Silence, or Freddie Mercury…! )

3 comments:

Eman K. Harris said...

You've managed a feat.

This is most curious and your idea about the Parsi exhibit moving to a main Mumbai museum is probably more functional but in order for that to work the Parsi community needs to be far more motivated.

Alternatively, you could rummage through your address book, see if you know any historians or curators who might be interested in securing those artefacts for a museum

London would be a great place actually especially at the moment where it's going through a big cultural Renaissance. It's just had a huge India and Pakistan festival and Ismaili exhibit is on tour all over Britain.

It would be a shame to lose such an impressive legacy and such priceless pieces because that's where all this is heading.

Vishal Pipraiya said...

Parsi's are truly a dying breed. It is as if they are living on a death wish. That would also explain the neglect of the said museum. One would think that a community on the brink of extinction would be more open about its membership.

P.S. Half of them migrating to china was something new!

Deepa Krishnan said...

I loved this piece, Mark. I should add it to my 'People of Mumbai - Many Faiths, Many Cultures' tour.