Parsi chronicles

Different strokes

Parsi chronicles
Looking back on her career of four decades, Sooni Taraporevala, who turns 60 this year, recalls how studying literature, films and photography have influenced her in unique ways. “Literature taught me about characters, points of view, narrative. Studying films taught me how to pursue a storyline, and frame it creatively. And photography taught me a lot about the visual world. The power of a photograph is in really capturing the decisive moment in a way that films or words cannot.”

An ardent admirer of Henri Cartier-Bresson and other French photographers of his generation, Taraporevala has almost always kept her images strictly people-centric. “I’m very fond of elderly people, and have always instinctively photographed people of my grandparent’s generation. I also love photographing children. I rarely shoot people in the age groups between.”

Clicking relentlessly

Taraporevala began taking photographs in 1977 when, as an undergraduate at Harvard University, she borrowed money from her roommate to buy her first camera — a Nikkormat with 50mm lens. She went on to major in literature; but also took several film and photography courses during her stay in the US.

On her return to Mumbai four years later, she began her career as a freelance photographer, “chasing editors, chasing payment… and trying to make ends meet.” Alongside, she continued photographing members of her close Parsi community which, over time, “grew into a more objective project that encompassed a world larger than my immediate family.”

In 1982, she met the celebrated photographer Raghubir Singh (1942-99), who became a mentor of sorts for her. He encouraged her to take the act of picturing her community seriously. “Raghubir goaded me to document as much as I could and not stay confined to one area. He was the one who told me: ‘concentrate on this (project) because you have a feeling, you are an insider, and it hasn’t been done.’ That really inspired me.” 

When her coffee table book titled Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India – A Photographic Journey was published in 2000, it was the result of more than 20 years of sustained documentation. A critical and popular success, it got out of print within six months. Fellow Parsi and musical maestro, Zubin Mehta, praised it “as the finest documentation of the life and achievement of our community in 20th century India.” Well-known film-maker Mira Nair saw it as an intimate epic, “magnificent in its sweep yet always retaining its love for the particular. This is a remarkable marriage of heart and mind — a book of photographs that tells many good stories alongside.” Amidst all the adulation, Taraporevala was left with one regret: that her mentor Raghubir had passed away a year before the book was published.

Recognitions galore

Taraporevala’s Parsi photographs have since been exhibited widely. They were included in Tate Modern’s 2001 exhibition ‘Century City’, as also in her solo shows at Harvard University’s Sert Gallery (2012); Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai (2013) and the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi (2013). “There is an air of nakedness about this collection of photographs,” wrote a reviewer about her exhibition titled ‘Home in the City, Bombay 1976-Mumbai 2016’ (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England). “Nothing is hidden… Some images will shock you, some will move you, and some will make you smile. A small, simple, and stunning captivation of one woman’s journey through life.”

After decades of photographing with film, Taraporevala turned digital in 2004 and adapted nicely to the new medium. “Shooting digitally is more liberating. You don’t need to carry film; there’s more flexibility and ease of sharing.” Her recent exhibition ‘My Analogue World’ (Gallery Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai / March-April 2017) was fashioned as an homage to the faded era of analogue.

Taraporevala is a passionate advocate of self-publishing. “When I published my book on Parsis in 2000, I was, in many ways, a pioneer. Things have changed dramatically with desktop publishing coming of age. Today, one doesn’t really need an outsider publisher. The publisher, in any case, brings very little to the table. Self-publishing and digital media are really the ways of the future. With the Internet, you can be your own boss.”

Interestingly, Taraporevala’s second book was not about photography but a compilation of 1000-plus endearments, insults, and common (if tongue-in-cheek) phrases used by the Parsi community in everyday life. The words, phrases and sentences were crowdsourced from over 200 contributors and compiled by Taraporevala in collaboration with writer Meher Marfatia. Parsi Bol, which was essentially an archiving exercise, has reportedly received enthusiastic response from fun-loving readers belonging to both Parsi and non-Parsi communities.

In her other avatar, Taraporevala is an accomplished screenplay writer. In 1986, she wrote her first screenplay, Salaam Bombay!, for film-maker Mira Nair, who, incidentally, was her classmate and close buddy at Harvard. It was followed by Mississippi Masala (again directed by Mira Nair), for which Taraporevala won the Osella Award for Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival, 1990. Her other screenplay credits include Such a Long Journey (director: Sturla Gunnarson); My Own Country (director: Mira Nair); Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (director: Jabbar Patel); and The Namesake (director: Mira Nair).

“Having a dual profession is great, and screenwriting pays better than photography; my writing has financed my photography as well as my many travels. I could afford all the expensive cameras that I lusted.” Taraporevala also wrote and directed Little Zizou (2008), which won the National Award for Best Film on Family Values, and Swarovski Trophy (Asian First Film Festival).

In 2014, Taraporevala was awarded the Padma Shri by Government of India under the category ‘art – script writing’. When asked about it, she says, tongue firmly in cheek: “I thought it was a prank. It was lovely but nothing has changed. I was told that if I go to jail, I’d get a better cell.”

A die-hard Mumbaikar, she loves the ‘inspiring’ city but is worried about lop-sided development, rising communal tensions and diminishing heritage. “I’m just so happy that Marine Drive hasn’t been renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Marg.”

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