The Zoroastrian diaspora of India has been an influential contributor to contemporary art.
“No Parsi is an Island”, at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi until 29 May 2016, situates renowned Parsi artists and their work within the larger Indian context. It showcases, for the first time, the contributions of the Parsi community to the arts.
The term “Parsi” refers to followers of Zoroastrianism in the Indian subcontinent, who migrated to Gujarat from Greater Iran in the 8th or 9th century C.E., fleeing religious persecution by Islamic conquerors. A micro-minority in India, the community is known through its admirable achievements and participation in various aspects of sociocultural and economic life. From March to May 2016, Delhi’s major museums and cultural institutions are hosting various events and exhibitions focusing on the Parsi diaspora under the title “The Everlasting Flame”.
A part of the main
“No Parsi is an Island”, a part of this larger programme, focuses on the artistic practice of some of the community’s most distinguished practitioners over the last 150 years. Curated by Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania with Pheroza J. Godrej, the exhibition is described as a “curatorial re-reading” that focuses on the “relatedness and worlding of the Parsi artist”, and was previously shown at the NGMA, Mumbai in 2013.
Rather than grouping all the works by each artist together, they are interspersed throughout the exhibition space by theme. The same artist may reappear in various rooms, in a dialogue with others, breaking out of the restrictions of chronology and style. The occasional presence of non-Parsi contemporaries who influenced each other is a reminder of the challenges and limitations of focusing on the artists of an ethnic minority community, but according to the curators,
We have chosen to treat the ethnographic framework of the exhibitionary occasion – a celebration of the culture of the Parsi micro-minority – as a point of departure rather than a limiting condition.
In contrast to highlighting the relatedness of Parsis to the larger social fabric of India, the specificity of the theme also allows previously marginalised or forgotten artists, such as Jehangir Sabavala and Homi Patel, to become visible.
The Parsi artists showcased in the exhibition are:
- Pestonji Bomanji
- M F Pithawalla
- Sorab Pithawalla
- Jehangir Ardeshir Lalkaka
- Shiavax Chavda
- Homi Patel
- Jehangir Sabavala
- Adi Davierwalla
- Piloo Pochkhanawala
- Nelly Sethna
- Jean Bhownagary
- Homi D. Sethna
- Gieve Patel
- Mehlli Gobhai
Sculpting a niche
Eminent sculptor Piloo Pochkhanawala (1923-1986), one of India’s first few women sculptors, was an experimental artist, working in various mediums such as cement, metal casts, marble, wood carving, and found objects. Her works often took the form of human figures or were inspired by nature, and can be seen at various points in the exhibition. Her public artworks were installed at places such as the Haji Ali traffic circle and the Nehru Centre.
At a time when contemporary art was associated with painting, she charted her own path as a sculptor. According to Shireen Gandhy of Gallery Chemould,
We have had some artists who did not become very big names but were important because of what they represented. Piloo Pochkhanawala, a sculptor, for example. In the 1960s, she was one of the very few Bombay artists who worked along the Baroda school of sculptors.
Pochkhanawala took the initiative, along with the artist community, to transform Mumbai’s Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall to what is now the National Gallery of Modern Art, one of the leading museums for contemporary art in the country.
Adi Davierwalla (1922-1975) was a pharmaceutical chemist and self-taught sculptor. His professional training influenced his art, drawing him towards metallurgy and techniques such as welding and soldering. He won several state and national awards, and his work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1966. Davierwalla often used iconography from Greek mythology and Christian symbolism, exploring themes such as rebellious youth chasing dreams, as evidenced in works such as Icarus and Man with Hook on display.
Gieve Patel (b. 1940, Mumbai), a poet, playwright, artist and doctor, finds a prominent position in the exhibition along with his non-Parsi contemporaries Sudhir Patwardhan, Anju Dodiya and Atul Dodiya. In addition to five sculptures from his Eklavya and Daphne series, which borrow from Indian and Greek myths respectively, the exhibition showcases his more recent paintings, eight drawings from his “Clouds” series (2002-2009), and photographs documenting his plays (Parsi nataks).
Painting rhythm, painting light
Shiavax Chavda (1914-1990, b. Navsari) was known for his dynamic paintings of dancers and musicians, inspired partly by the time he spent working as a set designer at the Diaghilev Ballet in Paris, where he continued his studies after graduating from the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai and the Slade School in London. Apart from ballet, his oeuvre comprises influences from classical Indian dance and music, Southeast Asian dances, costumes, and tantric symbolism. In addiction to painting, he was also an illustrator, and this exhibition is the first public presentation of his work as an art director for Hindi cinema. Chavda’s work has been sold at many auctions, with Ecstasy of Rhythm II fetching USD17,365 at a Pundole’s sale in 2011.
Like Chavda, Jehangir Sabavala (1922-2011, b. Mumbai) also graduated from the Sir JJ School of Art, continuing his education in London and Paris. Described by the curators as “one of India’s most distinguished modernists”, his work is characterised by paintings of scapes in soothing, earthy tones, borrowing from Impressionist and Cubist styles that diverged from Indian canons of the time. His paintings stand out for the artist’s textured and masterful use of light. The exhibition also features some of his sketchbooks dating back to the 1940s.
Sabavala won several major national awards, including the Padma Shri and Lalit Kala Ratna, and his work continues to be popular at auctions, with Vespers I garnering GBP253,650 at a Bonhams sale. The Bridge (2005) is one of the highlights of Christie’s upcoming Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Sale later this month, with an estimate of GBP 200,000-300,000.
- Telling time with Indian artist Gigi Scaria at Laumeier Sculpture Park – May 2016 – New Delhi-based artist Gigi Scaria investigates the notion of time and social mapping addressing his interest to community-based phenomena, stratification and change
- “That Photo We never got”: Indian artist Shilpa Gupta’s meta-narratives art Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong – April 2016 – Asia Art Archive presents Shilpa Gupta’s meta-narrative on incomplete stories and connections in Indian art history
- Illuminating the peaceful balance of the infinite and the void: Nasreen Mohamedi at New York’s Met – March 2016 – the Met Breuer exhibits the work of an Indian modernist who rejected notions of modernity
- “The personal is the political”: Indian artist Prajakta Potnis at Mumbai’s Project 88 – February 2016 – Indian artist Prajakta Potnis’ solo exhibition “When the wind blows” runs until 27 February 2016 at Mumbai-based commercial space Project 88
- Bridging gaps between identity and memory: Indian diaspora artist Annu Palakunnathu Matthew at sepiaEYE – December 2015 – “Indelible Memories” by British Indian artist Annu Palakunnathu Matthew explores cultural issues of identity and migration at New York’s sepiaEYE gallery.
Subscribe to Art Radar for arts news from New Delhi and more