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The rotunda of Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), accessible after flights of elegant, orbicular stairs, has transformed into a cradle of eclipsed histories. Upon entering the ongoing exhibition, No Parsi Is An Island, you encounter two large, ornately framed portraits by artist Pestonji Bomanji—Feeding the Parrot and A Parsi Girl, both from the late 1800s.

During the incipient and vibrant years of Bombay’s Sir JJ School of Art, under John Lockwood Kipling and John Griffith, Bomanji was chosen for the Ajanta mural project that Griffith initiated. Students had to copy all the murals of the Ajanta caves. Pestonji did this for about a decade, during which his technically mature style and worldview of an in-between mind took shape.

Adi Davierwala’s ‘Undulating Red’ (1972) and his photographs
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Adi Davierwala’s ‘Undulating Red’ (1972) and his photographs

In the other work, he paints his daughter, with amazingly lifelike, limpid eyes. She stands in front of a canvas on an easel which has the portrait of a priest figure immersed in a scripture, and her brush has smeared it with an intuitive, graffiti-like drawing.

A small subversive gesture in each of these paintings points to the mature, inquiring aesthetic of one of India’s earliest practising Parsi artists. This is an artist at ease with two distinct worlds—Indian and European—and his creative faculty and style are liberated at their intersection. Art historian and curator Nancy Adajania, who has curated this important show along with poet, critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote, says, “Bomanji is an inheritor of plural histories and he should be taken as seriously as Raja Ravi Varma."

The 14 artists featured in this show, covering a period of 150 years from the 1880s, belong, of course, to the marrow of their time, but their extraordinariness lies in their crossing the boundaries of religion, ethnicity and language. They certainly belie the popular perception that the Parsi is an inward-looking creature, fiercely protecting his identity and lineage.

The collated messages and technical superiority of some of the works would stun the viewer. In his detailed canvases that evoke a sense of melancholia, Jehangir Ardeshir Lalkaka restores the religious image in the secular space of domesticity. Sorab Pithawalla and his father M.F. Pithawalla excelled in genre depictions—the portrait, indoors, barn life, still-life—without ignoring the social. Their works have the props of a newly emergent bourgeoise life. In a 1937 work The Dawn of Prohibition, Hindi film actor David models for a portrait by Sorab—a tipsy-looking, picaresque figure with a bottle of alcohol placed conspicuously in front of him.

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Sorab Pithawalla’s ‘The Dawn of Prohibition’ (1937)

The machinistic sculptures of Adi Davierwalla and Piloo Pochkhanawala, minutely carved works in welded metal, scrap and steel, almost forebear the splintery aesthetic of today’s Wolverine. Davierwalla was trained in engineering and technology, and as a sculptor, used that training, along with references from Greek mythology and Christian symbolism, for his edgy, futuristic works. A beautiful paean to the wave form, Undulating Red, and his own photographs of his sculptures, have never been exhibited before this show.

Pochkhanawala has a diffused presence through the show. In doing so, Adajania and Hoskote emphasize her importance as an artist who was also a mediator and facilitator of the arts in Bombay—she organized the Bombay Arts Festival from the 1960s for many years.

Though Jehangir Sabavala’s intricate sketches and work notes, and an unfinished canvas, we see the rigour and finesse of his process—an aspect of his practice that Hoskote has chronicled as a friend and biographer.

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Piloo Pochkhanawala’s ‘Monsoon’ (1983)

A tapestry installation of 10 works by studio weaver, researcher and crafts activist Nelly Sethna is a kind of culmination of Adajania’s engagement with the crafts. Adajania was the first programmes coordinator of the Morarka Crafts Centre (MORCRAFTS) at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, in the mid-1990s, and initiated a process of research into the chitrakathi tradition of pictorial narrative on the west coast; she also conceived and organized a national symposium, “Should the Crafts Survive?", which brought into sharp focus questions that continue to concern the arts-versus-crafts debate.

Gieve Patel’s poems, abstracts, sculptures and photographs of his plays being enacted on stage present him as the complete Bombay artist. A reproduction of his famous painting Off-Lamington Road, now believed to be lost, is testimony to the artist’s understanding of the complex social structure of his city.

Much more than a sum of its parts, the show is a testament to artistic daring, vivacity, experiment and an urge to reach out to a world much bigger than its immediate surroundings—be it in Bombay or India. Adajania says, “The tropes that we use for this exhibition are relatedness and ‘worlding’; it’s always about that which is capacious and that you will find in the plethora of materials we have used—sketchbooks to photographs from family archives to children’s books to looking for other ways in which the artist participated in the world of art-making, not just painting and sculpture."

Read Patel’s beautiful and wholehearted entreaty on being part of a non-combatant community, and a desire to forge solidarity with the world:

Artist Shiavax Chavda. Photo courtesy: The Jeroo Chavda collection
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Artist Shiavax Chavda. Photo courtesy: The Jeroo Chavda collection

Never could I claim a circumcised butcher

Mangled a child out of my arms, never rave

At the milk-bibing, grass-guzzing hypocrite

Who pulled off my mother’s voluminous

Robes and sliced away at her dugs.

Planets focus their fires

Into a worm of destruction

Edging along the continent. Bodies

Turn ashen and shrivel. I

Only burn my tail."

The works in No Parsi Is An Island—the title, a play on John Donne’s words on the interconnectedness of all humankind—perhaps unintentionally defy the most common modernist ruse of conforming or shaping a school. As Hoskote says: “The emphasis is also on the extra-painterly. Modernism is often thought as inward-looking and about a formation of a style, and limited to the studio." Another aspect of the show, say Adajania and Hoskote, is conservation because most of the works are part of private collections. Most appropriately and hopefully, it will be the show’s afterlife.

We are presently witnessing a Parsi moment in Mumbai. This exhibition is part of a bigger ongoing project initiated by Pheroza Godrej, Across Oceans And Flowing Silks: From Conton to Bombay 18th to 20th Centuries, coinciding with the World Zoroastrian Congress that took place in the city in the last week of December. At the Congress, around 1,000 Parsis from around the world deliberated upon issues of identity and dwindling population.

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The covers of Mehlli Gobhai’s children’s books

No Parsi Is An Island embodies what was left after the wealth gathering, or rather another kind of Parsi enterprise that emerged after the wealth from opium trade and ship-building settled. It is an extremely valuable recording, and an affirmation of the modernist who is not necessarily part of a canon or school, one who is de-islanded, or in Adajania’s word, “worlded". He has been missed in the history of Indian modernism.

No Parsi Is An Island is on,11am-6pm, till 28 January (Mondays closed) at the NGMA, Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall, Fort, Mumbai. A tour of the show is planned for 17 January. For details, call 022-22881969.

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