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A priest, his son and a friend head home in the evening on an old Jawa motorcycle with a sidecar.
A priest, his son and a friend head home in the evening on an old Jawa motorcycle with a sidecar.

A Bengali among Parsis

  • Photographer Shantanu Das has been chronicling the Parsi community for several years now
  • In his work, one gets a glimpse of Parsi traditions, customs and everyday life

Photographer and journalist Shantanu Das had put together an exhibition and a photo-book on the small Parsi community in Udvada, a coastal town in Gujarat, in 2012. Udvada has one of the oldest existing fire temples, over 270 years old. Since he doesn’t belong to the community, Das wasn’t allowed inside, though, as he tells me, “From the gate, whatever you can see, you can click it."

A Parsi family from Canada in Udvada to attend a marriage ceremony.
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A Parsi family from Canada in Udvada to attend a marriage ceremony.

Das still hasn’t entered a fire temple but the Nashik-based photographer has captured the community at work, at play and in prayer. The community is “very traditional but also forward-thinking," he says, explaining why he was drawn. “They can laugh at themselves."

Industrialist Ratan Tata, in a traditional white ‘duglee’, gets a helping hand with the collar knot during Udvada Utsav 2015.
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Industrialist Ratan Tata, in a traditional white ‘duglee’, gets a helping hand with the collar knot during Udvada Utsav 2015.


Around 50 of his photographs were exhibited earlier this week at the Tao Art Gallery in Mumbai, in the exhibition Parsis—A Timeless Legacy. Though the city is home to a large majority of Indian Parsis, Das travelled beyond it to photograph the community in places like Kolkata and Surat. He says that the traditions remain consistent across states, the only difference being concessions to local eating habits.

A Parsi man performs ‘kusti’ prayers in the morning. The sacred thread, or ‘kusti’, made of pure sheep’s wool, is worn by every staunch Zoroastrian to ward off evil
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A Parsi man performs ‘kusti’ prayers in the morning. The sacred thread, or ‘kusti’, made of pure sheep’s wool, is worn by every staunch Zoroastrian to ward off evil

In his photographs, you get a glimpse of distinctive Parsi traditions and customs: an old man with kusti (sacred thread), a couple praying on Mumbai’s Marine Drive on the occasion of Avan nu Parab, curious onlookers on the pier above them. There are also slice-of-life moments, which speak of the subjects’ ease with Das, from a group of youngsters at their music lessons to industrialist Ratan Tata getting some help with his collar.

Parsis praying during Avan Nu Parab at Marine Drive in Mumbai. On this day, a visit is made to the local sea, river, lake or well, and prayers are offered to Avan Yazad.
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Parsis praying during Avan Nu Parab at Marine Drive in Mumbai. On this day, a visit is made to the local sea, river, lake or well, and prayers are offered to Avan Yazad.

Though there have been several photo-exhibits in the past dedicated to Parsis, there’s a poignancy underlying this one. The estimated number of Parsis in the 1940s was more than 100,000; that number today is less than 60,000. Educationist Ratan Luth, who presented the Mumbai show along with businessman Parvez Damania, says, “This exhibition is an effort to document and preserve the culture, rituals and traditions of an ethnic community that is rapidly diminishing in number." With the Parsi population estimated to fall further in the coming decades, collections like this are likely to become a vital form of cultural archiving.


A group of Parsi students at music practice in a workshop in Mumbai.
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A group of Parsi students at music practice in a workshop in Mumbai.
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