Portrait of a community
An ongoing exhibition, to last till October 18, of oil paintings and photographs of the Parsi community at the NGMA, Mumbai, is the first of its kind. It focusses on the art historic perspective of portraits patronised by the Parsis in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and is sourced from fire temples, schools, public institutions and homes. Part of the show includes an exhibition catalogue and an essay researched by PRIYA MAHOLAY that examines the social, historical and cultural significance of these images. Exclusive extracts.
"Parsee lady with a garland", photo, Raja Deen Dayal, 1898.
THE Bombay Art School was founded by the leading Parsee, Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, in 1857. It emerged as one of the key players in popularising the genre of oil portraits. One does not claim that without the British education policy, Academic Realism would not have found its way into the country, for, the profound influence of European prints and engravings on self-taught artists is seen from the Mughal era. Emperor Jehangir is known to be a collector of European art works, also encouraging his artists to adhere to realistic portraiture. However, the art schools formally disseminated the knowledge of the medium and technique of its usage, alongside cultivation of a taste for it. Hence one sees that European institutions had altered the meaning and function of art in Indian society, for, now elite artists were seen as enterprising individuals replacing traditional artisans, art societies taking over the functions of aristocratic patrons and art schools as agents of the Raj seeking to inculcate "good taste" in subjects ... .
"Iranian mythological figure", glass painting.
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... . The Parsees' social and cultural mores were now at par with the British. They came to cultivate a profound interest in western music and theatre. The piano became a favourite with many in the community. The early theatres of Bombay were actually designed on the lines of Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatre of London, the props were also Victorian and the music used was hybrid (Awasthi in Sharma, 1993:112). The Parsees emulated English lifestyles by building some fine villas in the colonial architectural scheme and decorating them with typically Victorian furniture, followed by paintings. Their dining habits were fashioned on those of the English; they were at ease with forks, knives and spoons. They had ceased to patronise the nautch, and in its stead preferred English music or military bands. Unveiling a commissioned portrait at a social-do became a regular practice. The modernisation process among the Parsees was accelerated significantly by visits to England. The number of Parsees studying or transacting business in England grew constantly especially during the 19th Century. To put it succinctly, the whole mood of the time was that westernisation was progressive, modern, fashionable and elitist.
The commissioning of portraits can be viewed as an extension or an aesthetic, pictorial extension of the community's ethnocentric and self-depicting publications (monographs and pamphlets), family histories, biographies, speeches and writings. Among the Parsee community a collective elite consciousness was emerging and ossifying itself, naturally it was a product of economic achievements. The consequent philanthropic activities not only sustained the practice of commissioning portraits, but also gave it a fillip in having the donor and sponsor members as the subjects.
"Lady from the ashburner family", oll on canvas.
The Parsees possessed a peculiar blend of commercial enterprise and profound benevolence. They dispensed as much as they acquired, and hence believed in charity to develop a welfare state. The whole phenomenon of philanthropic activity like building schools, public institutions and fire temples, brought about a strong need for deifying these philanthropists by commissioning their portraits. These portraits lent them a near iconic dimension, recording a pictorial hymn in their praise for posterity. Choosing a particular person to be the subject for a portrait, reflected that the person and the patron family enjoyed much socio-economic privilege. The sitter was certainly being honoured through the very act of a portrait being commissioned for him. As for little children being subjects of these paintings, one must bear in mind that they were members of the community's elite; the patron family would have made a pictorial memoir, an album of the family as a whole. When Lord Napier said, "Most men like to possess the likeness of those they love", it held credibility for the patron as well. Besides, public and Government Institutions of the English followed the practice of adorning the walls with portraits of important officials. Places like the town halls, courts of law and Government houses saw commissions being planned and executed. Fire temples, schools and other Institutions endowed by the Parsees now too saw portraits gracing the walls. It would hardly be an exaggeration then to say, that philanthropy and commissioning portraits became inextricably linked activities with the community.
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... . The Parsees were essentially fashion-minded and portrait painting being the vogue at the time; they took to it in a robust manner. It became institutionalised through the art school tradition. Portrait painters enjoyed a higher status than traditional artisans and embraced all opportunities to work with the challenging possibilities in the new medium of oil. For the governing classes, the British, the development of European art forms among Indians was an important step towards creating an artistic appreciation for it and minimizing the role of the indigenous arts. The interests of patron, artist and the British interacted, inspired and influenced each other to create a paradigm of Parsee portraits whose artistic, historical and social value has enriched the portrait of a community.
"First all-Parsee cricket team to go to Lords, England, 1886, photo.
Extracts from the catalogue of Portrait of a Community, text by Priya Maholay
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