HISTORICAL REFERENCES say Parsis arrived in India through Gujarat from Iran in the seventh century. Sadly, over the years, their population in the country has fallen to just 60,000, as per the latest Census data and reports. But these dwindling numbers have not hindered the community from celebrating its rich culture and heritage, as was evident at a gala celebration of Parsi culture in the capital.
It was a windy March evening, as greetings of ‘navroz mubarak’ (navroz is the Zoroastrian New Year) filled up the air at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi. Dressed in their traditional attire and sipping on Parsi falooda, a refereshing cold beverage served with ice cream, members of the Parsi community were celebrating the start of their new year, as part of Threads of Continuity: Zoroastrianism Life and Culture, an ongoing exhibition at the art institution.
Threads of Continuity is part of the Everlasting Flame International Programme, a broader event, showcasing the contribution of Zoroastrians and Parsis to culture, philosophy and art. The ongoing programme is being organised in New Delhi under the Hamari Dharohar scheme of the ministry of minority affairs in collaboration with the ministry of culture and Parzor Foundation, an initiative of Unesco created to preserve and promote the Parsi-Zoroastrian culture.
A walk through the Threads of Continuity exhibition reveals the geographical and cultural journeys of the Zoroastrian faith from its origins in central Asia to its current roots. A lot of focus has also been laid on depicting Parsi life in different parts of the country, especially in Gujarat and the Deccan region. “The collections are from various museums. We have got a very big loan from the National Museum in Tehran, Iran. For the first time, we have actually dug out objects from Parsi homes and people’s own private collections, which we have never been able to showcase earlier,” says Ashdeen Lilaowala, one of the curators of the exhibition along with Shernaz Cama, Dadi Pudumjee and Kritika Mudgal.
From rare artefacts to manuscripts, the exhibition also highlights some renowned Parsis in India down the years, such as Bhikaji Cama, who was a prominent figure in India’s independence movement, and nuclear physicist Homi Bhabha, among others.
Maja Daruwala, director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an international non-governmental organisation that supports human rights, believes society needs to know more about the Parsi community. “Such exhibitions will tell society more about a bunch of people who have not only taken, but given back to both ancient and modern India… Minorities shouldn’t be tolerated, but celebrated,” says Daruwala, who was present at the event.
Another notable Zoroastrian in attendance was Cyrus Poonawala. One of the most successful businessmen from the Parsi community, Poonawala advised young Parsis on making the right career choices. “The event is bound to spread the Zoroastrian philosophy, which is not known to many people. In fact, I was shocked to learn that even I didn’t know that our prophet Zoroaster was not born in Iran, but Afghanistan. So this will definitely educate the Parsi community and the youth, and also motivate them,” says Poonawala, chairman of the Pune-based Serum Institute of India, which manufactures immunobiological drugs and vaccines.
Apart from the Parsi community in India, people travelled from shores afar—Canada, Iran, Pakistan, etc—as well to be a part of this cultural spectacle. One such person was 24-year-old Anushae Parakh. Originally from Karachi, Pakistan, Parakh is now based in Bangkok. She is part of a wider Zoroastrian ‘Return to Roots’ programme of the Parzor Foundation in which youngsters go around India, especially Gujarat, and visit old, ancestral villages to reconnect with their community. “This exhibition is a first-of-its-kind event. It spreads awareness about Zoroastrians. A lot of people I speak to don’t know about Zoroastrianism or Parsis… Within the community, for the younger generation, it is really nice to see our rich heritage, culture and history,” says Parakh.
As is the case with most Parsi festivities, the proceedings at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts were accompanied by delectable Parsi food. There was lagan-nu-bhonu (the wedding feast) served in traditional fashion on banana leaves. Delicacies such as jardaloo sali chicken (chicken stewed with apricots and served with potato straws), patra ni macchi (steamed Indian salmon wrapped in banana leaves with green chutney), dhansak dal (lentils with vegetables) and patra nu paneer were part of the delicious menu. To top it off, there was lagan-nu custard and malai kulfi for those with a sweet tooth.
In Parsi cuisine, some ingredients like dhansak masala and Parsi sambhar masala are exclusive, but Kainaz Contractor, owner, Rustom’s Parsi Bhonu, a New Delhi-based Parsi restaurant, gave us a lowdown on some other flavours of Parsi cuisine and how food is the one common thread that runs through the entire community. “Parsi food is also an amalgamation of elements from Gujarat and Goa—the food always has a sweet and sour balance. There are Gujarati flavours since we first arrived there. From Goans, we adopted the use of vinegar and sugar,” she says.
But food wasn’t the only attraction at the do. Captivating the audience with a spell-binding performance was renowned contemporary dancer and choreographer Astad Deboo. Born in Navsari, Gujarat, Deboo has, in the past, performed at the Great Wall of China and Madhya Pradesh’s Khajuraho Dance Festival, but performing in front of his own community was altogether a different experience, he says. “It’s not very often that one gets an opportunity to perform at a community event—and that, too, my own community. So it was special,” says Deboo, who changed into the traditional Parsi attire of a dagli (white jacket) and pants after his performance. “We wear the dagli to weddings and other important events… This is our identity,” he says.
The Everlasting Flame International Programme, which is on till May 29 in the capital, is presenting two other exhibitions: The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination at the National Museum; and Painted Encounters: Parsi Traders and the Community at the National Gallery of Modern Art.