Parsi 101

GieveA scene of the opium trade in Canton; Sabira Merchant and Apsara Urs in Gieve Patel's play Savaksa.

Of all the countries that were trading with China in opium in the 17th century, India's product, called malwa, was considered the best. As more people in China took to it, the demand for it increased. "But the Parsi community saw what it had done to an entire nation, and stopped trading in opium in the early 1800s," says Pheroza J Godrej, who has curated the exhibition "Across Oceans and Flowing Silks: From Canton to Bombay 18th-20th Centuries" at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA).

The trading might have stopped, but by then, the Parsi community had amassed massive wealth which they used both for themselves and for building Bombay into the city we know today.

Godrej and co-curator Firoza Punthakey Mistree have traced the impact of the Parsi community on the city through the opium trade. The exhibition is being held as part of the 10th World Zoroastrian Congress, which concludes on December 30.

The exhibition though extends till January 20. "We earlier wanted to hold an exhibition that would focus on traditional Parsi embroidery zardozi, gara and kors. Parsis imbibed various elements from other cultures in their clothing. Similar to Chinese embroidery, Parsis use various symbolic motifs, such as chrysanthemums, birds, and a mushroom-like fungus, among others. But the NGMA is a huge space and the pieces we had would not have been sufficient. So we started to expand on the idea,"says Godrej.

This has culminated in a massive collection of works that is divided essentially into two parts - one about the aforementioned trade with China, and a companion exhibition titled No Parsi Is An Island - curated by Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania which traces the works of Parsi artists from the late colonial period to the present. The section begins with artists such as Pestonji Bomanji, M F Pithawalla and his son Sorab Pithawalla, then moves to 20th century painters such as Shiavax Chavda and Jehangir Sabavala, as well as sculptors Adi Davierwalla and Piloo Pochkhanawala. This section concludes with works by contemporary artists such as Mehlli Gobhai and Gieve Patel.

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