To someone's face

Updated: Jan 19, 2020, 08:24 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

You can tell a Parsi from a mile. A photographer-stylist pair is focusing on the distinct physical attributes of a community with Persian origin for a project of black and white portraits that hopes to preserve memories

While Umrigar and Thakkar requested that the names of their subjects be withheld, the completed project which they hope to turn into a book, will carry anecdotes from the life of every senior they have photographed. Pics courtesy/ Kurush Umrigar, The Parsi Project
While Umrigar and Thakkar requested that the names of their subjects be withheld, the completed project which they hope to turn into a book, will carry anecdotes from the life of every senior they have photographed. Pics courtesy/ Kurush Umrigar, The Parsi Project

Its been a few months since F Wadia, 97, passed on. Unlike some of his more famous Parsi counterparts, the man who worked as taxi driver wasn't a face that Mumbaikars recognised. But, a black and white portrait of him on a flier—slouched, his bony shoulders visible through the sudreh, his prominent nose and toothless jaw—has piqued the curiosity of many. Pinned outside a few cafés in the city, the flier urges onlookers to recommend names of elderly members of Mumbai's Parsi Zoroastrian community, who can be photographed and featured in The Parsi Project.

A photographic archive that has been five years in the making is headlined by photographer Kurush Umrigar and collaborator Charvi Thakkar. The pair is trying to document the distinct and unusual facial features of elderly Parsis, determined by their traditional hereditary exclusiveness, through black and white portraits. Wadia was among the first that Umrigar photographed. He was 94 then, and despite passing on, continues to be the poster-boy of their project.

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Both Thakkar and Umrigar believe that India's Zoroastrian residents or Parsis, stand out because of their physical attributes. "[Their facial features are] an amalgamation of Persian and Indian genes. Years of living and mingling in the country have influenced and changed things, leading to a certain kind of a face as it were." Stereotypical as it may sound, but the large nose is said to be an immediate giveaway. Some of them also tend to have broad ears and sharp jawlines. "It's a good stereotype to have," Thakkar, 33, smiles. And because facial attributes get more defined with age, the pair decided to put a cap on the age of their models: 85 and older. A certain Parsi woman, whose name they don't wish to reveal, they think, looks regal, "almost resembling The Queen." Thakkar thinks "they are racing against time", when she says, "We have lost a lot of opportunities because it's a dwindling population. Today, someone might agree for a shoot, and a week later, they are unfortunately no more."

The Parsis are an ethno-religious group that migrated to India from Iran during CE 636–651 following the Arab conquest. They landed in Gujarat where they were given refuge, between the 8th and 10th century CE, to avoid persecution.

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The cafe where we meet Thakkar and Umrigar has the same flier pinned on a board at the entrance. Having until now relied on word of mouth, the pair thinks it's time to find fresh ways to give a shout-out to the Parsis. They have also created an Instagram handle dedicated to the project, to get community members interested.

But for long, it was total reliance on door-to-door research. Umrigar, 35, would go knocking from door to door, enquiring with chowkidaars of buildings, asking if there were old Parsis residing there. "But, I have never had someone slam the door on me. The Parsis are nice that way, but they are also shy. Who after all would entertain a stranger into their home, let alone, someone who wants to take a picture?"

While most photo memory archives are less invested in the images and more in the stories behind them, this one stands out for its focus on the face. Umrigar, who started his career as a fashion photographer, says he is influenced by Peter Lindbergh and Yousuf Karsh; his partiality to portraits determined by his need to focus on the "emotion of the subject". "It was my then boss, who suggested that I start taking pictures of the community. And because I am a Parsi too, he believed I would have easy access," he remembers.

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Umrigar chewed on the idea for a while, before he and Thakkar, a professional image consultant and stylist, launched the Project. "So many before us have photographed the community and done it brilliantly; there have also been books published. But, nobody, as far as I know, has put together a collection of monochrome portraits," he says.

The project is an attempt to show the "real" side of the ageing Parsis. The challenge has been to not make them seem vulnerable or evoke sympathy. "That's not the idea," Thakkar clarifies.

Since they began the project in 2014, they have shot close to 40 people. Work on each subject, from shooting to processing, takes between four to eight days. "The photographic process involves letting them talk. The more we try to make somebody pose, the more camera-conscious they become. We are dealing with very senior people. A lot of them are not exposed to social media, they don't get out of the house often and are extremely introverted. We need to get into their zone to get the right frame," says Thakkar, who styles all the subjects. "When it comes to clothes, we mostly go with what they have, because that's what they are comfortable in." But not every elderly Parsi has fit the bill. "We know 85 year olds, who look like they are 60, and we have had to say no to them," Thakkar says.

Kurush Umrigar and Charvi Thakkar have photographed roughly 40 subjects over the last two years, all belonging to the Parsi Zoroastrian community. PIC/ATUL KAMBLE
Kurush Umrigar and Charvi Thakkar have photographed roughly 40 subjects over the last two years, all belonging to the Parsi Zoroastrian community. Pic/ Atul Kamble

Engaging the subjects in conversation during the shoot, helps them drop their guard, says Umrigar. It's during these interactions that they have also revisited interesting incidents from their life. The pair hopes that these anecdotes will accompany the portraits to a coffee table book once the project is complete.

A book of the nature they envision would require 70 subjects and a "whole lot of funds". Until now, they have financed the idea through freelance photography jobs. "But, by and large, this has become a full-time project for us. We realised that our regular work would have to take a backseat, if we had to take this one forward," says Umrigar, who has covered residents in Mumbai and Pune but hopes to travel to other cities, and eventually, Australia, England and America, which house large Zoroastrian populations.

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