Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra
Parsis or Zorastrians number only about 75000 worldwide and in spite of being one of the most affluent communities in the world, they are an endangered ethnic group.
They have not been left behind in the modernisation of India – on the contrary they have led that movement in the first 50 years since India’s independence. And today, they have even flexed their business acumen globally: The Tatas – the new owners of Jaguar automobiles are also from the Parsi community.
In Mumbai, many Parsis live in cluster housing called Parsi Wadis and I grew up in a neighborhood in Bandra a place that has 2 such clusters. As children we played with other children from neighboring buildings and the Parsi wadi was just one building away. So my earliest memories – birthday parties in 1st Standard or Primary 1 – include Parsis.
In 1992 my long-time silver jeweler from Bandra [in those days my world began and ended in Bandra] offered me this box saying that a Parsi gentleman from the neighborhood, who had inherited this box had asked him to sell it. Young people don’t usually know what to do with things they inherit!
This was the very first antique that I acquired.
This box is a treasure not because of the materials that it has been made with, but because of the cultural heritage of vanishing Zorastrian community. But because this group is well off financially, their heritage pieces hardly ever come up for sale.
Soon after, came the Parsi mirror …
And then came a Parsi sari border – made in China. In those days, unlike today, ‘made in China’ implied exquisite handwork, and all the best Parsi textiles such as Garas were embroidered in China.
And so one piece at a time, Parsi heritage objects came into the wovensouls collection.
But what about the most important heritage items – Genes and memes?
The community leaders and intellectuals of the group have been struggling with this issue for a long time. But with factions differing on the direction the community needs to take, there is no powerful thrust given to any single initiative.
“If we want to preserve the Parsi ethnic identity then marrying out is not the answer. If we turn a blind eye to our kids marrying out, then I do not see Zoroastrianism surviving into the next century” – the view of one of the governing body executive committee members.
And so as the population with more seniors than children ages, the replacement rate is dismal – there were 174 births and 735 deaths in 2013. And in 2015, the population figure was 60000!
This is a poignant example that proves that at-risk or endangered cultures are not necessarily those that are poor financially – they are not always the ones that are compelled to give up their traditional lifestyles for economic upliftment. This problem of being endangered affects the affluent too!