CAMBRIDGE — A man stands with his back to the camera, looking look at the sea. It’s the photograph that begins Sooni Taraporevala’s “Parsis, The Zoroastrians of India,” which runs at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts through Dec. 20.
The title of the photograph is “The man in the sola hat.” It might just as well be “Elbows on parade.” There are the man’s own, held in close to his body. And there’s another, rather more intriguing one, bare and belonging to someone just outside the frame. Jutting into the picture, it’s like an arrow directing the viewer back to the man in the hat.
What makes the photograph quite wonderful is the effortless balance it strikes between the odd and commonplace. The man’s head tilts (which means his hat tilts, too). He holds his umbrella at a tilt. His torso tilts. That jutting elbow tilts, and so do the wings of two birds distantly discernible in the sky. However slightly, numerous elements of the photograph are askew.
What’s commonplace is that the man might be standing anywhere with a breakwater, buildings, and shore. As it happens, the location is Bombay, or Mumbai, as it’s now called. (Taraporevala uses the former name.) But there’s a universal aspect to this tidy-looking fellow taking in the sights.
Taraporevala, who graduated from Harvard, is Parsi. Best known for her work in film, she’s been screenwriter for several of Mira Nair’s movies, such as “Salaam Bombay!” and “Mississippi Masala.” She also wrote and directed her own film, “Little Zizou.” So she’s something of a Parsi celebrity, if not on the order of Zubin Mehta, the conductor, or Queen’s Freddie Mercury. Mehta shows up in one of the 22 pictures in the show.
Parsis are followers of the ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra, he was celebrated by Nietzsche and Richard Strauss). Most Parsis live in Iran or India, and most Indian Parsis live in and around Mumbai, which is where Tara-porevala grew up. The 2001 Indian census listed slightly more than 69,000 Parsis living in that country.
So Parsis are a small, exotic group in a large — no, very large — country that seems exotic to Americans. Yet one of the two key points that Taraporevala’s photographs make is how much like everyone else Parsis are. They purchase Coca-Cola and Nescafe. Young ones wear Mickey Mouse T-shirts and look attentive. Fathers and toddler daughters take walks as fathers and toddler daughters most everywhere do.
The other key point concerns what’s unique as well as universal. Several of the photographs record Parsi ceremonies, such as the navjote. It’s akin to confirmation, in Roman Catholicism, initiating young people into Zoroastrianism. Her style isn’t at all anthropological, but she’s alert to difference.
Taraporevala took all but two of the photographs between 1982 and 1985. This was a few years after she came back from Harvard. She could see the milieu she came from with fresh eyes. Those fresh eyes were there when she took these pictures. What wasn’t there then was distance in time. Visually, time is a form of spiritual patination. These images inescapably — and pleasingly — convey an aspect of nostalgia. Just as Bombay is now Mumbai, so is the present of these photographs now an increasingly distant past. Perhaps the man in the sola hat thought he wasn’t just looking out at the ocean but also the future. Now it’s the past. Alas, there’s nothing askew about that.