By M Saraswathy
Parsi culture and art are dying out — so goes the general perception. But here is an institute that is helping to record and uphold both.
Established in 1916 — and therefore approaching its centenary — the K R Cama Oriental Institute (COI) is managed by five trustees, headed by Muncherji N M Cama, who is chairman of Bombay Samachar and on the board of several charities. It is supported by public funds and donations. Among its activities is the annual Avabai Wadia Memorial Lecture, in which a distinguished scholar speaks on his or her work. COI also has an exchange programme with the Department of Persian Studies of the University of California, Irvin.
One ongoing study at COI, in which five teachers from different Mumbai colleges are involved, is on the genealogy of the Seth family. The Seths are an illustrious Parsi family, one of the first to move to Mumbai from Surat. Naoroji Rustom Seth was the first Parsi to sail to England and gain redress on an appeal to the Court of Governors of East India Company. His father Rustom Manek was the famous Surat broker to the company. COI’s study traces the Seths’ activities from 1930 on. A book on their activities until 1930 has already been translated into English from Gujarati by the institute’s researchers.
The COI library is considered one of the world’s major resources on Zoroastrianism. It has 27,000 books in English, Persian, Gujarati, German, French and other languages. There are also 2,000 manuscripts in Avesta, Sanskrit and Pahlavi. But there are also books on Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and other religions, and on general topics.
“We want to be recognised as a secular institute,” says joint honorary secretary Nawaz B Modi. “That is why we have talks by people from across religions and books from all faiths.”
Manuscripts have to be conserved, and the library is doing so with the help of the non-profit Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). Manuscripts in Avesta and Pahlavi, difficult to handle because they are very old, are preserved in this way: Intach experts clean the pages, then wrap them in special Japanese paper and bind them together for library use.
COI doesn’t just stock books, it also publishes. It has brought out books on cricket and Parsis, documenting the sport in the community, on Zoroastrian law and ethics, on the Baj-dharna (a Zoroastrian consecration ritual) and so on. The latest is Parsi Portraits from the Studio of Raja Ravi Varma. Written by Priya Maholay-Jaradi, it documents the 19th-century artist’s studio portraits of Parsi subjects.
Maholay-Jaradi is a PhD student at the National University of Singapore. She is full of praise. “The institute went beyond the scope of its collection to support my research,” she says via email. “The discussants took note of my specialisation in art history. Since I had written a master’s thesis on Raja Ravi Varma’s art, the institute encouraged me to explore the area further, albeit with a Parsi connection. So I studied portraits of Parsi sitters painted by Raja Ravi Varma. The institute not only funded my archival research in Mumbai, but also sponsored my fieldwork in Kerala, from where Varma hailed. This well-rounded support made it possible to make fresh finds such as hitherto unseen portraits.”
Despite its resources, the institute has a low profile. Does it get enough users? Modi says more foreign scholars than Indians use the place. “Several books in the library are in Gujarati. So they have few readers,” she says. “Very few people have an interest in intellectual topics in these languages. We are therefore trying to translate the Gujarati books into English. The Mumbaino Bahar, a book published in Gujarati on the role of different communities in Mumbai in the development of the city in 1874, is being translated into English.”
To encourage more young scholars to visit the institute, officials like Modi are trying to forge partnerships with Mumbai colleges for research and placement. COI already runs elocution contests, exhibitions and competitions for college students.
Preparations for the centenary celebrations have already begun. Seminars, lectures and other “intellectual activities” are planned. As for its future, Modi comments, “We have already done what we can to preserve our culture. The next generation has to treasure it.”