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ELDP Project Highlight: Videography-based documentation of the language of Parsis in Gujarat and Maharashtra

Today on the ELAR blog, we are featuring ELDP grantee Anton Zykov’s project ‘Videography-based documentation of the language of Parsis in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Anton’s collection with ELAR focuses on Parsi Gujarati, an endangered language spoken exclusively by the Zoroastrian community living in India.

Impact on community/speakers highlight:

The project and its coverage triggered a correspondence between community members about the need to revive the level of knowledge and social prestige of Parsi Gujarati and the cultural heritage (devotional songs, religious texts, etc.). This correspondence widely distributed between the influencers of the community (Parsi newspapers’ editors, communal authority leaders, respected individuals, etc.) contained, for example, a letter from notable Parsi historian (author of 42 published books) Marzban Gyara (dated June 13, 2019):

“I had the good fortune to learn to read, write and speak Gujarati in primary school at J. B. Vachha School at Dadar. At home we spoke Gujarati. From childhood I used to go to a library J. N. Petit Library at Mancherji Joshi Parsi Colony at Dadar. I attended religious class every Saturday for seven consecutive years conducted by Dadar Parsee Youths Assembly where we learnt devotional songs from 4 to 5 p.m. taught to us by Mrs. Banoobai Jehangirji Bulsara who played the harmonium and prayers, history of Iran and Shah Nameh stories from 5 to 6 pm. by Ervad Behramji Vimadalal. (…) A lot of our history, culture and religion is documented in Gujarati and a knowledge of Gujarati language is most useful. I would urge everyone to cultivate the ability to read, write and speak Gujarati which is our mother tongue after we came to India”.

Panthanki, the priest from Navsari. Photo taken by Anton Zykov.

Further, several younger community members, such as the project consultant Pinaz Sukheswala from Navsari and Shehzad Wadia from Surat (both in their mid-20s, a significant factor for a community with 60 as the median age) expressed their interest in the following up on the project.

Thirdly, the project’s host institution, UNESCO-affiliated Parsi Zoroastrian Heritage Project (PARZOR) has started a process of digitising its (predominantly English) library on Parsi-related subjects and expressed its interest in holding the access to the materials gathered in the course of my project. PARZOR also is interested in producing quality video-based materials primarily on unique Parsi arts and crafts, thus I am planning to donate the videography equipment to this institution in order to support the community in India.

Fourthly, the project impacted the community welfare not only in the linguistic dimension. During my stay in Navsari, upon the request of PARZOR, alongside with them I have accompanied the senior representative of the Union (i.e. Federal) Ministry of Minorities’ (MoM) representative on his visit to the town in order to consider the investment into restoration of notable Parsi venues, such as Dadabhai Naoroji’s (famous Parsi politician, entrepreneur and philanthropist, President of Indian Nation Congress, House of Commons MP) house or Bazme Jashan Roje Behram (community celebrations’ house). The Ministry’s representative asked for explanations concerning the ELDP project, which (i.e. the international interest toward Parsi cultural heritage) had a positive impact towards MoM’s decision to approve the restoration project.

Parsi Girls’ Orphanage in Surat. Photo taken by Anton Zykov.

Scientific highlight:

The Irani sub-dialect of the Parsi language is a yet undocumented linguistic phenomenon that was discovered in the course of the project. The 57 thousand-strong Parsi community has a substratum of so-called Iranis, Iranian Zoroastrians that migrated to (predominantly) Bombay from late 19th up to second half of the 20th century. The Iranis now constitute approximately five to seven thousand, stretching from the fourth to (rarely) the first generation of Iranians who live primarily in Mumbai, Pune and Dahanu.

This Iranis are mostly known due to their professions as café owners (so called Irani cafes) and chickoo (sapodilla) farmers. Although, they are described in English-language fiction such as the bestselling Shantaram by Australian Gregory David Roberts or Road to Dahanu by Canadian author Anosh Irani, academic research on this group is still very scarce. In a non-scholarly and non-fiction literature Iranis are mentioned by Gujarati-language Parsi Prakash and works on Sai Baba’s disciple Maher Baba, born Merwan Sheriar Irani.

During the last two weeks of my fieldwork that were spent in Maharashtra (Mumbai and Dahanu) I have discovered multiple linguistic differences between the Parsi language and the Irani variety, including: 1. lexicon (originating from various sub-dialects of Gavruni or Zoroastrian Dari) 2. morpho-syntax (as an influence of Gavruni)

Wave of Kasti, sacred thread. The thread is made of wood and hand-loomed by Parsi women consists of 72 threads corresponding to 72 chapters of Yasna, the collection of liturgical texts recited during the daily ritual performance. Photo taken by Anton Zykov.

The Irani sub-dialect heavily borrows from Gavruni (Zoroastrian Dari) with the amount of borrowings decreasing with every further generation in India. The Irani group has also preserved rituals and religious customs significantly distinct from those practised by the Parsi, as well as their distinguished identity. For example, the fire temples (agyaris) in all Parsi communities feature a sign that prohibits entrance to non Parsi (sometimes non Parsi Zoroastrians), whereas in the places with significant Irani presence (the mentioned Mumbai, Pune and Dahanu) all of the worship sites are marked as restricted to “Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians”.

Thanks, Anton!

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