Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.
Out today on Elephant is Joanna Cresswell on Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh.
The artists of the 19th century often came alive for me in my grandmother’s living room.
During hot days in the Mumbai summer, we paged through books about artists and paintings that inspired her. As we passed over artists from some of her favorite art movements, heat-wave hallucinations brought Cézanne dancing in through the lace curtains. Renoir twirled into Degas, who skipped over Monet and bumped into Manet as a mess of mediums poured onto the floor. I loved them all, but I had not yet seen the painting that would speak to me most personally: the quotidian depiction of my minority Parsi Zoroastrian identity on a canvas, Pestonji Bomanji’s Feeding the Parrot (1882).
Still, I spent many hours captivated by the artists my grandmother had tried to emulate before a near-fatal mishap stripped her of her creative faculties. After a pedestrian accident, she was left in a near-vegetative state. Even after miraculously coming out of a coma, she could never again paint with the same precision as before.
As a child, I did not consider the effects of this cataclysmic loss, of the agony she must have felt over the incident that impeded her artistry. My grandmother, who once painted true-to-life portraits, and could have painted portraits of Parsis like Pestonji Bomanji had, if she had not lost her ability to do so.
The earliest art history lessons I ever had took place in her home, and it was not unusual for us to traipse through India’s National Gallery of Modern Art or Jehangir Art Gallery. What was unusual was getting the chance to see an entire exhibition of Parsi art. When my aunt suggested visiting one in 2002, I was unenthused. Even with a declining Parsi population in India, I was more ashamed than excited about the opportunity to celebrate my ethnoreligious minority. Why hold an entire room hostage for a group that was so small, so invisible, so…irrelevant?
And then I saw Feeding the Parrot for the first time.
The seminal painting by Pestonji Bomanji depicts a woman impassively feeding a parrot, her dispassionate gaze pointed away from, yet still somehow looking into, the viewer. I was transfixed by the caged parrot, the lifelike folds in the blue sari with brocade border worn by the woman at the center of the painting, and the child peeking into, but never interrupting, the scene.
Bomanji—who wanted to be a sculptor, but was drawn to portraiture after training under Pre-Raphaelite painter Valentine Cameron Prinsep —contributed significantly to Bombay’s oft-overlooked contribution to Academic Realism. The style was eventually overshadowed in the 20th century by the Progressive movement, but it left behind some of the most iconic paintings of the 19th century in India. Feeding the Parrot was a striking callback to the European art that I was so familiar with from the summer days in my grandmother’s living room. But my fascination went beyond the adroit brushstrokes and the way the shadows in the work both concealed and revealed at the same time. It was not even the similarity of Bomanji’s work to that of the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer that held my attention.
When I moved closer to marvel at the play of light and marriage of pigments, I was pulled into the tension of its somber yet uplifting palette. Even when I looked away, I still saw the woman’s characteristically Parsi features: high forehead, inimitable long nose. She bore no resemblance to my grandmother, but still I saw her—at her easel, in the kitchen, by the window.
It was the same feeling I had when I engaged with my grandmother’s painting of Zarathustra’s likeness, hanging in our bedroom back home; a familiar, but more personal piece than other art we admired together. It echoed Van Gogh’s swirls, Monet’s mists, Manet’s detail—but it was our Zoroastrian prophet rendered in my grandma’s syncretic style. Not entirely sui generis but still distinct, because apart from my grandmother, who else would paint this homage to our ethnoreligious minority?
I had heard of Parsi artists like Bomanji, Jehangir Sabavala, and MF Pithawalla, who painted our diaspora. But much like the declining minority I belong to, I did not see them in many galleries or read about them in art books. And, like all declining diasporas probably do, I grew up aware of our decreasing population, and of census data that has many in our community worried that one day there will be no Parsi Zoroastrians left. It was something we were resigned to, just like we were resigned to the lack of representation in art and culture in India as well as globally. Before I saw Pestonji Bomanji’s work in person, I saw all art as something foreign to appreciate, not relate to.
When I looked at his paintings I was staring at a convergence of Western-Indian styles, typical of Bomanji’s J.J. School of Art instruction, and yet also of the quotidian patterns of our declining diaspora. It made me want to create, record, represent, and preserve some of these scenes myself in an effort to leave something behind of this near-extinct community I was a member of.
I rediscovered Feeding the Parrot in 2013 when I read about an exhibition in Delhi that listed the painting as part of the works on view. It had been a while since I’d thought about how strange it was to see my diaspora represented on canvas, or even in daily life. Again, the urgency to create something streamed through the side-angled woman and half-views of parrot and child. I realized: What I had seen in Bomanji’s work was the power of representation. Sure, I painted flowers en plein air, dotted canvases with crude pointillism, and finger-swabbed soft pastels. But Feeding the Parrot showed me art could fight diaspora erasure, that it could preserve and represent.
After my grandmother died in 2014, I found comfort in the muted palette and pathos of Bomanji’s Portrait of a Parsee Lady (1914). And Bomanji’s At Rest (late 19th–early 20th century) still reminds me of my grandfather and other Parsi gentlemen reading the paper outside fire temples in our religious town of Udvada. But always, I go back to the half-shadowed woman, feeding a caged bird.
To this day, Feeding the Parrot still moves me. When I look at the child—seemingly more aware of the artist capturing the scene than woman he clings to—grabbing the folds of the sari of the woman in the center of the painting, I feel seen. Sometimes, it also reminds me of my grandmother and her art. At other times, I think of diasporas broadly, and the fact that mine one day might cease to exist.
But through all that, the thought that an artwork like Feeding the Parrot, or even my grandmother’s paintings, will remain to tell our story provides me with a modicum of solace.