Her dazzling pink dress and scurrying in and out of the greenroom is an eye-catcher. But there are clearly no jitters. For Benaifer Dabu who has travelled from New York, being a Parsi and taking part in Parsi plays there is usual. In the Parsi festival in Udvada though, helping her 80-year-old dramatist and actor father, is an added bonus. Dabu, busy putting the ensemble — a bunch of Parsi Gujarati plays — together with her father Yazdi Karanjia, known as the doyen of Parsi theatre, and thirteen other family members, is one of the handful of Parsis living in Syracuse in NY.
In 2012, the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America estimated a population of 14,405 Parsis living in the US. It was a significant 33.5% growth from 2004 when figures showed a little over 10,500 Parsis living in the US.
“There are only three families back there. But we never feel that we are not at ease,” says Dabu who is here with her husband Navroze Dabu, who designs sets of Parsi plays in Syracuse. “Also, Toronto has a sizeable Parsi population,” she adds.
Karanjia is glad that her daughter and son-in-law are with him at the Parsi festival in Udvada, a coastal town in Gujarat’s Valsad district. And perhaps the biggest Parsi festival in the world, he adds. Belonging to a close-knit Parsi clan gives Dabu a sense of pride. But that in no way stops her from not being outgoing, and perhaps more liberal with her children.
A cultural shift meant a lot more interaction with people outside her community. “Here the infrastructure of community development is not maintained. We can have better avenues and opportunities making it more conducive for communities, especially Parsis,” suggests Dabu.
When it comes to her children, and their choices, Dabu and Navroze are at their liberal best. Being accommodative and open to people outside the Parsi community, she feels, can in fact help their population woes. “Both my sons are free to marry people of their choice,” she says without any qualms.
Navroze, who has changed into a bright velvety cap and a matching sweater, shares an anecdote. “My best friend is Hindu. So when my father died recently the rituals were inside a fire temple and he was not allowed. It pained me,” he says while disapproving the community’s norm of exclusivity. “When we inclusive, we will thrive and flourish,” the couple says unanimously.
And that is what she tries to instill in all members of her Surat-based family, which despises the concept of patriarchy.
Yazdi is an Octogenarian and his wife Vira is 74. Both, theatrical veterans, are key performers in the day’s Parsi play. Yazdi, whose name is synonymous with the theatre scene in Gujarat, finds it challenging to fit in a collage of plays which has to fit in the half-hour assigned slot and appeal to the 2000-odd Parsis in attendance. “To keep the act together and also the spectators gets challenging in a situation like this,” says Yazdi, who has been acting since he was a 10-year-old.
The actor supposed to enact a woman in his father’s play had fallen sick, paving way for Karanjia to play the character. “On my way back from the theatre on a bicycle I was still dressed as a woman. A couple of guys whistled at me believing I was in fact a woman. That is when I decided to get into acting,” he reveals.
Now he is seen mentoring his 10-year-old grandsons, Anoash and Kevin, backstage. Though age-wise dissimilar, sharing the stage binds the family together – a unique proposition they are confident of showcasing.
Not only does he co-direct the Parsi/Gujarati plays with his brother Mehernosh, but also acts in it. Mehernosh’s wife Perin takes care of each one’s make up. One by one she puffs pink powder while darkly outlining the group’s eye-brows with Kajal. A pencil moustache is what she has drawn for Yazdi’s character of a sleepy, sluggish Parsi in one of the acts.
The stage is set, literally. It is time for the family to go there and portray what they have done for years and over and over.
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