Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
Ormahzd created fire and attached to it a ray from the endless light
– From the Bundahishn, an
ancient Zoroastrian Pahlavi text
The word ‘toran’ is historically used to denote a specific Buddhist gateway. The door and window hangings the word is more commonly associated with, however, have belonged to Romans, Jews, Parsis and Hindus, and been made of diverse material. Marwaris have a custom called Toranchar where the bridegroom, while entering his bride’s house for the first time, hits the leaf and flower toran with a neem stick to ward off evil eye. Gujarati torans, mostly of cloth and mirror work, are popular exports. The ancient Sasanian King Khushru Parviz, after assuming power, supposedly had the Atash Behram or sacred fire in the Atash Kadeh (in what is today Tehran) decorated in silver torans with designs replicating the star, sun and moon. Mostly though, the Parsi toran is made of glass.
A glass bead from Zarine Kapadia’s toran acts as prism, transforming the scorching summer sun into a shaky vibgyor on her faded wall. Another from the same toran, hanging lower on the doorway to a typical middle class verandah, filters light in its own red colour. A third is opaquely green, refracting nothing, but glistening emerald like, and out of place. The beads, belonging to red, green, blue, purple, yellow and white meet each other, yet maintain distinction in a criss-cross mosaic. Some hang evenly below the long rectangular item, so close that even when the occasional gust blows through the living room upsetting papers and pen stands, they swing in synchrony without breaking.
Kapadia has a design marked to scale on printed squares on a large paper used for stitching lay-outs. “Each square is coloured as per a particular bead,” she explains, before counting yellow, red and blue beads and threading them in nylon. She then winds the loaded thread onto a 20 by 12 inch wooden frame. The colours fit into erstwhile rows on the frame to nearly complete a line-up of roosters. The rooster is a popular motif in Parsi embroidery. Used to ward off ill will, it signifies the death of the evil night, and is also a symbol of the revered Sarosha.
Torans interested Kapadia since childhood visits to homes which had them, but only fascinated her after she saw her mother-in-law’s fabulous collection post marriage. “But when I started collecting them myself, I had to rely on gifts mostly,” she remembers. This is because Parsi torans aren’t sold at shops. If not bought from a household, they will be found only in stalls at the occasional Parsi fairs. Then, on retirement from her job as banker, she turned to art, making the torans herself. When her mother-in-law passed away, she left Kapadia her antique toran collection. So in a legacy of double bonus, she today owns torans passed down three generations, and “the ability to replicate them for future ones”.
Kapadia lays out two torans, from the old and modern schools, to illustrate difference in design. The traditional toran, covered in geometrical patterns and with long cylindrical beads hanging from it, has flower motifs as it’s only image. The contemporary toran, taken from a current day Japanese design, has a house, a pagoda, a carriage, a car and a boy and girl. Its borders are plain. “But the differences go beyond images and design,” Kapadia asserts. “The beads in the olden days would be hexagonal.” Today’s round beads too, she says, have to be imported and can be found at only Mumbai shops for Rs 500 per small packet: “Which is why my torans sell at an average of Rs 1500 onwards, depending on the size and kind of work.” She also says sadly that many have now taken to making torans with plastic beads. “It’s bad enough that I can’t replicate the ancient torans to the tee, because the beads are not available,” she sighs. “But at least I’ll use glass.” She shows us then a photograph of the toran dearest to her — the first one she made, and gifted to her daughter. Blue, yellow and orange beads outline recurring images of Zarathustra’s head cover and face, beard and gown respectively. Alternating with this is the Atash Behram strung together in off white, red and yellow. Red glass beads hang in semi-circles from the toran. Miniscule bits of plastic, hardly noticeable, attach them. “Very tiny bits,” claims Kapadia, “Only to strengthen the connection along the string.”
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/pw4w