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Filming and uploading short videos of ongoing religious ceremonies raises the hackles of some traditionalists. They view it is as a betrayal of the religion, a taboo broken by ignorant publicity seekers. When Parsiana uploaded an 18-second or so video of the uthamna ceremony of Dastur Kaikhusroo JamaspAsa in the Anjuman Atash Behram’s first floor hall on our Facebook Page in May 2019, more than 600 comments inundated the post. While most appreciated the item and were thankful to be able to view the ceremony, a handful vociferously opposed the brief, online depiction of the somber event. One irate viewer even sent us a legal notice threatening civil and criminal suits. To the critics it was as though we had barged into a private family function.

In 2015, when we had posted online a video of the jashan commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Navsari Atash Behram performed in the main hall, nearly all the feedback was positive. But a few questioned the propriety of filming in the fire temple premises.

Dastur (Dr) Firoze Kotwal in an interview published in the Jam-e-Jamshed (JJ) weekly of September 5, 2021 titled, "No rituals on Zoom," stated, "On no account in the foreseeable future should Zoom be used as a religious medium for enactment of rituals and for the so-called participation of humdins." An editorial in the JJ of October 17 referring to religious ceremonies being videographed had been titled, "Pesky Parsi Paparazzi." The traditionalist The Parsee Voice decried the practice citing among other reasons the online presence of "rank non-Parsis" whose virtual presence "completely vitiat(es) the ceremony."

Our Facebook video on the Sodawaterwalla Agiary jashan on September 3, 2021garnered almost 19,000 views (see "Restoring Sodawater’s fizz," Parsiana, September 21-October 6, 2021). Even if 1,000 people visited the Sodawaterwalla Agiary in a year, it would take 19 years to equal the same reach.

As the jashans and muktad prayers relayed on the Zoom platform by overseas associations continue to gain in popularity, it is heartening to witness several of those who have logged on respectfully sitting through the ceremonies, their heads dutifully covered with a topi or scarf. Whether they are attending the event to show their involvement with their association or their commitment to the religion, it reflects their priorities.

The people who bother to view religious posts online do so by choice. After all there is much other "entertainment" on social media not to mention television. So why view a religious ceremony? Some may be curious, others whiling away their time, but there are many who are devout. The comments on our Facebook Page reflect their devotion.

When a jashan or a navjote is performed, or a marriage solemnized in Bombay, how many guests attend the ceremony? And of those, how many are distracted or chatting? They may be appropriately dressed but are they heeding the prayers being recited? Even at funerals one hears and sees people conversing. A person sitting elsewhere watching a video of the event may be more attentive than those physically present at the ceremony.

At the Sodawaterwalla jashan, a lady present complained that the to-and-fro movements of two photographers in the hall where the jashan was in progress was an irritant. We explained that even at navjotes and weddings photographers are present. She said this was different. We countered that those too were religious ceremonies. On Facebook, some inquired if photography and videography were permitted in fire temples. At public functions, navjotes and weddings such activities are permitted in the main hall. One should not, however, photograph the consecrated fire. But with priests not being present in the kebla at all times and in the absence of other devotees, even this taboo can be broken using a mobile phone camera.

Within the precincts of the Iranshah Atash Behram in Udvada photography is banned even in the upstairs hall which has a separate entrance. This prohibition often serves as a disincentive to conduct navjotes, weddings and jashans as people want to record, remember and share the auspicious occasion.

Religious ceremonies, including initiation ceremonies, marriages and deaths of eminent personalities of all faiths are photographed, filmed, printed in publications and broadcast on television, not to mention posted on social media. The interiors of many churches/cathedrals, mosques, temples and synagogues are aesthetic marvels, inspiring awe and reverence. Our fire temples are less grand but the main halls of several atash behrams are evocative. Why should their grandeur be kept cloistered? Why should a Parsi living in the distant suburbs or another city, state or country, or the infirm and elderly be denied an opportunity to view their heritage? And why bar non-Parsis from online viewing? What is it we wish to keep secret? If non-Parsis are willing to share their institutions’ interiors and ceremonies online why not us? What makes us so special?

Those Parsis who object to social media posts may view our religious ceremonies in the same manner as Masonic Lodge members do their rites. Both believe their rituals are to be viewed exclusively by members of their group. But the criterion for enrolling as a Freemason is an interest to join and merit, not race or caste. Among Parsis, non-Parsi spouses and the children of Parsi women married to non-Parsis are barred membership in this very exclusive racial grouping. In an Observation piece ("The sands of time," Parsiana, September 7-20, 2021) Dr Rajesh Parikh mentioned that his Parsi wife was instructed by her mother not to enter a fire temple while pregnant as she was carrying a non-Parsi foetus. Race is the only criterion for acceptance.

Justice Frank Beaman exclaimed in the historic Petit vs Jeejeebhoy case of 1908, the Parsis "will admit all the illegitimate children of Parsi parents, begotten of prostitutes or kept-mistresses, but they will not admit the noblest, most exemplary foreigner. Why? Because a foreigner is outside the caste and caste is an institution into which one must be born."

Instead of denigrating the new practice of photographing/filming religious, social and other events, a more constructive approach would be to lay down certain norms to be followed. Just like talking loudly on the phone or photographing diners at a restaurant or members at a club is frowned upon, if not proscribed, certain acceptable guidelines could be suggested, debated and discussed. The threat is not so much from professionals who over the years learn what is acceptable or not, but from lay people. Educating them is a daunting task.

Two generations ago telephones were a luxury. The waiting list for landlines was several years. Cameras, film developing and printing was the preserve of professionals and the affluent. Technology has combined both into one and made the cell phone instrument accessible to people of all ages, sexes, castes, creeds, income groups, nationalities. How and when to utilize this new tool of empowerment has yet to be determined. There should be no coercion. We have to adjust to this technological wonder and all the others that will undoubtedly follow.







Villoo Poonawalla