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Shapoor N Bhedwar

The Naver—invocation

Gael Newton

originally published in the NGA's Artonview


Between the 1890s and 1910s, Indian photographer Shapoor N Bhedwar was prominent in the art photography salons of Europe and America. Bhedwar (Shapurjee Nusserwanjee Bhedwar) came from a wealthy Parsi family in Bombay and in his youth developed passionate interests in art and Eastern and Western literature.

He was deeply attracted to the Zoroastrian religion of the Parsi and its origins in ancient Persia from where his people emigrated to India in the tenth century. Bhedwar was also an enthusiastic theatregoer and wrote poems and plays although apparently none were published. He was initially more successful in sport than the arts, becoming a member of the first Parsi cricket team to tour England in 1886.

Bhedwar took up photography in 1888 in India to illustrate one of his own literary efforts and soon became obsessed with the medium as an art form.

Leaving his wife and son behind, Bhedwar travelled to England to study at the Polytechnic School in London in 1889. He also learnt from prominent art photographer Ralph W Robinson in Redhill, Surrey. He was soon winning medals in the Photographic Salon (later the Royal Photographic Society).

One reviewer at the time said of Bhedwar: 'he came, he saw, he conquered'. One of the artist's most successful projects was the series of six tableaux photographs The feast of roses, which illustrates the hugely popular poem Lallah Rookh. Written by Irish balladeer Thomas Moore and first published in 1817, the poem is a romance set in ancient India.

His most distinctive work is a series of images illustrating Zoroastrian religious life. Very few photographs of their religious ceremonies had ever been made public before this series as only Parsis would have been allowed to participate. The Naverinvocation is the first in the series and shows the initiation of a young Zoroastrian priest, the old priest calling on the Almighty to aid the young initiate in his work.

  Shapoor N Bhedwar
The Naverinvocation, from the series on the initiation of a young Zoroastrian priest, 1892, platinum photograph 32.4x26.6 cm
National Gallery of Australia, purchased 2009

By the early 1920s, Bhedwar had apparently ceased exhibiting and sold his studio in Bombay. He slipped into relative anonymity. That is until interest in his work piqued again among Modernist photographers in India in the 1930s before once more fading in the 1960s.

Bhedwar has been largely forgotten for the past 50 years. The fate of his archive is not currently known but his surviving prints have begun to be re-evaluated.

What is apparent now is that rather than merely copying European-style art photography, Bhedwar adapted it to express his own cultural background. His process as well as the charm and skill of his work earn him a distinguished place among pioneering Asian photographers.

Gael Newton was the former Senior Curator, Photography at the NGA


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