Elegant saris and dapper suits. Fashion shows and cricket clubs. Art, theatre, music and quiz competitions. These are not images that most people associate with Muslims, certainly not in an Islamophobic world or an increasingly Hindutva country.
But two niche Instagram pages have been puncturing the stereotype of the religious, regressive Muslim by celebrating rich sub-cultures within India’s Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shia Muslims.
Bohras of Calcutta and Stories of Surti Bohras feature glimpses into the lives, achievements and personal histories of Dawoodi Bohras from Kolkata and Surat, including diaspora groups now settled across the world. The posts are a mix of old and new family photographs, carefully archived news clippings, advertisements, and other memorabilia, and profiles of ordinary – and interesting – community members.
The pages are run by 58-year-old Mudar Patherya, a writer and financial communicator who describes himself as a culturally Surti Bohra born and raised in Kolkata. He also considers himself a historian at heart, and has spent the past two decades passionately collecting and digitising old photos for community members in his networks.
In October 2019, he decided to use social media – Instagram and Facebook – to showcase the heritage of Bohras from Kolkata, the city he knew most intimately. “I thought I would be able to make at most a hundred posts, until I realised that my father had left me almost every letter he had written to me in his life,” said Patherya. He began mining his father’s collection of letters, cards and photos for the Bohras of Calcutta page, and invited other community members from Kolkata to send in their own contributions.
The page now has more than 2,000 posts and over 3,000 followers, many of whom reach out to Patherya when they spot their own ancestors in the posts.
Patherya started the Stories of Surti Bohras page more recently, in September 2020, as an homage to the “Surti-ness” that is an integral part of his identity. “The Calcutta page leans more towards nostalgia, but the Surat page has a lot of wit and self-deprecating humour that Surti Bohras are known for,” said Patherya.
Patherya has spent dozens of hours visiting community members and interviewing them about their personal histories. He has also painstakingly dug out and digitised old documents and publications, including 4,000 pages of the Ummeed magazine published Surtis in the 1940s. He now plans to publish this material on an open-sourced website.
Patherya has worked in stocks and finance since 1995, but he began his career as a sports journalist in the 1980s, and has authored three books on cricket. A sizeable portion of his Bohras of Calcutta posts are about cricket – specifically, the vibrant culture of Bohra cricket clubs and tournaments that defined Bohra life in Kolkata for decades.
“Outside of Kolkata, there has been no major cricket culture among Indian Bohras. But here we had 10-12 Bohra cricket teams who would battle it out in matches every weekend from November to March, with over 1,500 people in the audience,” said Patherya, who played in a Surti Bohra team that won the community’s coveted Qutbi Shield in 1986. “No one would organise religious gatherings on those weekends, because we would have cricket in the morning, then jaman [food], and then theatre or some cultural shows in the evening.”
In the Kolkata of the 1970s and 80s, Bohra men and women actively wrote, directed and acted in small-scale plays performed at community events. “We used to have fashion shows and quiz competitions too,” said Patherya.
One of Patherya’s biggest motivations for preserving memories of this sporting and artistic culture is that is has now largely fizzled out. “Most of the cricket clubs have wound up and the cultural richness has dried up,” he said.
Another motivation is political: an endeavour to showcase a different image of Muslims compared to the stereotypes painted in the popular imagination. “It is important to humanise Muslims – to showcase them as being just as modern, progressive, well-rounded, culturally aware as anybody else,” said Patherya. “These pages are not just for Bohras or Muslims – people from outside the community have also started following them.”