Parsees: Keystone of our cultural fabric

Kolkata has been the home of many communities though some of them have been moving away from the city in recent years. This series on different communities is a tribute to them and to the city that welcomed everyone with open arms. This month Sarvani Gooptu takes a look at the Parsees of Kolkata.

The Parsees have been very deeply entrenched within the city’s fabric providing some of the greatest personalities and institutions of Kolkata, yet they are all proud of their own identity as Parsees.

Noshir Framjee an Engineer from BHU, came to the city 46 years ago and became a part of the city’s life working with CESC, serving as an active member of the Rotary movement and marrying a local Bengali beauty, Bonani.

He recalls the support of the local Parsee community with fondness- “Our identity as a Parsee family will always stay, irrespective of how cosmopolitan we become.”

A younger Parsee Kolkatan, Cyrus Madan, too speaks of his community as “A close knit one with their roots in Kolkata for decades- we love the city and the people.”

Interestingly, the Parsee style of wearing the saree, influenced by the Gujrati style, was adopted by the Tagore family as a novel way of wearing the saree and Bengalis even today drape the saree in that style on special occasions.

The Parsee border (Kor) is also coveted by all saree clad women in the world. Interestingly the Tanchoi saree so popular among Bengalis was the product of three Parsees of the Chhoi family, points out Trista Madan, married to Cyrus. She has a lovely collection of Parsee sarees and has done an M.Phil on ‘Parsees during the Mughal Empire’.

It is tragic that so many young Parsees are now leaving the city either for higher studies or work and this has resulted in their dwindling numbers.

Zamyad Meherji, a bright B.Com student of St.Xavier’s College, is an exception. He points out the Parsee Youth League provides an excellent platform for the youth. He has won trophies for elocution and other talent contests.

The history of the association of the Parsees with Kolkata or Calcutta as it was called then, has indeed been a long one. The first Parsee, Dadabhai Behramji Banaji, was a trader from Surat who came here in 1767.

All theatre-loving Bengalis are eternally grateful to one man in particular – Jamshedji Framji Madan, known as the father of Indian cinema. He began his career as a scene shifter in a theatre company. By the mid 20s he owned 12 of the 13 show houses in Calcutta.

Famous Bengali theatre personality Natyacharya Sisir Kumar Bhaduri became a professional, thanks to J.F. Madan. At that time Madan’s company was the largest name in cinema and Hindi-Urdu theatre in Calcutta, but Bengali theatre culture was on a decline after the death of the doyen of Bengali theatre Girish Ghosh.

J.F.Madan saved Bengali theatre converting his Cornwallis cinema into a theatre stage and invited Sisir Bhaduri on a salary of Rs 1,000 along with other stalwarts like Kusumkumari, Prova, Basantakumari and writer Ksirode Prasad Bidyabinode to join his Bengali Theatrical Company in 1921.

J.F.Madan’s son-in-law Rustomji was the manager of the company. The rest is history – his Alamgir was a huge success and Sisir Bhaduri became a household name, ushering in a new age in Bengali theatre and saving the art form.

Cyrus Madan, his successor, is now a Trustee of the CZCRCF (The Calcutta Zoroastrian Community’s Religious and Charity Fund) whose main purpose is the welfare of the Parsees in Kolkata. He says it is “a very pro-active Trust, very much in touch with the needs of the Community.”

The Parsee theatrical company (established 1907) still has annual shows throwing light on their vibrant culture.

The Calcutta Parsee Club founded in 1908 is situated at the Maidan. It started initially only as a cricket club, but today has sporting activities and facilities covering football, hockey, tennis, badminton, basketball, table tennis and athletics.

Many of its male and female members are eminent sports personalities at State, National and International levels. The club is a centre for social activities like community dinners, get-togethers and entertainment programmes.

“It is a place for the young and old to meet and interact and is a great source of happiness for the older generation”, says Framjee.

Trista Madan feels the Parsee Club is the best part of being a Kolkata Parsee. Their three children – Jamshed, Shara and Tashya – excel in sports, debates and quizzes because from their childhood, they have been participating in club activities.

The Parsees of Kolkata encourage their children to participate in community activities and the 2010 Carnival at the Parsee Club on the Maidan was a well attended and colourful event where a large crowd enjoyed Parsee delicacies.

The many associations of the community have helped establish the deep bonds between our city and our fellow Parsee citizens no matter where they live.

Young Azmeen Tangri, just 26 and Director of Olypub Bar and Restaurant on Park Street, sums it up best- “Like all other communities of Kolkata, Parsee youth too are choosing to shift base to other parts of India or abroad. But no matter wherever they may be, Kolkata will always remain home”.

After Dadabhai Behramji Banaji of Surat, families led by Merwanjee Tabak, Rustomji Cowasjee Banaji, Navroji Sorabji Umrigar-Bengalee, Dhunjeebhai Behramji Mehta and others followed over the next two centuries. They used Calcutta as base for trade with China.

They went about establishing industries and setting up or donating to charitable institutions like the Agri-Horticulture Garden, Mayo Hospital, Native Hospital of Dharamtalla, Medical College Hospital, Fever Hospital, the Veterinary College and Hospital etc.

This connection with China also led to an unexpected development- the rise of the Parsee embroidery (Gara) lauded by anyone keen on fashion.

As the community flourished in early 20th century, the first Fire temple (Agyari) was set up in 1839 on Ezra Street. When this fell in to disuse, a second one was built by D. B. Mehta. He had the Holy Fire (Alat) brought from Navsari in Gujarat on foot, a journey of 73 days in 1890.

There was a major problem when the party reached Calcutta – the Sacred Fire could not come into contact with wood and the Howrah Bridge then was a wooden structure. So the holy men who carried the Fire wore iron shoes and crossed the bridge.

The final Agyari was set up in 1912 by Rustomji Banaji at Metcalf Street and this became the epicentre of the Parsee community in Calcutta. They congregate there today on the New Year in August, on the Birthday of the Prophet Zarathrushtra (Khorda Saal).

Any Bengali attending a Parsee wedding may be charmed at some similarities. Married women sometimes wear red bangles like rulis though it is made of plastic.  During the wedding, after a part of the Puja is done, the bride changes her saree to wear one given by her in-laws.  Only then she may take the actual wedding vows – reminiscent of the Bengali lajja vastra. But unlike a Bengali bride who traditionally wears a red colour saree for the ceremony the Parsee bride wears white which may be of lace or have some embroidery. The groom wears the dagli, the white upper garment, and the peta or pagri.

The feast (Bhonu) for the marriage (Lagan Nu Bhonu) is served on banana leaves on long tables.  The banana leaf is a full and double one but placed vertically, unlike the Bengali style which has half the leaf placed horizontally.

The number of servers equals the rows of diners and all the rows are served simultaneously. The food is served in courses, with ghee smeared chapattis first, then the different entrees and finally the rice dishes (usually biriyani) with a meat/chicken gravy.

The Bengalis have always been attracted to the Fire worshipping Parsees and one of the first Indians to work on the Parsees and their religion was J. M. Chatterjee who wrote monographs like The Hymns of Zarathushtra, Atharvan Zarathushtra, Message of the Gathas and the Gospel of Zarathushtra.

Under the umbrella of the Parsi Zoroastrian Association, the Calcutta Zoroastrian Stree Mandal, established in 1936, also does valuable work for promoting adult literacy, sponsoring needy children and social welfare.

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