The centenary of the fire temple, two centuries in Chennai, forging friendships… the Parsi community in the city had reason to cheer. Shonali Muthalaly reports
“We do some things extremely well,” chuckles Boman Irani. His Parsi audience, till now a picture of serene glamour, becomes as animated as a gang of rowdy preschoolers. “Food” they squeal, between bites of plump prawn tempura and cheese balls. “Charity,” is the next suggestion. “Business.” Irani agrees. “What don't we do well?” he says, There's a brief contemplative silence. Then, even as people prepare to articulate their views, an elegant woman in an heirloom wine-red Gara sari cups her hands over her mouth and yells, “Make babies.” The audience hoots with laughter.
It was that kind of an evening. The culmination of three days of celebrations marking the centenary of the Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar E Meher fire temple in Royapuram. A gathering of the city's 250 Parsis at the historic Phiroj Clubwala Memorial hall, just a few doors away, to mark almost two centuries of living in Chennai. A meeting to strengthen strategic ties and prepare for the challenges of the undeniably demanding century ahead.
Ties of affection
Yet, despite the significance of the event, it felt more like an endearingly chaotic family get-together than a formal celebration. This was clearly a gathering of people bound together by ties of affection just as strong as those of culture.
Mani Clubwala, the grand old lady of Chennai's Parsi community whose family built the temple, says it wasn't always like this. “I came here in 1967,” she says, “Even then there were roughly just 250 Parsis here.” She adds, however, that the community was divided by geography. “There were Royapuram Parsis, Nungambakkam Parsis… We felt, what's the future if we continue like this? That's how the association started. We made it into a sort of club, so the children could meet. Now, each and everyone knows each other. We're very close.”
Chennai's first Parsis came from Coorg, where they were traders. They bought a plot in Royapuram. About 50 years later, the Parsi Panchayat was formed. Then, about 200 years ago, the Iranis, also Zoroastrians, moved to India. Those who settled in Chennai, around the 1900s, ran “Irani Cafes” and theatres.
The community did not have a priest or place of worship for more than a century. When the son of Phiroj M. Clubwala, a noted philanthropist, died, his family donated the Royapuram Fire Temple to the community in his memory. By the 1930s, a club was started and the Royapuram hall where the centenary celebrations were held became the venue for various cultural activities, as well as a space to celebrate festivals and weddings.
Mani Clubwala is credited with rejuvenating the ‘Parsi Club' in 1980, making it the vibrant centre of activity it is today. “This city has been very good to us,” she says. “Even the Parsis who came here with nothing — they're now millionaires,” she adds, quoting examples of leading industrialists who started out with as little as Rs. 25 decades ago. “Even people who came from Mumbai and Kolkata saying ‘Oh Chennai's so small' ended up staying here for generations.”
Darius Bahadurji, one of the principal organisers of the celebrations, moved here about 25 years ago from Kolkata. “I've been given a very lovely title here,” he grins, “Patron of the Chennai community.” He says the Madras Parsi Association organises meets every month. This celebration was the biggest the community has ever organised. With Mithran Devanesen at the helm as Event Manager, the three days included performances by Gary Lawyer and Boman Irani, a fashion show displaying intricate Gara saris and a play by the Parsi children. Former President Abdul Kalam inaugurated the celebrations.
The community, famously discreet despite its success and influence, has reached out to the city with these celebrations for the first time, calling in press and friends. “We go about our lives in a quiet way,” says Darius, adding, “So, people are favourably predisposed to our community. In business and philanthropy the Parsis have contributed immensely to the country. We've also been given a lot, and we appreciate that.”
Zarin Mistry, who has been doing research on the Chennai Parsis for the last three years, says their biggest challenge is their dwindling numbers. With below a lakh of Parsis in India, she says these gatherings are especially important for their children. “Unless they meet they can't forge friendships. If they do there's a greater chance of their getting married within the community,” she says, adding that this is the only way they can keep their culture and traditions alive.