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Madras Miscellany: The century-old Parsi temple

July 04, 2010 04:59 pm | Updated 06:02 pm IST

The century-old Parsi temple

On Saturday (July l0), there will be celebrated in Royapuram the centenary of the consecration of the only Parsi Fire Temple in Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala. Gracing the commemoration of the establishment of the Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar-e-Meher will be former President of India Abdul Kalam.

The first Parsis arrived in Madras in 1795. To meet the needs of the community, the Madras Parsi Panchayat began collecting monthly contributions from members for a Mobed Fund from 1887; the fund was intended as much for maintaining a priest (mobed) as for eventually establishing a place of worship. A significant contribution towards this was made by Sir Dinshaw Petit of Bombay in 1896 and this enabled the purchase of a plot of land in Royapuram where the community had established itself. However, plans to build a temple in this plot were slow in taking off.

In February 1906, the small community sadly lost one of its members, 13-year-old Jal Phiroj Clubwala. With almost no facilities in Madras to enable the family to carry out the obligatory religious ceremonies in the case of a death, the boy's father, Phiroj Muncherji Clubwala, decided to do something about it. He created a corpus that would enable Madras to avail the services of a mobed. The first mobed was Ervad Dosabhai Pavri.

The next year, Phiroj Muncherji Clubwala, after noting the slow progress of collections for the Mobed Fund and for a new fund which a committee of six was making efforts to swell, decided to gift the Madras Parsi Zarthosti Anjuman (the successor of the Panchayat) land on West Mada Church Street in Royapuram, near the earlier earmarked site, and build a fully equipped Agiari on it, provided the community raised Rs.30,000 to maintain the temple. With the community raising the money in short order, Phiroj Muncherji Clubwala built the temple and the Anjuman agreed to name it the Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar-e-Meher in memory of the donor's son.

The foundation stone was laid for the Agiari on February 9, 1909 by Hormusji Nowroji, the President of the Anjuman. Nowroji, a civil engineer, also designed the temple and supervised its building. And on August 7, 1910 the temple was consecrated as the Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar-e-Meher. Shortly before the consecration, Dosabhai Pavri had retired and Ervad Hormasji Adarji Gai was appointed priest in his place. With the consecration of the temple, he became its first pathank (priest-in-charge). For the priests to live in, Phiroj Muncherji Clubwala gifted the Anjuman a block of land adjacent to the temple and raised a house for their accommodation.

Over the years, members of the community have contributed to maintaining the Agiari complex in good order. They also got together not long after Phiroj Muncherji Clubwala passed away in August 1927 to take steps to honour his memory. The Phiroj Clubwala Memorial Hall was declared open by his widow Srinibai on August 14, 1930. The celebratory function on the 7th will be held in this hall, now completely renovated and air-conditioned.

Before a reader or two raises the question, let me state that on December 30, 1926, Mary Rustomji Patel of Ooty married Nogi (Khushru) Clubwala, the son of Phiroj and Srinibai. It is recorded that “the entire Parsi Community in Madras was feasted for four days on the occasion.” Mary Clubwala later, after Nogi passed away, married Jadhav and became a legend in Indian social welfare circles.

The artist from Travancore

Being formally released on Wednesday (July 7) in Madras is Rupika Chawla's well-researched and colour-saturated work on Raja Ravi Varma - Painter of Colonial India . It's a sumptuous tome with 465 colour illustrations, ranging from the mythological and the religious, work with which he is most associated by the layman, to portraits and landscapes.

Ravi Varma, perhaps the first Indian artist to take to oils and the Western Realism of the Academy, became known beyond the confines of late 19th Century Travancore only after he exhibited at the Madras Fine Arts Society, which had been established in 1893 and held annual exhibitions for India-based artists and artists abroad working on Indian themes. The Society was in Jarrett Gardens , the property now swallowed up by the Museum campus. Ravi Varma, a prize-winner from the first, before long stopped competing and was happy only to exhibit. Many of these exhibits were done in the period 1902-05 when he spent considerable time in Madras working with his brother Raja Raja Varma on several commissions.

The commissions included painting Justices S. Subramaniam Iyer and V.Bashyam Iyengar for the Vakils' Association in 1902, the President of the Municipal Corporation of Madras Sir George Moore in 1903, and Governors Sir Arthur Havelock in 1903 and Lord Ampthill in 1905.

Havelock's full-length painting hangs in the Fort Museum and was done from a photograph and descriptions by those who knew him well; Sir Arthur later acknowledged that it was a good likeness. Lord Ampthill, well-known in international rowing circles, was a committed Freemason and is pictured in the vestments of the Grand Master of the Freemasons of the Madras Presidency. But what caught my attention among these pictures was the full-length portrait of Sir George Moore, which used to hang in the Council Room of the Corporation until renovation of Ripon Building was recently taken up.

The Moore painting caught my eye not because it is in any way a more striking picture than the others but because it is accompanied in the book by excerpts from Ravi Varma's diary jottings, starting from the first sitting at 10 a.m. on September 16, 1902. They speak of a sitting for the coat and waistcoat, another for the trousers and boots, a couple for his face, then a couple of days to work on the carpet, all this through a “gloomy rainy season” when there were days “we could do no work”. The Moore and Havelock paintings cost Rs.1500 each, including the gilded frame.

The ‘we' referred to in the diary is not the Royal ‘We' but the brothers Raja and Ravi the younger. Significantly, their joint signatures appeared for the first time on the two 1903 Madras paintings, those of Sir Arthur Havelock and Sir George Moore. Yet the two brothers had worked together for several years before this and this was almost at the end of their careers as artists. It leaves Chawla wondering whether the elder was finally recognising the talent of the younger or whether the younger was asserting himself, seeking recognition. Whatever be the case, Raja Ravi Varma seems to have had the last word. In his diary notes on the sittings with Sir George Moore he writes, despite the numerous ‘we-s' preceding it, “Sir George called and was pleased with the portrait, which is almost entirely my own work” (emphasis mine).

When the postman knocked…

V. Sriram feels that both Coats Road and Jones Road should also be retained (Miscellany, June 28).James Coats was the engineer of the Corporation who was primarily responsible for reclaiming the Long Tank and making T'Nagar a reality. And J. R. Jones, also of the Corporation, ensured water supply from Red Hills. Jones Tower in the reservoir commemorates him.

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