It may be recalled that In 2001 UNESCO at its General Conference requested its Member States to celebrate the 3000th Anniversary of Zoroastrian Culture in a befitting manner. The proposal came from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. These Celebrations are going on worldwide. We in India started these Celebrations, in July 2003 at New Delhi where PARZOR Foundation put up the Exhibition ‘Pictures with a Purpose’ linked to the Conference convened by UNESCO ‘Dialogue among Civilizations’. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in his Inaugural Address to this Conference referred to this Exhibition, which had been Inaugurated by H.E. K. Matsuura, Director General, UNESCO the previous day. He offered Government support to take this Exhibition all over the country during the 3000th Anniversary Celebrations, which will continue in India until July 2004. From 2-4th October 2003, these Celebrations were held at Mumbai.
The Kolkata Celebrations started with the inauguration of the PARZOR Exhibition “Pictures with a Purpose” which included photographs and a display of Parsi heritage items, by H.E. Shri Viren J. Shah, Governor of West Bengal, who also released the film “Asha: The Law of Harmony”. He and his wife Mrs. Viren Shah were received and taken round by Dr. Shernaz Cama, Director UNESCO PARZOR. They showed great interest and discussed various aspects of the Project. “Pictures with a Purpose” are the recordings made by PARZOR from their various Field Trips and show-case the results of some of the research carried out across the country.
In his Inaugural Address the Governor stated “these pictures are indeed pictures with a purpose and throw light on the different facets of Zoroastrianism. I commend this work the contribution in diverse fields, by member of this community is truly extraordinary. Through centuries the Parsis in India have made a creative contribution in commerce and in industry and in education, culture, science, art and in the field of political affairs … The list is endless and the lesson is there for society to learn from … Zoroastrianism comprises a great human heritage which needs to be understood and actively utilized. It is our solemn duty to ensure that all efforts are made to keep bright the flame of this elevating religion from being obscured by the efflux of time.”
Almost in response to these sentiments was the answer from the PARZOR produced film “Asha – The Law of Harmony” as exemplified in Zoroastrian rituals and ethics. It started with the portrayal of environmental degradation caused by modern man, but went on to explain in excerpts from the first complete professional recording of the two liturgical Zoroastrian Rituals, the Yasna and the Jashan. The importance the Zoroastrian places on harmony and respect not only for mankind but all the elements, which sustain life is brought out vividly. This is a message not merely for the followers of the Zoroastrian faith but all mankind.
The diminishing Parsi population was highlighted time and again by the media, which extensively covered the Kolkata Celebrations. Possibly they had failed to notice one of the most important modules of PARZOR – Demography and Health. The module has been recently started with grants from the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and the Bombay Parsi Panchayat under the over all guidance of Prof. Dr. Armaity Desai. It covers matters pertaining to this urgent aspect of preservation.
The Exhibition remained open up to the evening of 25th January. Films, “Asha”, “In War & Peace” and “Glimpses” which portrayed the work being done by PARZOR were continuously shown at the Mezzanine screening room. A wide-ranging audience attended the celebrations. The Textile display was a great attraction. Many of these price-less pieces had been brought by PARZOR from Delhi. Many others on display had been loaned for the occasion by generous helpers and friends from Kolkata.
Two presentations were also made during the Celebrations. Sabeena Gadihoke of Jamia Milia University, who is a PARZOR Researcher, made a presentation on her forthcoming book on Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman photojournalist. She showed clippings from her film ‘Three Women and a Camera’. Amongst the Exhibits was a series of photographs from Homai Vyarawalla’s archives of Parsi women demonstrating their skills when training for Air Raids, and the Fire Services during the period of the 2nd World War. Mrs. Bacha Parekh, a very prominent member of the Calcutta Parsi Community, in her seventies, recognised herself in some of these, when she was a volunteer in the Khusru Baug Volunteer Contingent in Bombay in 1943!! She was given a grand ovation during the Presentation.
Prof. Rumy Mistry of Vadodra made an interactive presentation on his analysis of the UNESCO PARZOR “Reet Rivaj Questionnaire sent out in 1999. Over 1000 responses have been received from India and abroad. Prof. Mistry has taken up this analysis as a labour of love, and is now in the process of compiling and publishing his findings. All those who had responded from Kolkata had been specially invited. In the spirited discussions, it was obvious that Kolkata Parsis still remembered many of the customs and times honoured rituals, which hold the community together. However, there was obviously a need for greater participation from the 17-35 year age group, as had been also found elsewhere, both in the way of response to the Questionnaire as also in participation in the discussions. These steps are essential for the revival and survival of the culture and heritage of the community.
The spirit of volunteerism was visible from the moment one reached the Olpadwala Hall. On its steps were lined the Kolkata “Bulbuls”, “Guides”, “Scouts” of the Saklat Physical Culture Institute Boy Scout Troop ranging from 10 year olds to the 6′ 7″ tall Gave Bapuji. The Governor was received with the traditional “Achu Michu” Parsi welcome, organized by volunteers who had made beautiful “chalk” decorations. The Kolkata Parsis hosted the celebrations in a generous Parsi ambience with volunteers assisting and helping in every way possible.
Dr. Shernaz Cama, during her visit to Kolkata had the opportunity to record two important facets of Parsi contribution to the performing arts. Kolkata had one of the best known “Parsi Theatres” from the early years of the 20th century. The Madan family in Dharamtalla and the Gherda family in Bow Bazaar are well known for their theatre connections. Mr. Noshir Gherda now in his mid eighties helped record some of these aspects.
“Parsi Theatre” is the generic name of the entire modern Theatre Movement in India. It could not survive the advent of the “talkies”, now the well-known “Bollywood” brand name of world entertainment. However, it is worth recording and preserving this priceless heritage in the form of the scripts, costumes and other artifacts of a bygone era.
The name of octogenarian musician Vistasp Balsara of Kolkata is highly revered in culture conscious Bengal. He had just been given the prestigious Subhash Chandra Bose award a day before he agreed to give an interview to PARZOR in which he spoke about his contribution to music.
He ended by saying “that in the same way in which Zarathustra had brought the message of Ahura Mazda to the world, PARZOR had brought the message of Zoroastrian Culture to Kolkata”.
The Kolkata Celebrations were a truly memorable Community Cultural Revival. The volunteerism, enthusiasm, and response from all sections of Kolkata have helped to revive and take forward the message of Zoroastrian Culture.
The highlight of the Kolkata programme was the sense of community participation, and the generous donations of items for the Parzor collection. Adi Jehangir Ardeshir had loaned a rare unstitched embroidered sapat piece for the exhibition. It belonged to his grandmother and dates back to the beginning of the last century. Seeing the response to its display he has very generously donated this for the Parzor textile and embroidery display.
Jal Mehta has donated a rare Shah Nameh and Avestas from his personal collection while Jehangir F. Dastoor has presented Parzor with a lock and key Khordeh Avesta. Mr. Vistap Balsara has donated music and books from his personal collection to add to the Parzor archives.
The most valuable donation has been from the Calcutta Parsi Amateur Dramatic Club. This club, which will soon celebrate its centenary has kept the tradition of Parsi Theatre alive with its annual performs. Its clubhouse has now to shift location and they have, through the kind offices of Mr. Noshir Gherda and as a token of appreciation for the work done by Parzor, donated their Pedal Harmonium, Props and duplicate Play Scripts to Parzor for the archival collection and research.
Parzor recorded interviews in Kolkota as a part of their field collection of oral history. Mr. Noshir Gherda and his family who have been active in the Parsi Theatre Movement for over half a century shared not only the memories but also their songs and stories about Parsi Theatre. Mrs. Roshen Gazder the well-known pianist spoke not only about music but also gave interesting leads into the textile world. Her family traded in textiles with the Far East and she has some fascinating memories to share. While Adi Jehangir Ardeshir’s family had connection with China and Japan, particularly with the city of Kobe, he gave us very interesting information on how his Pochkhanawalla ancestors used to run inns on the Silk Route from Kandahar in Afghanistan to China. Mrs. Bacha Parakh found her own picture as a young girl among Homai Vyarawala’s exhibition portraying Parsi women in the war effort. She was a volunteer worker in the ARP and gave an interview in front of her photograph taken over 50 years ago. Ketayun Saklat, one of India’s foremost Stained Glass artists explained her craft and her vision to Parzor. These recordings add to the archival details collected by Parzor over the last few years and go to prove the fascinating history and interests of the Parsi community.
The major interview with the great stalwart of Indian music, Vistasp Balsara, who is literally worshiped by the music loving Bengalis led to some very interesting insights into the world of music. Vistasp Balsara is perhaps the founder of Fusion Music, using western instruments and Indian notations. He has worked with the greatest of Indian musicians and actors as a music director for Indian films and even at an advanced age keeps actively involved with creating music. He played and sang for the Parzor interview and many visitors to the exhibition turned into a most appreciative audience.
A number of researchers and media persons showed interest in various aspects of Zoroastrianism and Parzor is now assisting some of these researchers in their particular interests regarding the Parsi community.
Thus the visit to Kolkata not only celebrated the 3000th Anniversary of Zoroastrian Culture but has provided Parzor with valuable oral history, research material and insights into the life and culture of the Parsis of Eastern India.