Most of the faces are familiar. They gather every year at 9 a.m. on a hot April morning to garland the statue of a Parsi stalwart of yesteryears. Three times in a year the Bombay Parsee Association (BPA) remembers the Parsi greats of former times whose stone or metal images dot the city landscape. Prior to the annual event, the monuments are spruced up by the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC). BPA president Vispi Dastur narrates the background of the person/s and members of the audience add their mite.
On this April 4 at the birth anniversary of Sir Hormusjee Dinshaw whose statue stands besides the Bhikha Behram Well, Marazban Wadia, president of the Davier anjuman sang his adaptation of Aye méré vatan ké logo (O people of my country), originally made popular by songstress Lata Mangeshkar in 1963 in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian war. A video of the song being sung was fortunately recorded by Dr Simin Patel of bombaywalla.org and reached over 7,000 people on the Parsiana Facebook page. Over 2,500 watched the recording or a portion of it.
Bombay heritage enthusiast Farrokh Jijina prepared a background note on the city landscape in the vicinity of the statue at the time of Dinshaw’s (Adenwalla) birth (1857): "The Fort walls would still be standing...At its peak 10,000 Parsis lived within its walls... Electricity and telephones would be unheard of words... Piped water? Forget it. There were enough wells within the Fort — most houses had one in their courtyards."
A young historian at the gathering commented afterwards that through the use of social media and a more sophisticated approach, one could draw a larger, more upmarket audience. But one countered that the motley gathering, the somewhat repetitive speeches and the song had their own charm. Dastur noted that when the BPA started the practice there were only a handful present. Over the past 60 to 70 years the numbers have grown and at the War Memorial for the Parsi dead at Khareghat Colony every Fravardin roz, Fravardin mah (in 2016, the day was September 4), over 50 gather, many of them former military personnel and family members of the deceased service personnel. Thanks to the good offices of Cmde Aspi Marker (Retd), a bugler from the Navy is present at the event. Marker also arranges for snack boxes at one of the gatherings while the Bombay Parsi Punchayet’s F. S. Parukh Dharamshalla provides breakfast after the War Memorial event.
But the BPA is doing more than merely honoring the long dead. The organization is also contributing to the preservation of the city’s diminished heritage structures. They are making the city aware of the Parsi contribution to the country of which many are unaware. One Parsi architect, for example, did not know that Sir Dinshaw Wacha’s statue stood across the street from Churchgate station and 100 meters from Eros theater. Traffic signals and a lamp post partially obstruct the view. Marzban Giara’s Parsi Statues states there are "134 (Parsi) statues in Bombay alone."
The Khada Parsi (Cursetjee Manockjee) statue at Byculla is barely visible from the roadside as the flyovers hide it from view. A move to relocate the isolated figure to a side was unwisely opposed by a member of the family, now long deceased.
One would have hoped other Parsi organizations would have taken a leaf from the BPA and come forth to honor the greats, especially those with whom they would have had some connection, emotional bond or family ties. Sadly that has not happened. Fortunately the Kala Ghoda Association, spearheaded by publisher Maneck Davar, has restored several monuments in the Fort/Fountain area including the Bomonjee Hormarjee Wadia water fountain and clock tower on Perin Nariman Street, formerly Parsi Bazaar Street. For years, some socially conscious passersby and residents attempted to take up the issue with the BMC, but one supposes fund allocation was the main deterrent. Or more likely a lack of will. After all, the cash strapped, deficit-budgeted state government has sanctioned a humongous Rs 3,500 crores (USD 558,615,900) for a mammoth statue of Shivaji off Bombay’s coast.
These types of grandiose projects are normally associated with third world country dictators whose citizens live in poverty and misery. Archeologist Dr Kurush Dalal and others have commented the amount could be better spent maintaining the several forts of the Maharashtrian warrior idol, many situated along the coastline. The only purpose the monument may serve is to bolster the egos of a handful of unscrupulous politicians who have no qualms about frittering away precious public funds to pander to their constituencies.
Perhaps their lopsided priorities would change if they read the words penned in July 2013 by Dr Sudhir Khanna, secretary to the government in the Ministry of Urban Development in a foreword to the Conservation of Heritage Buildings – A Guide, "Each one of these places contain elements that help tell its own individual story. It may be the design of the building, the material it is built from, the exterior features like woodwork and cornicing, the paint color or even the landscape that are physical reminders of the place." In another foreword to the Guide, V. K. Gupta, director general of the Central Public Works Department in the same ministry notes, "The historic environment is more than just a matter of material remains. It is central to how we see ourselves as individuals, communities and a nation. It is a physical record of what our country is and how it came to be."
Looking after heritage structures is not only culturally beneficial but also financially remunerative. A prime example is the Taj Mahal Hotel envisioned by industrial pioneer Jamsetji Tata. The old Taj room rates are sometimes double that of the multistoried tower situated adjacent to it and built in the 1970s. Only the wealthy or individuals on corporate expense accounts can afford a room in the grand old wing.
Trusts such as the Garib Zarthostiona Rehethan Fund and the R. D. Sethna Charities have won awards from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for the preservation of their historic buildings. Dr Vispi Jokhi, the new medical director of Masina Hospital that is housed on a seven-and-a-half-acre plot that once belonged to the Jewish millionaire David Sassoon plans to use the heritage complex with its sylvan surroundings to advantage in marketing the Hospital and its services in a crowded, competitive market. Plans to revamp the old structures and develop the landscape are in progress with prominent conservation architect Vikas Dilawari to be taken on board to refurbish the Byculla property.
With the community numbers fast depleting, preserving historic structures may be the only way to keep our meager presence before the public. If there is no institution to preserve the past, our Parsi statues may well one day land up in the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale (Shivaji’s mother) Udyaan (formerly known as Victoria Gardens) next to the displaced statues of our erstwhile colonial rulers.