Sunday, March 18, 2018

Meher Mahino, Ava Mahino and Adar Mahino: The holy trinity of Zoroastrian calender

Zoroastrians- or better knows as Parsis and Iranis of India- have a separate calendar. We look at the English calendar of course, but we also follow the Zoroastrian calendar. So, we celebrate two birthdays, two anniversaries and so on. Like in English calendar, there are 12 months in the Zoroastrian calendar. Each month and each day has a religious name (in Avesta language, which ironically no one in the world speaks anymore) and connotation attached to it. Our calendar begins on around 21 August; after the Parsi new year. But each month in our calendar has 30 days fixed. Which is why, our calendar gets over around five, non-month, days before the new year. Like all months and days, these special five days also have special names attached to them.

Of all the months in the Zoroastrian calendar, I have a particular affiliation towards Meher, Ava and Adar months. The Meher month, the first of this trinity, comes sometime around mid-February. Then comes the Ava month and then the Adar month. It's the onset of summer, and while I don't really like the scorching heat of Mumbai, I like summers because it reminds me of the holiday season. It is usually the time when I start planning for my first big holiday of the year.

According to an article by Ramiyar Karanjia, a Zoroastrian priest and the principal of a priestly school based in Mumbai, the month of Meher, named after the Meher Yazad (angel) is "associated with light. He looks after all cosmic lights, including the sun light. He also looks after the atmospheric spheres, wide spaces and expanses. He is the lord of rituals and ritual spaces. On account of this, a Zoroastrian house of worships, especially in Iran and the west, is referred to as a Dare-Meher or Darbe-Meher, which means "House of Meher Yazad"".

The Ava month, which follows the Meher month, is named after the angel who looks after water. And the Adar month that follows the Ava month, is named after the angel that looks after the fire. Another month in the Zoroastrian calendar, called Ardibehest, is also for fire. The birthday of our Udwada fire temple, the highest order fire temple for Zoroastrians, falls in the Adar month and on a day that's also named Adar.

As far as common men like me are concerned, we go to the Aslaji agiary (fire-temple) in Meher month and on a specific day which is also named after the Meher Yazad. Aslaji agiary is a very popular one in south mumbai and many Parsis / Iranis visit it, especially every fridays. It was- and still is- believed that if you go there every Friday for about 7-9 Fridays consecutively, any wish gets fulfilled. These are things we used to believe in, in our growing up years. During my college days in the late 1990s, my friends and I used to visit Aslaji Agiary regularly, almost every Friday. But in later years, on account of office and working hours, I don't go there as much as I'd like, but I still try and make it a handful of times in a year. Ofcourse, over time, we all overgrow (hopefully) the need to go to a temple only to get our wishes fulfilled and more so because we really want to go there and just pray and be thankful; be it on Fridays or Mondays or any other day.

The Aslaji Agiary is located in a lane that is steeped into history <>. On Meher marino (month) and Meher roj (day), there is a queue to get inside the Aslaji agiary in the mornings. Office goers prefer to start their day with their annual visit, on this day. Many of course would be going there regularly. The Agiary has a loft where you can light diyas (lamps). This loft is made available for lamps only on this day of the year because it caters to a large crowd.

The next month Ava, as I said, is devoted to water. Just like the Meher mahino, there is one day in the Ava month that is special. This day, coincidentally, is also named Ava. On this day, we do special prayers standing near a well, any well, be they in our homes (old houses in Gujarat still have wells in their backyards) or one that's in a Zoroastrian fire temple's courtyard. Every fire-temple has a well. But Zoroastrians' most famous well in Mumbai is the Bhikha Behram well, at Churchgate, at the southern end of the Cross Maidan. The well and its stone canopy are decorated with beautiful stained glass.

The Bhikha Behram well 

Zoroastrians praying at the Bhikha Behram well

The site at Marine Drive / Chowpatty (opposite the Taraporewala  aqaurium where Zoroastrians congregate to offer their prayers to the water (Arabian Sea) 

 Old and young; some prayers, some chit-chatting, some get-togethers, some catching up


so many Parsis at one place

Every year on Ava month and Ava day, there is an elaborate prayer ceremony performed by many priests and attended by many Zoroastrians. I think there's one in the morning and another in the evening; I usually attend the evening. The well's compound, which usually wouldn't be seeing more than 5 Parsis / Iranis at any given time of the year, would be filled by atleast 100 Parsis on this day, during the prayer ceremony. After the prayers here get over, I catch bus No. 123 and go to Chowpatty, near the Tarapore fish aquarium, on the sea front. It's my favourite place to be, especially on this day as you can see a congregation of Parsis there. Most of them are praying in front of the Arabian sea as Ava Mahino is devoted to water. For many it is like a family picnic. Children are making merry on the wide pavement, the older Parsis concentrating on their prayer books from where they read their prayers from. There is the occasional photographer from one of the Parsi publications clicking the ceremonial pictures. It is the only time of the year where you will see more Parsis than those of any other community, at Chowpatty. Usually, we are outnumbered.

People lighting diyas at Marine Drive / Chowpatty

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Opera House is not just Opera House

We take our city for granted and choose to oblivious of its past and heritage, partly out of ignorance, and partly because we think since it's so close by, we could check it out anytime. But we don't. It took me around 30 years after I was born to visit Mani Bhawan, Mahatma Gandhi's residence in Mumbai, when people from the world over come to Mumbai to see just this place. Mani Bhawan is five minutes' walk from my house. It took me around 40 years to explore Banganga; one of the oldest civilisation places in India with a rich history. Banganga is a 5-minute drive from my house.

Opera House area is another example. Just about 10 minutes walk from my home, I have grown to see the area change its official name from Opera House to Pandit Paluskar Chowk, that it is known now. But it took me years, just a few weeks ago to be precise, to find out who Pt. Paluskar was and why this area got re-named after him. Not that Opera House was inappropriate; there is that grand building still, called the Opera House, formerly called the Royal Opera House that was inaugurated during the visit of King George V and Queen Mary when they visited Bombay in 1911 and passed by the road that overlooks the Opera House.

My earliest memories of Opera House area were largely for Deepak Commerce Classes (DCC); my coaching class for accountancy and taxation subjects that I studied in college. The tuitions class wound up many years ago and Professor Deepak moved on to other things in life, far away and disconnected from most of his former students. Only his memories remain now. Located on Avantika Bai Gokhale Marg- one of Opera House area's bylines- the crowd of students that used to throng the street, especially during afternoons when most of the sessions used to happen, are no longer to be seen. The lane was- and still is- a mecca for auto spare parts. But it was here- probably in the same building where Deepak Commerce Classes once stood- where a revolution once took shape. 

Raghunath Dhondo Karve, son of Maharshi Karve, lived here. Raghunath was considered to be the pioneer of women’s sexual rights in India. He was a Mathematics professor at Wilson college, a nearby college that still exists in its full glory on Chowpatty. But he felt that women should also enjoy a certain degree of sexual freedom and that family planning should be one. But people in those days ostracized him. Conservatives who shunned contraceptives and family planning objected to his teachings and philosophy and he soon lost his job at the Wilson college. Siddarth Fondekar, a guide at Awestrich, another local culture and heritage walk outfit tells me that his grandmother used to live in the same building as Raghunath Dhondo Karve. His house was on the ground floor. Apparently, he was so good at Mathematics, that students from Wilson College used to come to his house for private tuitions. He also established the first family planning clinic at his house on those days. All done discreetly, ofcourse.

My other memories of Opera House was this busy road where the vast diamond centre is located (now shifted to Bandra-Kurla complex), the Roxy theatre where nobody goes, and scores of shops selling television and electronics. Ofcourse whenever I used to go to my tuitions, I used to often wonder why there are so many auto spare parts shops there. It's like an industry there; it still is.

In reality, Ami Parikh, the host for our Opera House heritage walk by Khaki Tours tells us, Opera House was not just an art district. It was an eco-system of art, culture, literature, music, publishing, photography and all that sort of thing. Such was the talent pool that once lived here, the joke among the culture vultures is that if Padma Bhushan awards were to be given today, every building would have an awardee. Today of course, Kala Ghoda is Mumbai's official art district. 

Parikh tells us that the way the Bombay city grew, Opera House area came to be a natural venue for performing and fine arts. To the south- actually south of the St. Thomas Cathedral, Fountain, there was the white town and to the north of the Church (all the way up to Opera House) was the native town. But as the rich natives slowly settled at Malabar Hill, this area came “became a sweet spot between the classes and the masses”, says Parikh. She adds that towards the turn of the 20th century, the princely states were declining and arts- which was hitherto the bastion of the princely states- needed patronage to survive. The emergence of Opera House brought arts to the general public and Opera House, because of its prevailing infrastructure, became the natural venue. 

And Pandit Paluskar- after whom the chowk of Opera House is named after- can take loads of credit. Parikh tells that in earlier times, music was taught only among the confines of gharanas (households). A gharana is a closed-door association, usually headed by a music maestro (guru), who imparts musical training to his students (shishyas) who become part of the guru’s household for the duration of their musical studies. A gharana would take the name of the city or place where it was founded, like the Agra gharana, Jaipur gharana, Bhendi Bazaar gharana and so on. You had to be a nobleman to be able to be able to patronize classical music. Or you had to visit the kothas (brothels). 

The concept of a ticketed concert, where ordinary citizens can go and enjoy music, was not known then. Pt. Paluskar changed that. He established the first music college ever with written courses (till then, there was no written record of Indian classical music as the gharanas would not let out their secrets to outsiders) called Gandharva Mahavidhayalaya. “Anyone who has learnt- or aspires to learn- Indian classical music has to thank Pt. Paluskar”, says Parikh. His student, Professor Deodhar, went a step ahead. He opened India’s first class for Indian classical music for those who just wished to spare a few hours a day or a week to learn. This school- Professor Deodhar’s School of Indian Music (Sarojini Naidu’s sister who was also a student here, gave the school this name)- is still operational today and like an ode to his master, is located on Pt. Paluskar Chowk, at the foot of the French Bridge. Parikh- who herself has dabbled in Indian classical music- proudly tells us that her nephew and niece attend classes here. 

Although the Blavatsky Lodge is built in colonial architectural style, it has definitive Indian influences in its facade, like this balcony with its lattice (jali) work 

At the other end of the French Bridge is the Blavatksy Lodge, headquarters of the Theosophy Society of India. The foundation stone commemorates George Arundale, whose wife Rukmini Devi was a Bharatanatyam dancer. Parikh tell us that up until then, Bharatanatyam was practiced by devdasis (or temple dancers) and wasn’t really considered a respectable art form. “Rukmini Devi did a lot of work and revived the art form, made it more respectable, and today almost anyone can learn and practice Bharatanatyam.” 

The Blavatksy Lodge- built in colonial architectural style but lot of Indian influences, particularly from Rajasthan built in- was also a venue for concerts. Parikh tells us that this place saw the first time ever that three music stalwarts of their time- Alladiya Khan who founded the Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana and who used to live right across the road, Faiyyaz Khan of the Agra Gharana and Abdul Karim Khan who founded the Kirana Gharana. 

Some of the earliest music recordings were also done at the Blavatksy Lodge. Most notably was the soulful rendition ‘Jaat Kahan Ho’ by Surshri Kesarbai Kerkar. This 3 minute 30 seconds song is part of the Golden Record, that went on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts in the 1970s. The gold-plated copper golden phonograph records contain ‘the sounds of the earth’ that is intended to introduce the earth- per se- to aliens, if and when they are found. Kesarbai Kerkar’s ‘Jaat Kahan Ho’ is India’s representation to that record. It gives you goosebumps if you didn’t already know this. Listen to the song here; her rendition is hauntingly beautiful. 

"Jaat Kahan Ho" - by Keserbai Kerkar

The house of painter Sawlaram Haldankar. The French Bridge under which this house stands, is now renamed as Haldankar bridge.

The area has other secrets. The house of Sawlaram Haldankar, a renowned painter who once famously ordered his daughter to stop just as she was entering the house with a lamp, one evening, and painted her on canvas; a painting which is often mistakenly attributed to Raja Ravi Varma. 

The lady with the Lamp painting; Haldankar's daughter

Haldankar's daughter then & now. She is alive is said to be in her late 90s and living somewhere with her family in Pune

Nearby, the Kennedy Bridge (eulogized by Sadat Hassan Manto as Pavanpul in few of his stories), begins at the foot of the house that once belonged to Anjalibai Malpekar; Raja Ravi Verma’s muse. Known for her beauty and voice, she was given poisoned paan (beetel leaf) by her rivals. Her voice eventually recovered, but she gave up performing and became a music teacher. 

The house where Anjalibai Malpekar, Raja Ravi Verma's muse, once lived.

A Raja Ravi verma painting and in it, his muse, Anjalibai Malpekar

Mumbai's quintessential, but disappearing, chawls

At the other end of the Kennedy Bridge lies the Jyoti Studios compound where modern day Indian cinema was born. The first talking movie in Indian cinema, Alam Ara, was shot there under the Imperial Movietone, a production house owned by Ardeshir Irani and Dadasaheb Torne. Today, the bridge is named after him and is called, Irani Bridge. The Kapoor khandan patriarch, Prithviraj Kapoor, made his silver screen debut here. Mehboob Khan and Manto both worked out of this space as well.

The official poster of Majestic Taklies' Alam-Ara

B.V. Talim's studio and work in progress, (left; Sam Maneckshaw)

Nearby, past the Congress restaurant and what was once the headquarters of the Indian National Congress, is the B.V. Talim studio is tucked away in a corner of a busy and narrow street, off Lamington Road. I used to visit this area often during my college days because there is a very old Zoroastrian fire temple tucked away in one of the alleys here. The belief is that if you come for nine Fridays here, your wish gets fulfilled. I used to believe in all such short-cuts when I was growing up but as I realised much later, there are no shortcuts to prayer and sincerity. Then, I started visiting this temple whenever I could, not necessarily on Fridays. But even today, you get to see maximum crowds here on Fridays. The famous Queen Mary school is the end of this road; a classy school in an area that became notorious over the years, and not just because of the foul smell that is more a permanent resident here than anything or anyone else.

Coming back to Talim- whose studio is right opposite the fire temple- he was a famous sculptor in his day and was commissioned to make a statue of Sai Baba for the Shirdi temple. Now, while sculpting a portrait, you need a profile view as well as a full-face view. The worry was: how to create a life-like status if there is only one true photo of Sai Baba (that was clicked by DD Neroy and is still there at the DD Neroy Art Gallery; his erstwhile studio has been converted to an art gallery by his granddaughter) at nearby Sandhurst Bridge; every Thursday there is prayer ceremony or aarti there). 

The story, Parikh tells us, goes that he prayed to Sai Baba to help him make a statue that captured Sai Baba’s true likeness. One morning, Sai Baba appeared in front of him in his studio and told Talim to look at him and go ahead and make the statue. Sai Baba’s condition was that Talim would not make any other statues after this ever. Talim made the statue, which is at the Shirdi temple today. And he gave up making statues. His children and descendants still make statues. The Talim family went on to make many statues in Bombay at a time when statues were imported from the UK. We saw many statues, almost all political leaders you can imagine, in his workshop. I was particularly delighted to spot a statue of Sam Maneckshaw. 

We reach Lamington Road, cross over and stop in front of the Imperial Cinema. The cinema has two elephant statues  at the main entrance and two elephants’ statues at the back. What was once an orchestra theatre where silent movies were played with orchestra played at the background to give sense to the silent scenes, has now descended to be a shady place that shows soft pornographic movies and is a gay cruising spot. In recent times, Imperial Cinema got its 15-minute fame when popular music band Coldplay recorded its video ‘Hymn for a Weekend’ there. 

The Imperial Cinema. Notice the two elephants guarding the main gate. There are two other elephants at the back gate 

Nearby is the Swastik League. This was once a fascist organisation, but has now completely shred its past avatar and long abandoned its past. The organisation got disbanded and today, is into unrelated business, like a gym and physiotherapy centre. 

An old beauty in decay. The wooden balcony ventilators meant for summer climate, iron brackets, high ceilings

At the end of this lane is a crossroads – one of the lanes called Benham Hall Lane- this used to be the location of the Gandhava Mahavidyalaya before it shut down, and also of Deodhar’s School of Indian Music before it shifted to its current location. Another lane used to be lined with all the musical instrument shops, some of which still are in business. These doubled up as impromptu performance venues when maestros dropped by to check out instruments.

We come to Avantika Bai Gokhale Marg. Nearby, Raja Ravi Verma and his muse Malpekar used to meet frequently in this area because his first printing press and studio was at the end of this lane. He set up his own lithographic press here. Did you know that he had an apprentice by the name of Dadasaheb Phalke? Phalke was deployed to work for Raja Ravi Verma to learn the tricks of the printing press so that the rival could set up his own. That plan didn’t work out, though, for the rival. Phalke went on to make India’s first full-length movie called Raja Harishchandra in 1913 and came to be known as the father of Indian cinema.

Dadasaheb Phalke was provided with film for his first movie by the son of another pioneer who lived in this area. Cutch Castle building used to house India’s first photo studio to have a branch in London. Devare and Co. was the official photographer to most of the princely states in India, and his son, Narayan Devare was the one who procured the film for Phalke. He himself went on to become a movie director in the silent movie era.

Our last stop is at the Opera House theatre, but that's a topic for another day. But do join Khaki Tours in its future walks as it aims to show you Mumbai that's not just Fountain and Fort areas, but also what was once upon a time, the native areas, where one side of the city's culture grew.  

Opera House

Sunday, December 10, 2017

DakshinaChitra @ Chennai

An ordinary work meeting with an acquantaince in Chennai led to a beautiful discovery, called DakshinaChitra. DakshinaChitra, which literally means 'a picture of South' is a heritage museum, spread over about 10 acres of land, in the city of Chennai, the capital city of the Tamil Nadu state, in southern India. A foreigner lady named Dr. Deborah Thiagarajan married to an Indian, started the Madras Craft Foundation (MCF) with like-minded people and conceived the idea of showcasing the heritage of southern India, here in Chennai. DakshinaChitra was born out of MCF. Its founder, as well as Laurie Baker, a renowned architect behind DakshinaChitra, went to all the four southern Indian states; Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka, and literally transported houses to DakshinaChitra. Well, not entire houses, but as much as they could salvage, minus the concrete, but the doors, windows, roofs, tiles, kitchen / hall / bedroom and whatever else paraphernalia that they could bring. The idea was to showcase the culture of southern Indian through their homes.

The museum tells us that all the houses brought and reconstructed at DakshinaChitra had been given up for demolition by their owners. If the museum couldn't convince the owner to keep the house, the museum then purchased the houses from the timber merchants to whom the contract for demolition had been given. DakshinaChitra, then, entered into a contract with the merchant in which he agrees to install the timber, stone, laterite, tiles and any other salvageable material from the old house into the new construction for the house. The wood seen in these houses were cleaned several times before installation.

A drainage outlet to let the excess water out in the garden

 Tamilnadu merchant's house

The detailing inside a Tamilnadu merchant house 

 Tamil Nadu merchant's house. All the doors, windows, pillars and floorings have been transported from an existing merchant's house somewhere in Tamilnadu; dismantled and relocated here. It's a wonder how DakshinaChitra managed to accomplish that

 Inside a Tamil Nadu Brahmin's house

 This is an actual representation of a typical village street in Tamil Nadu. These houses, transported from Ambur village, belonged to the Brahmin community of Tamil Nadu.

 A Tamil Nadu Brahmin's house 

 A Syrian Christian home. The front of the house directly leads to the granary. And there is usually a cross at the top of the main door

 The detailing on the wood-carved ceiling of a Syrian Christian home

 Look at the beautifully carved bed in a typical Syrian Christian bedroom

 A Syrian Christian home is characterised by a "general emphasis on storage of food items, the well in the kitchen, the steeped roof and the long verandah". Christians make up around 19% of Kerala's population. 

 A latch found in a Syrian Christian home

 Inside the Granary. The cabinet with little drawers are where the species are stored. Notice the large storage bins at the top, made of clay. These large storage bins are also found in most Parsi homes, used to store pickles mainly and even rice / dal.

 The Granary (and the adjoining cowshed which is not seen in this picture); part of a Syrian Christian household. The British influence can be seen in the arches on the ground level.

This is a typical Chikmagalur district house. It was built by K.A. Mohamed Ismail in 1914. His ancestors had shifted from Turkey to Bijapur and later to Chikmagalur. The various artefacts in this home were outstanding. So well restored and well maintained.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Delhi diaries

It's been a long time since I have updated you about happenings this side. This past month, I've had the rare occasion to visit Delhi, three times. My first was during the Diwali week to see Delhi Diwali- my friends were our hosts- and the other two were work trips.

As an Indian, I've seen Diwali celebrations all these years. But I must say that the way Dilliwallas celebrate Diwali, is quite something. It is all very elaborate. The homes start to get decorated around 3-4 days before Diwali. On Diwali day, my hosts went to the Arya Same temple at Patel Nagar and a gurudwara nearby to light candles. Many people from the locality had come to light candles there.

Back home, it was time to turn on the lights and light candles all over the house. Then it was puja time. Although there were no guests on that day, there were guests on all other days over the Diwali week. One family would come, then another, and then yet another. Gifts are exchanged and looks like an old tradition. Nobody comes empty handed and nobody goes empty handed. It appears to be an old tradition. Wine and liquor flows and a lip-smacking sumptuous meal follows.

It's a back-breaking week though for those who celebrate Diwali with such pomp and vigour. Delhi homes are, anyway, so much bigger than those in Mumbai and on top of that elaborate decoration means that Diwali is a tiring tradition. I was just glad that I happened to be in Delhi during this year's Diwali as opposed to previous years' when fire-crackers were allowed. I am told the pollution due to the burning of fire crackers is usually so much that you can bare see what's in front of you a few feet away. This year, thanks to the ban on fire crackers, it was much better. Although fire crackers were back in full swing on the Diwali night, it wasn't as bad as previous years.

Got a chance to visit Rajghat where Mahatma Gandhi's cremation spot is there and so are those of many of our illustrious political leaders. It is a very peaceful place. Although it was searing hot, it was worth spending some time there. Mom and I also visited the Lotus Temple after which I gave her a taste of Delhi Metro, which is in my opinion, one of the best things in Delhi. By the way, I also now have my very own Delhi Metro pass. So yay! It feels awesome to just swipe my card and walk right in, instead of wasting time standing in queues. I am told the Delhi pass is now valid for 10 years, so makes sense since I go there every year.

 The Red Fort

Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk, Delhi

Humayun's Tomb

Humayun's Tomb

On my second trip, the Delhi Walk Festival was on, so that was a very pleasant coincidence. Anyways, I had enrolled for the Intach cycling tour of New Delhi, which was super fun. Intach takes great care and curates its weekend walk and cycling activities. Iteneries are well-planned and the hosts are always knowledgable. Here, in Mumbai, it is starting to make in-roads and have enlisted experts in their respective areas to do walks that they specialise in. So, Awestrich did its Parivartak (Social reforms; around Gamdevi and Opera House) walk, a leading lawyer once did a Chor Bazaar walk (you need someone experienced with Chor Bazaar to take you in and around Chor Bazaar and to the right shops, etc) and Alisha Sadikot did the Bandra walk. In Delhi, however, Intach is big and frequently organises weekend walks. I had attended the Rashtrapati Bhawan walk with Intach long ago so I am familiar with it.

This time, the cycle tour was also great. We stopped by Jawaharlal Nehru's residence (India's first prime minister; now a museum), but we didn't go inside. Then, onto the North and South blocks and the Rashtrapati Bhawan, home to India's President.

The next day, as part of Delhi Walk Festival, I attended the Humayun's Tomb walk. Our host was Ms. Sadia Dehlvi. She was a very knowledgable lady and enchanted us all with fascinating stories of Mughal-era Delhi and areas surrounding Humayun's Tomb, as also of Humayun and the tomb complex itself. It was an awesome 2-hour, early that morning. 

Meher Mahino, Ava Mahino and Adar Mahino: The holy trinity of Zoroastrian calender

Zoroastrians- or better knows as Parsis and Iranis of India- have a separate calendar. We look at the English calendar of course, but we al...