Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

A Treasure Chest For An Opera House

Jamshed Bhabha’s NCPA will remain on song thanks to a generous endowment.

Until a few years ago, at most concerts held at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai, two plum seats were sacrosanct. A few minutes before the curtains went up, a diminutive man would take his place in that seat and the evening’s programme would begin. The man was Dr Jamshed Bhabha, who dreamed and gave Mumbai the NCPA, and in doing so also gave India its only Opera House. It was only fitting that the best seats in the house were reserved for him.

By Amy Fernandes | Hindu Business Online

Cut to the present day. Bhabha is no more. He passed away in May 2007, but his legacy lives on, not only in the NCPA (which in the midst of its bi-annual seasons of the Symphony Orchestra of India is filled with the declining numbers of Parsis who gave Mumbai its flair, finesse and industry), but also in his magnanimous gesture of donating the proceeds of priceless objects of his estate to the NCPA. By the time you read this, hundreds of bidders will have bid manically for the furniture, carpets, silverware, glassware, tableware, sarees, chandeliers, jewellery, watches and more. Even an antique music stand and a four-poster bed! It was evident from the frantic and furious jottings people made on slips of paper as they toured his bungalow examining all these majestic pieces.

Here’s the beautiful part. Almost everything on display — except for certain pieces of jewellery — were out there for you to touch and feel. The fact that auction neophytes would want to bid for just about everything is another thing, but the beauty of this auction conducted by Pundole’s, unlike others, is that people were able to get a close look at what they bid for. What a motley crowd there was. While a group of young people checked out writing instruments, gushing over the Cartier Gold Telescopic Calendar Pencil, a Bohri family expertly studied a set of 18 hand-painted Royal Doulton dessert plates. Elsewhere a young Parsi woman was hyperventilating over a range of Bohemian wine glasses, then rushing to the parasol stand and jotting the bidding numbers there. A very distinguished looking elderly couple made copious notes of the beautiful Parsi brooches that women used to wear on their saree pallus, while others like me could only sigh from table to table, marvelling at a gentleman’s impeccable taste for the good things in life. Bhabha was evidently to the manor born.

And what a manor it is. Bhabha’s estate is a three-storey bungalow tucked away in Mumbai’s posh Malabar Hill area. It is not a landmark. Rather, it sits on the edges of what seems like a forest in a city of crass concrete. The balconies overlook a soothing canopy of lush green that stretches for miles and in the greater distance your eyes hit the regular Mumbai skyline. But right now, you don’t even want to look that far. You’re torn between staying on and breathing fresh oxygen from the forest, or going back indoors and checking out the goods before closing time. There is so much to see!

The ground floor is laid out with glassware and silver services. Clearly, since there are no barriers, you are encouraged to touch and feel these pieces. But most of us are aware of that clumsy accidental moment that comes unannounced, and so we desist. We feast our eyes on Art Nouveau vases and a Lalique Boudoir Lamp base — frosted crystal with etchings of deer on it. We drool over a cut-glass fish-shaped silver claret jug and marvel at the variety of cut-glass decanters. In a corner are displayed magnificent Tanchoi fabrics and sarees; not to miss the famous Ghara — a painstakingly petit-point embroidered borders for sarees.

We take the lift to the second floor. The lift double-doors made of wood panelling (clearly not an option in modern times) still close in sync and transport us to another area laden with more goodies. Having lived in a Parsi household, I find myself on somewhat familiar ground as I inspect the furniture, a wooden two-door wardrobe with mirrors, a four-poster bed, a sun-face cabinet, all reminiscent of a genteel Parsi household. Elegant walking sticks were stacked in a corner, a variation of which my father proudly owns. Mother-of-pearl handles to the flatware take me back to a childhood where we were taught to set the table and eat like English folk, a practice long discarded in the hurly burly of India’s post-Independence lives.

As we walk down the solid wooden staircase with wooden banisters, all still immaculately maintained, we arrive at a viewing gallery of jewellery. A three-piece antique emerald, diamond and pearl necklace takes your breath away. A jeweller we know is scribbling the number 556 for a bid he wants to make for this. It’s marked at Rs 15 lakh to Rs 20 lakh but he believes it will hit the hammer at Rs 45 lakh (the price of a one-bedroom apartment in Mumbai’s distant cluttered suburbs). As we go to press, it eventually went for a few crores. Numerous little alcoves and passages of the house display various objets d’art, from art deco furniture to a gallery with fine jewellery encased in a showcase. This is what luxury is all about. It’s not about flashing your rocks but in the choices you make in your everyday life. It’s as Erma Bombeck says in her final pieces, about using the best crockery and cutlery you have for ordinary meals in your lives. About cladding your bed with the best linen, about choosing a small strand of invaluable pearls over a khichdi of expensive baubles. It’s what made Bhabha a man of immeasurable taste. And we in Mumbai were immensely lucky to get a glimpse of it.

As we were leaving, a jolly round man greets us. He’s rushing in before closing time to have a look-see. He looks familiar but I can’t place him. “He’s the man behind the counter at the bania store,” my partner reminds me. Indeed. And that too is the wonderful part of the all-inclusive spirit of this auction. Everyone’s invited.