Tehnaz Bahadurji: What’s it Like to be a Parsi ?

Just as the matriarch of the Tamil household in Chennai dots her porch with a kolam at the crack of dawn every day, women of the Parsi community pretty up theirs with what they call a ‘chalk’.

Parsi

“It’s just like the kolam, except we have readymade tins with holes designed in them so all we need to do is fill them with rice flour and tap them on the ground,” said Tehnaz Bahadurji, a Parsi resident of Chennai, who spoke on the history, culture and practices of her community at Alliance Francaise on Tuesday. Her lecture, which was organised by the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), traced how the Parsis migrated to India, how they trickled into Chennai and finally, how they live and, most important, dine.

While the first wave of Parsis settled in Gujarat centuries ago, the first Parsi to come to Chennai was Heerjibhai Kharas, who came here in the 1800s, said Bahadurji, who added that the government gave the community land in 1814, on which a Fire Temple was built more than a century later. The Parsi Fire Temple celebrated its centenary in the city in 2010.

Bahadurji then went on to list the famous Parsis past and present in Chennai – the most prominent among them being social activist and philanthropist Mary Clubwallah Jadhav (who died in 1975), who received the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan from the government.
“The Parsis and Iranis were also involved in the cinema industry in Chennai. We built four theatres – the Elphinstone Theatre, the New Elphinstone Theatre, Wellington Theatre, and the Casino Theatre (which still stands on Anna Salai),” said Bahadurji.

When she got to the culture of the Parsi community, which has now dwindled to just 60,000 people in India, Bahadurji spoke of how several traditions were on the verge of dying out. The tradition of the ‘thoran’ for instance, which was used to decorate the doors of Parsi homes.

When she spoke of the ‘gaara’, the Parsi saree, Bahadurji talked of how in the old days women wore their sarees over their heads with only one ear exposed. “That’s the reason why you will find that Parsi jewellery sets in the old days came with only one earring. The jewelers probably figured they did not have to bother making two since the women always had one ear covered,” she said.