How Parsis Came to Love Western Classical Music


February 29, 2024

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Tracing a tiny Mumbai community’s journey with a niche art form

At any Western classical music performance that I attend in Mumbai, the audience is always a sea of elderly Parsis. (Parsis are a tiny community of Zoroastrians who migrated from Iran to India in the eighth century.) There were the regulars: the elderly gentleman with a scimitar nose, bobbing his head in time to the music; the sari-clad grandmother, impeccably attired and dignified. It is a running joke that if anyone wanted to finish our community off in one go, the easiest way would be at a Western classical performance.

Article by Meher Mirza | VAN Magazine


But why is a minority community in Mumbai associated with this art form from Europe? For this, we must scroll back to the time when India was fettered by colonialism.

Across India, the British hoped to contour a simulacrum of an idealized British world, opening British-only clubs, hosting balls and throwing classical music concerts. A fistful of elite urban Parsis and Indian Christians, somewhat more “Westernized” than other communities, with facility in English and reading Western musical notation, later attempted to engage with some of these aspects of British culture. (For such Parsis, sculpting a lifestyle drawn from both Western and Indian cultures might have seemed forward-looking and progressive.) Orchestras and audiences, often a sea of white, slowly became checkered with a few Indian faces.

An article in the Parsi Times pointed out that “When the great soprano Emma Albani sang in Bombay around 1914, she noted that ladies in beautiful pink sarees were very appreciative of the typically English repertoire she sang. These were Parsis.”

In 1930, composer and violinist Merwanji (Mehli) Cassinath formed a 14-piece orchestra made up entirely of young Parsis. This Young Men’s Parsi Orchestra was “more of a string band,” wrote the newspaper Mid-Day in 1983, “although they did have piano, clarinet, C-melody sax, bass and drums.”

Between 1890 and 1934, Miss Bhikaiji Limjibhoy Palamkote, a gritty Parsi musical impresario, author and advocate for women’s education, tutored hundreds of students in Western music, dispatching 344 for examinations held by the Trinity College of Music, purportedly even donating Rs 25,000 (roughly $9,000 today) to the college as awards for students who passed with distinction.

In 1921, the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, helmed by German conductor Edward Behr, employed at least three Indian musicians on strings. According to a 1920 issue of the Times of India, Behr had earlier appealed to the local municipality for funds (none came) to shape an orchestra of men and women: “Mahomedans, Hindus, Parsis, Goanese, Anglo-Indians, in short, of any musical talent to be found in this country strengthened by capable European players in different sections of the band.” A year after his first appeal, he wrote again to the Times, saying somewhat cholerically, “I am convinced that, if musical matters are to be improved in this city, the effort must come from the music makers and lovers themselves, and that it is no good waiting for a fairy god-mother in the shape of the Municipality or the Turf Club to shower funds for the purpose until they realise there is real need for such a thing.”

A Parsi philanthropist, Jehangir Petit, ended up supporting the initiative. The first performances of the BSO, in November and December 1921 at the Excelsior Theatre, showed a great deal of promise—even though a Bombay Chronicle columnist did plead for the addition of a humorous monologue or recitation to razor the monotony of “a number of Orchestral classics which would otherwise have to appear on the programme in succession.”

Behr’s orchestra lasted only a few years, but in 1935, a new one sprang up. It was founded by Mehli Mehta, a Parsi violinist tutored by Cassinath, and Belgian conductor Jules Craen. Throughout the 1940s, articles in the Times of India and the Bombay Chronicle praised Mehta’s (and Craen’s) performances as “superb,” “brilliant,” having “sparkling technique,” and Mehta as “India’s leading violinist.” One article in 1949 lamented that “artists of the calibre of Mehli Mehta have to make the best of our existing hall”—this was the Cowasji Jehangir Hall, known for its uneven acoustics (now converted into the National Gallery of Modern Art). Mehta would later move to the U.S., founding and helming the American Youth Symphony for decades. His son, Zubin Mehta, became one the world’s most famous conductors.

Even after the yoke of colonialism was cast off, Mumbai kept seeding musicians, many of whom belonged to the Parsi community. The Time & Talents’ Club, a group of women who organize concerts, draws an unbroken line from 1934 to today, when it was begun by Gool Shavaksha. Peopled by a clot of upper-crust Parsi women, the Club boosted the city’s cultural scene by wrangling concerts with everyone from the Berlin Chamber Orchestra to Yehudi Menuhin, then distributing the proceeds to the less privileged.

The only other community in India with the training for and interest in classical music to produce professional performers was the Christian community, which birthed brilliant musicians such as Vere da Silva; he founded the city’s first string quartet and later, the Bombay City Orchestra. Goans and East Indian musicians came to undergird most orchestras and bands across the country.

Clearly, the Parsis absorbed Western music as deeply as they took to cricket—like fish to water— and were “amongst the first Indians to develop a taste for Western classical music,” writes Naresh Fernandes in his book Taj Mahal Foxtrot. As a tiny minority seeking a new home in India, such social syncretism was crucial. Parsis had absorbed strands of various cultures, yielding their Persian tongue, dress and some social and religious customs for Indian ones. Similarly, centuries later, there followed a cultural collusion where elite Indians constructed themselves within the image of the British and adopted an Anglophile ethos, one of several minorities at the time to do so. Under colonialism, a few wealthy Parsis even hired English governesses, who taught the children of the household to play the piano and the violin. And since the community was centered largely in Mumbai, this is where the classical scene eventually pooled (although cities such as Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata have conservatories of their own, and continue to host infrequent concerts).

A quick aside: Goa also has a vibrant classical music community, stretching all the way back to Portuguese colonization in the 16th century. “The Portuguese, who had ruled Goa since 1510, neglected higher education almost completely but in 1545 established parochial schools that put into place a solid system of musical training,” writes Fernandes. “Boys were taught to play an instrument, usually the violin, musical theory and how to read Western-style scores.”

Still, the specter of failure would continually cast its shadow on Indian performers, shackled as they were by wince-inducing taxes (25 percent until ten years ago, for fear Western classical would draw audiences away from Indian art forms), expensive instruments, an uneven audience and wobbly infrastructure for anyone contemplating a career in music.

Yehudi Menuhin, visiting India for six weeks in 1953, wrote in the Bombay Chronicle that he believed it necessary for the Indian government and people to organize an institution on a national scope for Western music, and deemed it essential for an Indian to be its director. He went on to suggest Dr. Narayan Menon of All India Radio in New Delhi and Mehli Mehta, who he felt were “well equipped to supervise the training of staffs and to preserve the interests of Indian music.” The enterprise should be bent towards education, Menuhin continued: “In the same manner that we of the Western world study an art foreign to us, the Greek theatre, for example, which we study carefully though we would not consider it a replacement for our own native expressions in the theatre.”

This too would eventually become a Parsi enterprise: Mumbai’s National Centre of Performing Art, a multi-venue theater inaugurated by Parsi industrialist J R Tata and Dr. Jamshed Bhabha in 1969. The theater was meant as a repository of India’s vivid cultural traditions. In a newspaper interview, P L Deshpande, the Marathi author-musician and Honorary Director of the NCPA, explained that “The basic genesis, the raison d’etre of the NCPA, is the perpetuation, development and preservation of the Indian legacy of the performing arts, which depends mainly on oral tradition. We always knew that we could never hope to emulate other centres, like the Lincoln Centre and the Kennedy Centre in the US, or the Festival Hall in the UK, whose budgets run into hundreds of crores.” The NCPA started small, but eventually grew to include a belt of theaters wedged between the expensive Oberoi hotel, and a redoubt of tetrapods that open out into the Arabian sea. Each venue is distinct: the bowl of the Sunken Garden scooped out of the ground; the vast marbled halls of the Jamshed Bhabha theatre; the Experimental Theatre with its entirely reconfigurable interiors; the vast Tata amphitheater and its revolving stage; the cosy Little Theatre; and so on.

For years, audiences came to the NCPA for a Marathi lavaani performance or a Hindustani classical concert. From 1969 to 1974, the NCPA website says, “most of the leading exponents of the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions were recorded” for their archives. This musical plurality continues to this day, although the NCPA has come to be known as a bastion of Western music. Its Parsi chairman, Khushroo Suntook, founded the Symphony Orchestra of India (India’s first and only professional symphony orchestra) in 2006. He brought in British-Parsi conductor Zane Dalal as its Associate Music Director and Kazakh violinist-conductor Marat Bisengaliev as its Music Director. In fact, the SOI has more Kazakh and international musicians than Indian.

Nonetheless, in a country already rich with its own musical traditions, Western music would remain a largely separate world, seemingly unassimilable. It had long suffered a corrugated history in India, often dismissed as a frivolity enjoyed by a closed circle at best, or a musty vestige of colonialism at worst. Amid India’s vast composites of class, caste, religion, and language, many considered it constrained and elitist; fewer still even knew what it was. Honorary director Deshpande complained to the press, “I have still to understand the connotation of the word ‘elitist’ when it is applied to the NCPA.”

But most indicting of all? The fanged suggestion that this music was dull, relegated to the realm of the old fogy.  

That view of classical music persists even among Parsis. “Of course, I used to think all this Bach Beethoven stuff was boring,” millennial Dinyar Boga tells me. “I would leave it to my parents to attend all these concerts, which they religiously would.” Boga is convinced Parsis are shackled to the past. As someone who grew up listening to “this Bach Beethoven stuff” (and whose mother was an assiduous piano student) though, I do look forward to an occasional concert—nothing quite replaces the thunder and thrill of a live performance.  

There lies a chasm between Boga and sexagenerian Tehmi Patel. For Patel, attending a classical music concert—especially during the winter “season” at the NCPA—was a time for (restrained) revelry, requiring an appropriate choice of formal clothes, and dinner with other concert-attending friends after. “Of course, I never miss a show if I can help it,” says Patel. “I enjoy opera, ballet, the orchestra, all of it.” Patel, like many older Parsis, also enjoys old Hindi film songs and pop music like ABBA and the Beatles. Embracing the one did not equal foregoing the other.

Like Patel, half the audience for such performances is built of affluent elderly Parsis. Similarly, the list of patrons of the Symphony Orchestra of India reads like a Yellow Pages of the community. And therein lies the rub.

Never a large community, the Parsis today are a pinprick in the ocean of India thanks to critically low birth rates. Less than 70,000 exist worldwide; death rates outnumber births. Naturally, there are fewer Parsi musicians, not least because music is not considered a viable job option. The community itself is gently fading into memory. Author Aakar Patel wrote in a column in 2009, “Fifty years later, [after Indian Independence], classical music is dead everywhere in India except South Bombay. And here it is dying as one community depopulates.”

But this is perhaps too bleak a view. Music schools such as Furtados’ and The Mehli Mehta Foundation are inspiring greater engagement with younger generations of music from diverse communities and incomes. The indefatigable nonagenarian Jini Dinshaw continues to teach students for free, and hosts concerts every so often. The NCPA’s SOI Music Academy has sculpted young talents such as Nyra Jain, Gauri Khanna, Aneesha Vora, Meghna Mathur, Soli Nallaseth and Pranaya Jain—only one of these names is Parsi—and is sending teachers into municipal schools as well. Ballet is steepling in popularity amongst the elite. A stream of schoolchildren are choosing to learn the piano, the cello, the violin, and the viola, if nothing else than to facilitate entry into colleges abroad. In numerous interviews, Suntook points out that younger audience members are swelling in number. Could this be a second coming? As a concertgoer, my fingers remain crossed.