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(ARCHIVE) Vol. Vol. XVIII No. 14, november 1-15, 2008
The Parsis of Madras – 2
(By Zarin Mistry)

Significant contributors to the City

Before I set to talk of the individual contributions the Parsis had made to Madras, a brief note on the Irani Zoroastrians whom I should have referred to in the first part of this series.

The Iranis, who are different from the Parsis, migrated to India about 200 years ago, mainly due to economic deprivation and political harassment. The first Irani families came to Madras around 1900. They started the famous ‘Irani’ cafes. Many of readers will, no doubt, recall National Café on Mount Road and Café Zum Zum on Second Line Beach. These restaurants served wholesome food at reasonable rates. One of the most respected Iranis was Rustom F. Mazda, who set up what was probably the city’s first ice factory and cold storage, at the end of Pantheon Road where Albert Theatre now stands. The first Star Talkies at Round Tana was started by an Irani family and, later, it built Casino Theatre.

Talking of theatres, the old Elphinstone was built by the well-known ‘Theatre’ Madan family of Calcutta. The New Elphinstone was started by the famous Sohrab Modi and was managed by Parsis till it closed down in 1968. Wellington Talkies was an enterprise of the Dorabji family and all S.S. Vasan’s films were screened there.

And so to the Parsis’ contri­bution to the economic, social and cultural fabric of the city...

Hormusji Nowroji, President of the Parsi Anjuman for almost 45 years, designed the Fire Temple in Royapuram. He must have been a well-known personality in the city. Sadly, no records of his achievements exist and anyone who can fill in the gaps may please write in to Madras Musings.

The philanthropist-trader Phiroj M. Clubwala helped strengthen the foundation of the community in Madras. When his 14-year-old son Jal passed away, he donated the Fire Temple to the Anjuman, the first after a hundred years of residence by the community. He also built a block in the Anjuman Bagh and donated a large tract of land near his house to St. Kevin’s Presentation Convent and School – the best school for girls in North Madras, even today.

The Parsis’ Ecclesiastical Head in Madras, Ervad Peshotan Daji, “Pesi” as he was affectionately called, was associated with the Fire Temple for over 60 years. He started as an assistant priest mobed in 1924 when he was just 12. His grandfather (1913-38) and father (1938-68) managed the Fire Temple. Peshotan then took on the mantle and continued to serve the community till 1983. His devotion to the holy fire was put to test when, during World War II, Royapuram was evacuated. Peshotan, as a young priest, refused to close down the Fire Temple and stayed on alone to keep the fire burning

Dhun Building on Mount Road is a familiar landmark. One of the first high-rise constructions in Madras, it was built by Jehanbux H. Tarapore in memory of his wife, Dhun. A Civil Engineer from Guindy Engineering College, his career, spanning over 60 years, began in 1926. He set up the firm Tarapore & Co. in partnership with Loganatha Mudaliar. The Company constructed mega structures vastly diverse in type, form and utility. It was involved in the construction of dams such as the Tungabhadra, Sharavati, Hirakud dam and Farakka. Numerous factory complexes for steel, cement, copper, aluminium and textile industries were also built by the firm throughout India. Jehan­bux faced a major tragedy when, in a car accident, five of his family members died. That did not deter him from his commitment to build better. A charitable Trust the “J.H. Tarapore Foundation”, set up in 1979, annually supports various educational and health care institutions. Many physically and economically challenged persons have also benefited from the Trust. Another famous landmark, Abbotsbury owned by him, was donated to the Sathya Sri Sai Baba Trust. Jehanbux was appointed Sheriff of Madras in 1963.

Dorab B. Madan

Dorab “Dolly” Burjor Madan was from the Calcutta Madan family mentioned earlier. Leaving Calcutta for personal reasons, he started from scratch in Madras, riding a lady’s bicycle to work. He began in 1945 as Tata’s agent for distribution of mild steels and, years later, ended up as a Director in one of the Tata companies. Within 20 years of beginning life in Madras, he developed D.B. Madan & Co. into one of the leading shipping agencies in Madras and amassed a fortune for DSR Lines of East Germany and for his Russian principals, the Black Sea and Fesco companies. For his services, the Government of the USSR awarded him its highest civilian maritime honour for his 40-year association with its shipping business.

Minoo K. Belgamwala was a well-known figure in the world of motor sports and horse racing. He came to Madras in 1939 as the Regional Manager of the Asbestos Cement Limited and was later instrumental in starting their factory in Coimbatore in 1951. Basically an audio and radio electronics engineer, he was one of the founders of the Madras Motor Sports Club and served as its President for 18 years (which, incidentally, is a record). Minoo put the village of Sholavaram on the map of motor sports racing in India.

A keen rider, he was a race day official at the Madras Race Club for nearly 50 years. He served as Chief Judge for the last 25 years of his tenure. As Chairman of the Automobile Association of Southern India for 20 years, he represented India at various international conferences. He was President of the Parsi Anjuman for 25 years.

Aspy Litho Works was a familiar sight on General Patter’s Road. The founder, Arjasp Taraporwala, was a graduate in Philosophy from Madras Christian College. During the pre-Independence period, his father’s firm was well-known as a dealer in luxury motor cars. However, when the firm’s fortunes took a reversal during World War II, Arjasp took up military contracts, then in 1948 founded the litho press (later progressing to offset) to print cinema posters. Arjasp was a founder-member of the Madras Printers’ and Lithographers’ Association and was its President for some years. He was also Vice-Chairman and Patron of the Guild of Service.

Cinema in Tamil Nadu has always had a huge fan following and two Iranis contributed their skills to the flourishing industry. The first was the legendary Adi Merwan Irani who started his career with the Imperial Film Company of Bombay and by 1929 he had many firsts to his credit – first newsreel, aerial and underwater shots, trick photography and the favourite “double role” technique. Adi was always fine-tuning his art and filmed India’s first talkie Alam Ara. Adi moved to Madras in 1939 and worked on S.S. Vasan’s movies such as Kama­dhenu and Bala Nagamma. He then moved to Coimbatore to capture the mythological classic Haridas – which ran for a record three years!

From 1949 he worked for Vauhini Studios and Nagi Reddy Studios. He shot the famous Malleswari (which had the first crane shot in South India) and Prince & Pauper. Many directors were made because of his instinct as a cinematographer and he was held in great respect by stars like Gemini Ganesan, M.R. Radha and N.T. Rama Rao. He passed on his art to his son Mehli Irani who went on to become an award-winning cinematographer in the Malayalam film industry. The early development of Indian cinema was embellished by Adi’s sense of visual wonder and artistry.

A rags to riches story of true grit and determination is that of Dinshaw Tehrani, an unhappy young Zoroastrian in Iran who boarded a ship as a stowaway and landed in Madras empty-handed. He was working as a porter in Central Station when some Parsis working with the Connemara Hotel spotted him and, deciding to help, got him work in a film studio for doing odd jobs. It is a wonder how, speaking only his native Dari language, Dinshaw managed to pick up the basics of sound engineering. He became so proficient in his job that he was soon working for big studios. He eventually started Newtone Studios in Kilpauk as a partnership firm. Dinshaw produced Paal Kudam under his ‘Manijeh Cine Arts’ banner and recorded S.P. Balasubramaniam’s famous song Malligai Poo Vaanghi Van­dhen. He also recorded Bhanu­mathi’s famous song O! Paavuramma in the film Swarga Seema with a huge metallic bell hung over the mike, to give the song its dreamy, silken tone!

Newtone Studios was famous for producing many Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films. The interior shots of Meera, the well-known M.S. Subbulakshmi film, were taken here. Dinshaw worked on the audiography of this movie as well. It was directed by the famous Ellis R. Dungan. At one time, Dinshaw was the top sound engineer of the South. The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan School on Kilpauk Garden Road is on the site of this once-famous studio.

Dr. Meherji Maneckshaw Cooper

In Madras Medical College campus is a heritage building the “Red Fort”. It housed the Anatomy Department and one of its best-known professors was Dr. Meherji M Cooper. He started his teaching career in 1946. Simplifying this difficult subject for the thousands of students who passed out during his tenure was his passion. With his ever-ready wit and explicit diagrams, he made lecture sessions unforgettable. Meherji taught not just second but even third generation students. When he retired in 1979, he was Director, Institute of Anatomy, and Vice-Principal of the College. Cooper was elected a Fellow of the Madras Medical College. He was one of the founding members of the Anatomical Association of Tamil Nadu. He was also appointed Professor Emeritus of Stanley Medical College.

There is one luminary of yesteryears who was outstanding in the field of Social Service. More on her in the last part of this ­series.


In this issue

Power-hungry buildings...
Political rallies...
The Parsis of Madras...
German Photographers...
Historic residences...
On the Bookshelves...
Will Tamil Nadu...
Fire and Ice in Kuwait
Other stories in this issue...

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