Armenians Celebrate Kolkata Link

Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey

Times of India
menians_celebrate_Kolkata_link/articleshow/3706527 .cms
Nov 13 2008

KOLKATA: It was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and no member of the
Armenian community who has ever lived in the city wanted to miss it.

Hundreds of them flew in from across the globe to be part of the
celebrations to mark 400 years of the community in the city and the
tercentenary of the Holy Nazareth Church on Armenian Street.

On Wednesday, when all of them trooped into the Armenian College
grounds on Free School Street, you would be forgiven for mistaking
it for a neighbourhood in Armenia. It was a pleasant sight for those
who’ve stayed on in the city.

The community has been reduced to just 35 families now, but at their
height of glory in the early 20th century, Armenians — led by famous
men like J C Galstaun, the racing mogul, and Arathoon Stephen, the
real estate czar — numbered 30,000. Wednesday’s gala event, with a
host of cultural programmes, must have been a reminder of old times.

People had flown in from the UK, US, Turkey, Iran, Australia and
a number of other countries for the celebrations. Many of them had
studied or taught at the Armenian College many years ago and had left
for foreign shores.

Take the case of Father Kegham, who came from California and returned
to the city after 36 years. He was the parish priest of the Armenians
in the city between 1964 and 1972 and had come from Jerusalem to take
charge. "The very thought of visiting my favourite city once again was
enough to pull me out of home even at this age. A lot has changed,
the crowd are bigger and there’s more traffic today, but there’s no
missing the warmth of this place," he said.

His thoughts were echoed by Richard Hovannisian, a retired teacher of
Armenian at the University of California, Los Angeles, who returned to
the city after 50 years. "I came as a student and spent a few years
here. Those days the city teemed with Armenians and there were rows
of bungalows and bread-and-breakfast joints owned by them. Today I
see none. The community also led an active club life and I was a part
of that. Did you know that most of the ghats along Hooghly were built
by the Armenians?" Richard asked.

And then there was Assadour Guzelian, who flew down from the UK. He
taught at the College between 1957 and 1964 and then returned to
UK to start The Sun, a celebrated Armenian newspaper and the London
Armenian Monthly, a periodical.

"I was very close to linguist Suniti Chattopadhyay, who authored books
on famous Armenian heroes and the epic on David of Sassoon. I had
delivered several lectures at the Asiatic Society, which even published
my article in a journal in 1962," Guzelian said. The greatest moment
for this teacher was meeting his former students Hovannes Kaloyan,
Simon Gregory and Malcolm Arconan. While Kaloyan is an environmental
scientist in the UK and passed out of the school in 1960, Gregory
and Arconan studied here in the late ’50s.

The high point of the celebration was the presence of His Holiness
Karekin II, the worldwide religious head of the Armenians. He has come
from Armenia for the celebrations. He called upon the Armenians of
the city to help preserve their national identity and values so that
the community continues to prosper. "It should not be that Armenian
monuments are the only thing this city remembers about our community,"
he said.

He reminded the gathering that India holds a special place in the
hearts of Armenians around the globe because it was in Chennai
in 1773 that the intellectuals of the community drafted the first
constitution of a liberated Armenia. Again, in 1794, they published
the first Armenian periodical here.

On a lighter vein, he said, "We are a fan of your Hindi films. It
started with the Raj Kapoor films and that song… Mera joota hai
Japani… that was on everyone’s lips. Today our TV channels show
Hindi films at least twice a week and there is a huge fan following
of Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai."

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