For most parts of the year, the Lady Jehangir Kothari Memorial Hall at the Balekundri Circle is swathed in banners that highlight some exhibition or the other. It’s therefore understandable if you drive past without noticing this graceful European Classical building that has been carefully preserved and continues to be used by Bengaluru’s Zoroastrian Parsi populace for community gatherings. It also contains within it memories of a suave 19th century Parsi philanthropist and intrepid world traveller Sir Jehangir (1857-1934) and his wife Gool Bai.
The Karachi-born Sir Jehangir’s reputation for regularly circumnavigating the globe was established fairly early on in life. His first tour was in 1883 at the age of twenty-six and he published an account of it as a book in 1889. He was to make eleven such journeys around the world.
In between his travels, he was a member of prestigious institutions like the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and the Royal Asiatic Society as well as a Lieutenant in the Sindh Volunteer Rifle Corps. He was appointed Honorary Special Magistrate and member of the Municipal Committee, Karachi and perhaps tucked into a delicious Mutton Dhansak when at the prestigious Ripon Club (1884) in Bombay. In 1911, he attended the Delhi Durbar to receive the ‘Kaiser-e-Hind’ medal and was one of many elite in the Parsi community who had distinguished themselves in every field since their arrival on the coast of Gujarat from Persia between the 8th-10th centuries.
They were fulfilling the covenant made with Jadi Rana, a local ruler, by assimilating themselves into local culture like sugar in a bowl of milk.
Sir Jehangir then went on to contribute an enormous sum of money to the Third War Loan during WWI. He was knighted in 1918 and demolished his sea-facing mansion a year later to build a parade and pavilion in Karachi for the public in 1920. Three years later, while on a tour of South India, he arrived in Bengaluru where tragically, Gool Bai fell ill and passed away. Her last rites were conducted at the Parsi Aramgah or Tower of Silence built near Hebbal in 1892.
Community records date Parsi presence in Bengaluru to around 1880. In 1889, the Indian Institute of Science (where Dr Homi J Bhabha was a Reader in Physics) was established with generous support from Sir Jamshedji N Tata. The Anjuman was formed in 1922 and the Fire Temple was consecrated in 1926. When Sir Jehangir returned to Bengaluru almost a decade later, Bengaluru’s Parsi population had grown significantly. The idea of a community space was mooted and with his donation of Rs 25,000, construction of the hall began in 1931. It was completed a year later. The flat-roofed building was located opposite the Fire Temple and its construction was supervised by the Anjuman President, late Seth Dinshaw Cawasjee. It had steps with a balustrade leading to six fluted columns ending in Corinthian capitals. The gently curving entrance verandah was flanked by two pedimented windows in the end bays on either side.
In the same year, a 75-year-old Sir Jehangir and five other fellow travellers fell into a crevasse while approaching an ice wall surrounding the North Pole. The Sydney Morning Herald reports (in an interview with him) that four physicians recommended bed rest as recuperation. He boarded the Empress of Britain instead and sailed off on another world cruise, only to come to rest in 1934 at Trieste, Italy, far away from Gool Bai and the hall in Bengaluru that is dedicated to her memory.
The writer is a cultural documentarian and blogs at aturquoisecloud.wordpress.com