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Saint Nazareth Church in KolkataBy Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey

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 (12 November 2008), 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.

Source: "Times of India", 13 November 2008 (abridged)

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Posted on Friday, November 14, 2008 (5438 reads), comments: 0
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