Kolkata’s 195-yr-old Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy: The last bastion of the rapidly declining community in India

The school is the jewel in the crown of the once-flourishing Armenian community in Kolkata.

Written by Premankur Biswas | Kolkata | Updated: April 10, 2016 5:28:03 pm

 Father Zaven Yazichyan with students of the Armenian College and Philanthropic academy in Kolkata Father Zaven Yazichyan with students of the Armenian College and Philanthropic academy in Kolkata

The Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy can easily be mistaken for one of the many Christian missionary schools that dot central Kolkata. There is a sprawling field in the middle of the campus, where boys in colourful jerseys are playing football. In the corridors overlooking the sprawling ground, gangly girls in smart checked skirts rush to their classes. During recess, the frills-free cafeteria has children queuing up in front of the chowmein counter. But this school is unlike any other in the country. “For two centuries, Armenian students from across the world have come to this school in pursuit of academic excellence. For the 10 years that they are here, Armenians from Russia, Iran and Armenia call Kolkata their home,” says Father Zaven Yazichyan, pastor, Armenian College and Philanthropic academy (ACPA), Kolkata. Last week, the school celebrated its 195th anniversary with a function that was attended by 100 people — 60 of whom are the last of the original Indian-Armenians of Kolkata.

“This is one of those few times when we get to see young Armenians around. Otherwise, we are a crowd of geriatrics,” says Paul Stephen, 69, caretaker of the Holy Church of Nazareth in Burrabazar. The event saw a lavish Armenian-Indian dinner and the ACPA choir played both the Indian and Armenian national anthems. A fresh batch of Armenian students from the capital city of Yerevan also sang Vande Mataram. “Armenians have always been open to different cultures. That’s why we have survived in India for thousands of years. We have married into Indian families, and embraced their culture,” says Yazichyan.

The school is the jewel in the crown of the once-flourishing Armenian community in Kolkata. The community, which was about “2,000 strong” in the 1940s, has been reduced to 60 registered Armenian voters today. “Now we only have this school to keep things going,” says Sunil Sobti, warden, Holy Church of Nazareth. Sobti is half-Armenian on his mother’s side.

The story of Armenians in India does not have the narrative of conquest of the British, Mughals or even the Portuguese. They came here from western Asia just for trade. “We were not colonisers. We migrated here long before the Mughals. The Armenians were here for muslin and spices. They took overland routes through Persia and Afghanistan. During Akbar’s rule, the first Armenian establishment sprung up at Agra. Since then, Armenian communities settled in port cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai,” adds Sobti.

The school building in the 1950s; students play chess in the hostel room of the college in an undated photo in the (Source: ACPA archives) The school building in the 1950s; students play chess in the hostel room of the college in an undated photo in the (Source: ACPA archives)

A two-minute walk away from Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy is one of the most prominent landmarks of the city, Queen’s Mansion in Park Street. The sprawling building with gothic facade appears to be a reminder of Kolkata’s British past. A historian will tell you otherwise. “It was actually known as Galstaun Mansion, built by one of the most prominent Armenian families of the city, the Galstauns. They were wealthy businessmen and one of the boys of the family, Johannes Carapiet Galstaun, who went to the Armenian College, contributed Rs 25,000 towards the iconic Victoria Memorial,” says GM Kapur of INTACH. Another popular Kolkata landmark, The Grand Hotel (now the Oberoi Grand) was built by an Armenian businessman, Arathoon Stephen, who also built Stephen Court in Park Street where Flury’s, an iconic patisserie, is located.

Sitting in his spacious office at ACPA, Yazichyan tells us about the contribution of Kolkata’s Armenian community, insisting that not enough has been written about it. “Paul Chater, who was knighted in 1902, was a prominent member of the Armenian community here. He migrated to Hong Kong in the late 19th century and was a renowned banker there. Hindustani classical singer Gauhar Jaan was of Armenian descent. The Armenians of Kolkata were mainly into real estate, trading and transport business,” he says.

By 1947, the Armenian population in Kolkata which was about 25,000 in the mid-18th century, had dwindled to a couple of thousand. Azaniv Joakin, 50, of Bengali-Armenian parentage, remembers how things changed drastically within a few decades. “When I was growing up, in the 1960s and ’70s, there were several Armenian bakeries such as Minas bakery, which specialised in traditional Armenian sweets like gatha, a sweet and savoury cake,” she says.

Their social life in Kolkata rested on two prominent pillars — the Armenian Sports Club on Mayo Road and Queen’s Mansion. “The Christmas Party at Queen’s Mansion was one of the major events in our calendar. I remember the elders would perform the traditional Ribbon dance. The parties stopped in the late 1980s…we hardly had any people left to attend them,” says Joakin, who is one of the very few Armenians to have stayed back in Kolkata. “Most of my friends shifted to Canada in the 1980s, I stayed back because I got a job in a school. Now, my daughter is working in a software consultancy firm in the US. She does not intend to return,” she says.

It is evening and at Sudder Street, Kolkata’s backpacker haven, Sasoon Zarookin, 24, and Davit Gevoraggan, 25, lead us to their favourite hangout, the Fairlawn Hotel. The hotel’s kitschy outdoor beer garden is very popular with young Armenians because of its laidback vibe. “This is where you will find most Armenian students when they have some money in their pocket. Otherwise, we are at the tea joint right outside our college,” says Zarookin.

Almost a decade ago, when Zarookin shifted to Kolkata from Tehran, Iran, he had no idea what he had signed up for. “All I knew was that to go to ACPA was a matter of prestige. Armenians all over the world have heard of this school. It is the second-oldest Armenian education institution in the world,” says Zarookin, who is now pursuing an MBA degree from a leading management institute in the city. “The food was very different, but, within a few months, I got used to the city, the culture,” says Zarookin.

Gevoraggan, who is also from Tehran, was sure only about one thing — rugby. “I was not good with English, I was only good at playing rugby. I was told the school had a strong rugby team, so I was excited,” he says. Since he moved to Kolkata 10 years ago, Gevoraggan has represented India in the All India and South East Asia Rugby tournament seven times. “Armenians are really good at rugby. We are naturally aggressive,” he says.

Both of them will stay in Kolkata for another year; they have plans of making it big in USA or Canada. “What can we do? I don’t envision a future here, but Kolkata will always be my second home. Maybe, I will send my children to study here,” says Zarookin.

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