Category Archives: Interiors

A court for poor wives

10 October, 2017
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Three candidates running for the position of delegate of the Parsi Chief Matrimonial Court of Bombay. [“A Tug and Pull. Three dogs fighting for a bone,” Hindi Punch (19 March 1916), 20.]

Interiors: Parsi Chief Matrimonial Court

Excerpts from Mitra Sharafi’s award winning book, Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947, now available from Permanent Black in South Asia.

“It was Parsi wives, more than husbands, who came to the Parsi jury for relief. Suits for divorce or judicial separation dominated the docket. In these cases, female plaintiffs outnumbered male ones by a factor of two to one. From the late 1920s, the ratio became three to one. Because a surprising number of these wives were underprivileged and because plaintiffs usually won their cases, the Parsi Chief Matrimonial Court (PCMC) of Bombay was effectively a court for poor wives. However, it was not all kinds of poor Parsi women who came to the court for help. The PCMC records captured a particular slice of poor Parsi women: those whose families were too poor to support them, but who could raise the money to go to court. These women were moderately poor, but not abjectly so. Parsi women in bad marriages regarded litigation as a solution, in other words, when the options of de facto separation and long–term financial support from their natal families were unavailable. The diminished presence of both very affluent and very poor women suggested that law was a solution for Parsi wives of the middling working class, a finding that has been replicated in studies of divorce courts in other times and places. Elite Parsi couples typically avoided divorce when their marriages fell apart. If the wife’s natal family was wealthy enough to support her, she simply returned to live there. Long-term informal separation was not unusual in privileged Parsi circles, as among elite British couples in the same period. The property-related consequences of divorce, along with the publicity of a court case, may have explained elite avoidance of the matrimonial court.

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Occasionally, husbands told the court that their wives had engaged in pre-marital relationships and even been impregnated by other men, and that this information had been concealed from the husbands until after the marriage. In Dinbai v. Toddyvala, the alleged fraud pertained to something more unusual: claims about the bride’s racial purity. The bride Dinbai’s father had been Parsi by ethnicity and Zoroastrian by religion. Her mother, though, was part African. There were references to Dinbai’s mother being “Abyssinian.” At the time, Abyssinia was shorthand for Africa generally. Dinbai’s mother Mana had a Parsi father and a Malagasy mother. Dinbai’s father, a man named Jamshedjee Dadabhai Khajotia, did business in Madagascar in the 1880s. During that time, the half-Parsi, half-Malagasy Mana was his mistress. Dinbai was born in Madagascar from their union. When Dinbai was a young child, her father sent her from Madagascar to India to be raised among Parsis by his cousin. Dinbai’s illegitimacy was an issue, but the larger problem was that Dinbai’s mother was racially impure, according to Mr. Toddyvala. He argued that Dinbai’s part-Malagasy background made her ineligible to be initiated into the Zoroastrian religion — that one needed two Parsi parents to be eligible for the navjote, itself an unsettled point in the early twentieth century. Because Dinbai’s mother was part-Malagasy, Dinbai’s initiation into the religious community was invalid, claimed Toddyvala. In turn, this made their marriage void under Parsi law, which applied only to the marriage of two Zoroastrians. Toddyvala claimed to have asked the matchmaker, Hirabai, about the girl’s dark complexion during early negotiations. By his account, Hirabai had assured him that the high salt content in the local water of the girl’s village of Vesu, near Surat, made Dinbai’s skin dark. Her complexion was sure to lighten once she moved to Bombay.

…Hirabai told the Parsi jury that she had informed the Toddyvala family of the girl’s family background. “I had already told Defendant and his people that plaintiff was born of an alien mother. I knew that as a fact. They said there was no objection.”

…About six months after the wedding, the husband claimed to have learned of his wife’s racial background through a distant relative in the town of Bulsar. He told the Parsi jury: “I returned to Bombay and told my mother not to allow the girl in our house. This was because of the information I’d received. If I’d known I would not have married the girl because I am orthodox. My parents also are orthodox.”…When Mr. Toddyvala confronted Hirabai, she criticized his concern with purity. “Is your wife a cucumber or watermelon to cut and see the inside of?” exclaimed the matchmaker. The Parsi delegates rejected the husband’s claims by a majority of ten to one. They considered the marriage valid, and they granted the wife her request for the restitution of conjugal rights.”

Mitra Sharafi is a legal historian at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Follow her on twitter @mjsharafi for the latest in the world of legal studies.

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Welcome to Baro Sardar Bari, Bangladesh’s foremost restoration project

28 August, 2017
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In 1902 the historic building complex was renovated by a merchant, who added a verandah to the back courtyard (pictured above), created a front courtyard to match the back, and built a new entrance to the complex which was richly ornamented with Chinni Tikri or China mosaic.
The inscriptions over the archways in the back verandah are all invocations to Lord Vishnu- ‘Sri Govindaye Nama Nama’, ‘Namaste Sri Gopinath’.
This red structure, that served as a gatehouse, is the oldest part of the complex and resembles the style of architecture developed during the reign of Baro Bhuyian in Bengal (1538-1612), when it was probably built.
Early expert brick work could support steps without the need for additional load bearing structures.
When the complex was renovated, Chinni Tikri or China mosaic was liberally embellished on the surfaces. While China mosaic was commonly used in the flooring of homes in colonial Bombay, in East Bengal it was predominantly used on the facades.
The illuminated model showing the three main units that make up the grand residential complex, with the gatehouse in the middle linking the front and back courtyards.
Dr. Abu Sayeed M. Ahmed, head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Asia Pacific (Dhaka), has masterfully restored the complex over a period of four years. He documents the process in his book Unfolding the Past: Conservation of Baro Sardar Bari.
The restoration project was funded by the Youngone Corporation of Seoul, a leading garments manufacturer in Bangladesh. Mr. Kihak Sung, the Chairman and CEO of the Corporation, has previously restored his ancestral village in South Korea.
The western facade of the complex overlooks a pond.

Interiors: Baro Sardar Bari
Sonargaon, Bangladesh.

Sonargaon, the administrative and maritime centre of Bengal during the medieval period (1296-1608), takes centre stage once again with the restoration of the historic Baro Sardar Bari building complex.

The restoration demonstrates how layers of building and adaptations over a period of 500 years can be highlighted through the original materials used (brick in the medieval period, china mosaic in the colonial) as well as through the various commercial and residential uses to which the structure was put.

As Bangladesh’s foremost restoration project, the Baro Sardar Bari deserves a national opening.

Many thanks to Nausher Rahman, the Digital Communications Director at Bitopi Leo Bernett, for his warm hospitality.

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Esplanade Emergency

11 September, 2016
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Interiors: Lady Willingdon Building for the Parsi Ambulance Division (1932)

1 Esplanade Road, Fort (presently M. G. Road).

Though located at 1 Esplanade Road, the Lady Willingdon Building for the Parsi Ambulance Division was in fact the last of the great medical institutions to be built on the Esplanade.

Once the grassy expanse that surrounded the Fort, the Esplanade was developed as part of the new city centre after the Fort walls had been destroyed in the 1860s.

By the 1890s, the Esplanade was dotted with medical institutions catering to women- the Bomanjee Edaljee Allbless Obstetric Hospital (1890), the Parsee Lying-in Hospital (1895) and the Pestanjee Hormusjee Cama Hospital for Women and Children (1896).

Three decades later, in naming the facility of the Parsi Ambulance Division, Lady Willingdon Building, the prominence of women on the promenade continued.

Hashim Badani shoots effortlessly on an emergency visit.

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Welcome to R. K. Narayan’s House in Mysore

6 August, 2016
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IMG_8071-1 ‘I had designed a small study—a bay-room with eight windows affording me a view in every direction: the Chamundi Hill temple on the south, a variety of spires, turrets, and domes on the east, sheep and cows grazing in the meadows on all sides, railways trains cutting across the east-west slope.’
IMG_8081-1‘The other members of the family could not yet move in, for the younger generation’s school and colleges and my brothers’ offices were all around Laxmipuram.’IMG_8073-1‘So I kept my Yadavagiri house as a retreat for writing.’IMG_8075-1‘Nowadays, young people, hippies and non-hippies alike, have accustomed us to indifferent clothes and styles, but those were times when any doorman would turn you back if you were not properly dressed.’IMG_8080-1‘Graham Greene liked the story when I narrated it to him…While I was hesitating whether to leave my hero alive or dead at the end of the story, Graham was definite that he should die.’
IMG_8072-1 ‘Subsequently I found it helpful to curtain off a large window beside my desk so that my eyes might fall on nothing more attractive than a grey drape, and thus I managed to write a thousand words a day and complete two novels and a number of short stories during my years of isolation at Yadavagiri.’

Interiors: R. K. Narayan’s House (1952)

A post from the guest city of Mysore (and Malgudi). D 14, Vikekananda Road, Yadavagiri, Mysore.

R. K. Narayan’s autobiography My Days and recent articles in the press suggest that this house was as cumbersome to build as it was to restore.

After a spectacular foundation ceremony in 1946, Narayan’s house building activities plummeted due to a lack of funds, materials and a troublesome building contractor. Narayan had to borrow, litigate and exert over five years to see the project to fruition.

In 2011, ten years after Narayan’s death, his grandchildren sold the house to a developer who had begun to strip the structure down. The Mysore Urban Development Authority declared the property a heritage site and halted the demolition. Local writers protested, asking why the Karnataka state government was spending large sums on an author who did not write in the Kannada language. Finally, after a well executed restoration project, the house has been turned into a museum.

As the writing retreat that allowed India’s beloved author to write a thousand words a day, all the trouble over the house’s building and restoration was well worth it.

Photos courtesy Mysore’s most dashing author Mahesh Rao .

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Becoming good friends

15 June, 2016
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FriendsUnionJoshiClub

Interiors: The Friends Union Joshi Club

381-A, Narottam Wadi, Kalbadevi Road.

Back in the 1970s, chances were that customers could end up becoming good friends with the proprietor of the Club.

If a customer lost weight after a month of eating at the Club and climbed onto the weighing scales stationed at the premises to prove it, the proprietor marked the month’s meals free!

This anecdote, narrated by Yogesh Purohit, son of the late Mr. Khimjibhai Purohit (pictured above), offers an interesting angle to understand the presence of weighing scales in eating houses in Bombay.

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