Parsi Social Reformers And Litterateurs

| Updated: October 26, 2021 3:12 pm

Last week, I spoke about “The Parsi Spirit”, essentially focusing on the entrepreneurial spirit of the Parsis as also touching upon Zoroastrian religious ethos. A Gujarati friend, professor, and author, living in Spain, Kandarp Mehta told me that he expected more about Parsi litterateurs, ‘coming from your background’. Reasonably valid point. 

If you want to check out Kandarp Mehta’s TEDx Talk, “How to Overcome Blocks to Creativity”, you could find it on YouTube. 

Originally, as I pondered over, or ruminated, about my column, I wanted to write only on Parsi authors. But that may still be another future article. Methinks, this is a good time also to talk about Parsi social reformers and other contributions to society. A column is always limited by its length, and it is not a PhD dissertation, so, a few things always remain pending there for future columns too.

The first person that should come to mind would be the Parsi poet, Ardeshir Khabardar (1881-1953). He was a versatile and a fascinating figure. One of his poems, Jya Jya Vase Ek Gujarati, Tya Tya Sadakal Gujarat (Where a Gujarati resides, there Gujarat lives forever) is a poem that talks of Gujarati ethnic pride and is quite popular. If we speak about the pride of being a Gujarati, it may not be incorrect to state that he put it forth in those words. He also presided over the influential Gujarati Sahitya Parishad in 1941 and he was also the only Parsi President of the Parishad in its history.

You can check out the Wikipedia page on the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gujarati_Sahitya_Parishad 

The Official website of the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad can be accessed here: http://www.gujaratisahityaparishad.com/prakashan/parab/index.html

You may have observed Parsi characters in Bombay cinema speak in a strange kind of Parsi Gujarati, which is a strain of Gujarati specific to Parsis. However, Ardeshir Khabardar, also called ‘Kavi Khabardar’ wrote in standard Gujarati, which just goes on to show his immense command over the language. He was a prolific poet, whose works included devotional songs, patriotic songs, kirtan songs and poems dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi. He also wrote sonnets in Gujarati! Khabardar also wrote a religious book, New Light on the Gathas of Holy Zarathustra in Gujarati. 

You can access the entire book here on Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.304114

In this book, Khabardar also gives a map of the entire solar system as per the Gathas. This is on page 38 of the PDF file. And I have attached the picture here.

Another thoroughly fascinating Parsi was the poet, journalist and social reformer, Behramji Malabari (1853-1912). He was best known as an advocate of women’s social reform in India. Harmony Siganporia’s book, I am the Widow: An Intellectual Biography of Behramji Malabari  (Orient Blackswan, 2018) sheds excellent insights on his work. One of his books, Gujarat and the Gujaratis: Pictures of Men and Manners taken from Life is a satirical take and went into quite a few editions. 

You can read Gujarat and the Gujaratis at Archive.org here: https://archive.org/details/in.gov.ignca.9432 

Malabari’s most important social contribution was promoting women’s rights, particularly those of Hindu widows. This stemmed from the case of Rukhmabai, a child bride, who was ordered to stay with her husband. Malabari drummed up support for the woman, writing letters to Florence Nightingale and Max Muller among others. This finally led to the passing of the Age of Consent Act, 1891. At that point in history, this was a very controversial piece of legislation in India. 

You might like to look at the Seva Sadan Society of Mumbai here: https://www.sevasadan.org/who-we-are 


It was early 20th century, an uncharitable and unjust period in India when disadvantaged women found it very difficult to survive the bigotry of Indian society. Widowed and destitute women were exploited, persecuted and lived under the harsh and repressive cultural attitudes of the times.  

Fighting against these injustices were social activists and philanthropists Shri Behramji Malabari and Diwan Dayaram Gidumal, who were determined to emancipate, educate, and empower those unfortunate women who were treated as outcasts of society. They founded Seva Sadan Society in 1908 in Mumbai as a refuge where impoverished and oppressed women of all communities could find protection, care, and a home where they could live a life of peace, respect, and dignity.

— Taken from “Who We Are”, Seva Sadan Society of Mumbai 


Another insightful book that Behramji Malabari wrote was Indian Eye on English Life or Rambles of a Pilgrim Reformer. This was a travelogue. In fact, there are a number of travelogues written by people of Gujarat about their visits to England and they are quite insightful.

You can download Indian Eye on English Life here: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.126502

Speaking of social reform, another name that comes to mind is that of Mithan Lam (nee Tata). She was a lawyer and the first woman to practice law at the Bombay high Court. Her work led to the introduction of voting rights for women. Mithan Lam was someone who broke the ‘glass ceiling’ in many ways in her life. In 1947, for instance, she became the first woman Sheriff of Mumbai. 

You could read about her work at the Better India Blog: https://www.thebetterindia.com/250999/india-women-voting-rights-mithan-lam-parsi-female-bombay-high-court-first-woman-lawyer-nor41/ 

You could also read this article by Parinaz Madan and Dinyar Patel on the BBC website: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-55134978 

Another article on Mithan Lam is on the Parsi Khabar website: https://parsikhabar.net/interview/mithan-lam-a-powerful-advocate-for-indias-women/24882/

The Wayback Machine also features an excellent article by Homi Dhalla, “Early Empowerment of Parsi Women”. It offers quite a few insights about the progress made in the field of women’s rights and education. You could read it here.

I have just focussed attention on Ardeshir Khabardar, Behramji Malabari and Mithan Lam just to shed light on the important work done by Parsis in the realm of social reform. I have not spoken of Dadabhai Naoroji, who might need an entire column for himself. I have also not yet spoken about the immense contribution of Parsi theatre to the development of theatre as also the growth of Bombay cinema. Or even about the role of Parsis in cricket, a sport that we are crazy about as Indians. And yes, in fact, I once presented a research paper at a scholarly national conference about the Parsi Contribution to Urban Landscape of Western India. There will be future columns and future issues. Adieu for this week. Do check out the links for further reading below.

For further reading:

1. “How Parsis Shaped the Love for Soft Drinks” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-51942067

2. Eminent Parsis of India https://zoroastrians.net/2014/02/25/eminent-parsis-of-india/

3. “How Parsis Shaped Theatre in Colonial Bombay” https://www.dawn.com/news/1608443

4. “A Parsi Could Belong to Any Religion or None: Coomi Kapoor” (journalist Coomi Kapoor’s insightful interview) https://indianexpress.com/article/express-sunday-eye/parsi-religion-community-coomi-kapoor-7431815/

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