A Nostalgic Group in Search of Its Roots - The New Indian Express

A Nostalgic Group in Search of Its Roots

Published: 21st August 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 21st August 2014 10:01 AM

CHENNAI: The lilting strains of Armenian instruments Saz and Qamancha echo in the courtyard of the church and exhibition banners flutter in the gentle breeze that the design of the church allows through it.

The serenity and understated beauty of the Armenian Church at Parrys makes it an ideal location for the exhibition, which is a part of Madras Day celebrations. Tracing the journey of the Armenian community, the exhibition tells the story of their forced eviction from their homeland Julfa in Persia and the settling of the Armenian merchants across the globe, including Madras in the 17th Century. They were initially in the White Town, and were later expelled to Black Town, where the street is now named after them.

The street is crowded and the church is nearly obscured by the colourful umbrellas of the shops selling slippers and plastics and the fast food restaurant that is being run in a part of the church. But once inside, the white walls and greenery obscure the chaos. Although the church is not as ornamental as the Armenian churches around the world, the trees, and the interplay of outdoor and indoor spaces give the church its charm.

Satenig Batwagan from Paris, who has put the exhibition together on the request of one of the Madras day organisers, Vincent Dsouza, welcomes the visitors. With a doctorate in Armenian studies specialising on Armenians in Madras, she is actively involved in researching the subject and this is her second trip to the city.

“We are a very nostalgic community,” she says, “as we were forced away from our homeland and have yearned to go back.” Her grandparents were survivors of the genocide and settled in France, along with several refugees as the European countries were in dire need of workers after the First World War. But they still long for home, and younger people like Satenig have made Armenian studies their life. “My grandparents still say in their homeland, the grape was better, the water was sweeter,” she laughs.

The Armenian community in Madras was a well informed lot, Satenig says, with people who wrote about the Enlightenment and philosophy. A book published by Armenians in Madras is what piqued her interest in the city and her community’s roots in it. The first Armenian newspaper too, was published from the city by Haruthium Shmavonian, whose tomb is on the site, along with the belfry and the church.

“The paintings at the entrance of the church,” the church caretaker Trevor Alexander says, “were done by the last ‘pakka’ Armenian in Chennai, George Gregorian, who died in 2002 at the age of 91.”

Although the church is open to the public every day until the afternoon, visitors are rare, and Mass is held only once a year when the Armenian Association of Calcutta visit the city.

But Trevor still lights a candle every day, the belfry still has its six bells, and the church stands serenely in the memory of a community, long after its descendants are scattered in new homelands.

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