Kolkata: On a balmy winter afternoon, Ejmin Shahjani and Armen Makarian, along with a dozen other rugby players, are searing the turf at Kolkata’s Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy. Though the rugby season, which starts in June, is still a few months away, the players have already started preparations.
After all, they have an enviable record to live up to. “In last year’s side, 12 of the 15 players who represented India at the under-19 level were Armenians,” says Shahjani, an Iranian, who captained the Indian junior team in international matches at Brunei. “The Indian under-19 side is predominantly made up of Armenian boys,” says David Purdy, coach of the Armenian Sports Club rugby team, which consists largely of students from the college.
The Armenian boys, who have, in the past, beaten older teams such as Bombay Gymkhana, Kolkata Police and Maharashtra Police, aim to keep the momentum going. “Just you watch, we’ll do even better this year,” says Makarian, the school games captain.
Dominating performance: Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy’s students at their central Kolkata campus. Last year, 12 of the 15 players who represented India at the under-19 level were Armenians. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Though the students at the college play a number of games such as football, basketball and volleyball, rugby is most popular.
“I don’t know what it is, but within days of coming here, they are bitten by the rugby virus,” says Father Oshagan Gulgulian, the pastor and manager of the college. Pointing to the pint-sized Varos Boyajian, Gulgulian says, “That boy is barely 12, studies in class I and arrived only some months back, but is already showing signs of becoming a great player some day.”
Rugby is an integral part of the 188-year-old Armenian College, which, along with the Davidian Girls’ School in Kolkata, provides quality education and a chance to live a better life for 87 Armenian boys and girls, who have come from countries such as Iraq, Iran and the former Soviet republic of Armenia.
Razmeeg Suren, for instance, saw many of his friends die before his eyes on the strife-torn streets of Baghdad. “I lost count…they were so many,” says the 14-year-old ethnic Armenian, his voice trailing off. Suren and five of his friends, manoeuvred out of Iraq by Gulgulian, now live and study in Kolkata.
“I have escorted students from Iran also, prior to this,” says Gulgulian, an American citizen, who was sent to the institution by the Holy Etchmiadzin—the equivalent of the Vatican for Armenian Christians. Gulgulian wants to increase the number of students at his college to 300, and is confident that neither funds nor infrastructure would come in the way.
Though called Armenian College, it’s actually a school affiliated to the Council for The Indian School Certificate Examinations. The medium of instruction is English, and alongside the usual subjects, the school teaches the Armenian language—which has its own script—literature, culture and religion.
“We give these boys and girls a decent education, a good environment to live in and a fighting chance at life, and we don’t charge a penny for that,” says Gulgulian. There used to be a similar school in Lebanon, but, according to Gulgulian, it doesn’t exist any more. Apart from free education, the students also get a free trip home every three years.
Photograph: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
While there are many versions as to when the Armenians came to India, the arrival of an Armenian merchant Tomas Cana on the Malabar coast in AD 780 is widely accepted as the first date. “So, we were here much before the British arrived,” says Sunil Sobti, member of the Armenian Church committee, adding, “In fact, one of the wives of Akbar, Mariam, was an Armenian.”
In Kolkata, their business interests ranged from jute to hotels, to shellac to real estate. One Astvatsatoor Mooradkhan, an Armenian trader, had mooted the idea of starting a school for the community and had made a princely contribution of Rs8,000 through his will as early as in 1707.
Funded by trusts and endowments from the Armenian Church, the Davidian Girls’ School and the college itself, the Armenian College was eventually founded in 1821. It was then called the Armenian Philanthropic Academy. Four years later, another school that was founded by Aratoon Kaloos, a rich Armenian trader in Kolkata, was merged with the Academy.
By 1850, the fund started by Mooradkhan had swelled with contributions from other Armenian businessmen to Rs2 lakh. The college’s present campus on Free School Street in central Kolkata, where British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was born, was bought in 1884. A college was added in 1888, and it was affiliated to the University of Calcutta, but was discontinued after a few years.
Money isn’t a problem for the college authorities and the amenities are testimony to that—a spanking new launderette, a mechanized kitchen, clean and airy dormitories, a state-of-the-art infirmary and an indoor swimming pool speak of the college’s opulence. “We are planning to construct a multi-level sports complex soon,” says Gulgulian.
According to Purdy, the Armenians were the first to field a non-British rugby team at least 135 years ago, but the community has shrunk over the years, and its rugby team now is made up mostly of students from abroad. “In those days, as there were more Armenians, we had two teams, but since the 1960s, there’s only the Armenian Sports Club and that side is made up entirely of boys from the college,” says Purdy.
Most of the wealthy Armenian families such as the Galstauns, Arathoons, Apcars and Sookias have migrated to the West, but many of them continue to support the college in Kolkata, which offers a safe haven to hundreds of Armenian children from strife and persecution.