Mumbaiwale: Jewel in the crown
The May Queen Ball isn’t a ball and it doesn’t crown only women. But for Parsis, it’s a rare chance to make a song and dance about identity and communitymumbai Updated: Apr 28, 2018 01:08 IST
I’m lucky. One of my closest friends is Parsi and lives in a 94-year-old gated community where roomy apartments in solid stone buildings stand around a sprawling patch of green. She’s generous too. I’ve often partaken of dinner (salli on mutton, salli on fried egg, salli on everything, plus cutlets) and brisk late-evening walks along the perimeter of Byculla’s Rustom Baug.
I won’t be able to do either this Monday. Rustom Baug’s lawn has, for decades, been the venue of the May Queen Ball, a pre-Independence-era formal dance that was turned into a fundraising beauty pageant for Zoroastrian women in 1993. It’s held on the last day of April, to herald summer. But for the small, prosperous, scattered but ageing and fast-shrinking community, it’s a big day on the social calendar.
Last year – their 25th, though in a typically Parsi twist, some residents insist the silver-jubilee edition is actually this year – had an audience of 1,500. Men participated for the first time in their own contest, Mantastic. Participants aged 16 to 26 had a free ten-day bootcamp: fitness, nutrition, ramp walking, make-up, costumes, dance, table manners, even Zumba and self-defence. Winners walked away with cash prizes, freebies and vouchers that amounted to Rs 50,000. Previous editions have had stars like Jackie Shroff, John Abraham, Sunny Deol and Dharmendra attending.
This year’s edition has 10 women and 11 men. “We would have had 12 guys but one dropped out because of his Std 12 exams,” says choreographer Pearl Tirandaz, 38. Pageant hopefuls have come from Mumbai, Pune, Surat, Navsari, Delhi and Qatar. There are dance shows, a fashion show and other performances. “It’s our way to get young people to feel proud of their Parsi heritage, interact and come together,” she says.
It’s tough, she admits. There usually aren’t enough entries to create a shortlist. “Even today a lot of people in the community still need a push, some encouragement to be confident,” she says. For those who’ve grown up outside Mumbai, debuting at Rustom Baug is part cotillion (initiation at the community headquarters), part endorsement (the company, finally, of thousands of Parsis).
“When the contest started in 1993, I was in class 7, participants would just have a walk and talk,” Tirandaz says. “I’ve seen it get serious over the years. Winning is now a validation, a way for young Parsis to stop doubting themselves.” Many have gone on to have careers as flight attendants and models in fashion and advertising.
Yazad B Karai, who runs an event management tech solutions company and was part of the technical team when the event was established, is glad the community started to think bigger. “It’s a good way to keep up with the times,” he says.
Another Rustom Baug initiative hasn’t fared as well. Since 2001, it was also the venue for Mr Zoroastrian, a body-building and power-lifting championship for Parsi men. By 2012, there just weren’t enough participants. Fewer young men were interested in the sport then the previous generations.
For now, the pageants seem like a safe bet. On my last walk around Rustom Baug, rehearsals were on in full swing well into the night despite the April heat. There was dancing, a workout and a good deal of laughter. “The lawns are completely transformed,” says Tirandaz. “You’d think this is just a Parsi affair but you look into the crowd and see people from all over. It’s a fantastic feeling.”