Everything about the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (ACPA) seems typically Armenian, except for the fact that it is located in the heart of Kolkata, some 4500 km away from the landlocked Caucasus nation. The school, located in sprawling central Kolkata’s Mirza Ghalib Street is over 197 years old and while it may look like one of the many Christian Missionary schools which dot the city, it is unlike any other in India.
A plaque at the entrance of the quaint yellow building reads, “In this house, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was born on the 18th July 1811” and from 1821, the school has served as a centre of education for hundreds of Armenians in India and around the globe.
Kolkata and Armenia connect
For nearly two centuries, Armenian children from all over the world have been visiting ACPA in pursuit of quality education and the school too, has been serving as a home to the scores of children who travel far East, away from everything that they know as their own. The residential school was established in 1821 by Armenian merchants Astvatsatur Muradghanian and Mnatsakan Vardanian and continues to serve as one of the largest centres for Armenian education outside Armenia.
Kolkata’s connection with the Armenians predates that with the British. Reportedly to escape religious prosecution and for the purposes of trade, the Armenians travelled to India during the Mughal reign. While they settled in the western region of the country at first, quickly the Armenians migrated to Kolkata. In the 18th and the 19th centuries, the Armenian community in the city was thriving with many of them running major businesses.
In Kolkata, the community ran trading companies, shipping lines and coal mines. They also built some of the city’s iconic landmarks like the Grand Hotel (Grand Oberoi) and Stephen Court which stands tall to this day.
However, as the British left India, so did the Armenians. From around 25,000 in the mid-18th century, the population of Armenians in Kolkata dwindled to just 2000 in the 1950s and only around 150 in the present decade. The residential school, which was once bustling with Armenian children also witnessed turbulent times as at one point in 1990, the student body had shrunk to only one.
ACPA helping the Armenian heritage thrive
With constant efforts from Armenian-Indians as well as those settled abroad, the school has seen a steady growth in their student body, with mostly children from Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Russia and Myanmar filling their dormitories. The Logical Indian spoke to Armen Makarian, the coordinator of ACPA who was once a young student of the school. An Armenian from Iran, a 15-year-old Armen moved to Kolkata from Tehran only when he was 15 years old.
Having graduated from the school in 2008, Armen chose to stick around in the city of joy, like many of his other alumni members. He said, “The school is very popular among Armenians across the globe mostly because of the free scholarship that is given out to the students.” He said that India’s connection to the Armenians also has an Iranian link. “Armenians are bonafide businessmen and it was through Iran that the Armenians came to India,” he added.
While one might think teaching children of different age groups and culture in Kolkata will be a difficult feat, the faculty members of ACPA have been doing the same for years at a stretch. Armen said, “The students have to qualify for a scholarship first, after which, they are brought to Kolkata to live in the dormitory and study.” The students, most of whom are non-English speakers, have to attend a rigorous English language course for six months before being inducted to their respective grades. The scholarship, which attracts most Armenians outside, said Armen is funded by the Armenian Church of the Holy Nazareth here in Kolkata, under the guidance of Very Reverend Father Movses Sargsyan, the Manager of Armenian College and Pastor.
The Church is not only the oldest one in Kolkata but also serves as the centre of the Armenian community in Kolkata. Church wardens Sunil Sobti and Susan Reuben also have an instrumental role to play in nurturing the community, added Armen.
The school offers education to children between classes I to X and follow an ICSE syllabus, however, apart from English, Armenian serves as the second language which is taught to the children. Like most residential schools, the rules of the dorms do not bend. Mobile phones are a strict no-no for students till class X, however, the students can talk to their parents on Skype.
The ACPA is truly nurturing a little Armenia inside its boundaries in Kolkata as everything that goes on inside is true to its culture. From celebrating Armenian Christmas on January 6 to going to the Armenian Church of the Holy Nazareth every Sunday and even the food served inside the campus, every aspect has “Armenian” etched on it. Even the names of the schools’ houses take after mighty Armenian figures – Levon, Haik, Trdent and Tigran.
From practising choir or dance recitals and even playing sports like Rugby, the campus is always buzzing with the voices of teens and children. “Rugby is a famous sport in Armenia and it has heavily practised in the school. The school has produced some national level Rugby players for India,” said Armen.
Better education than in their home countries
22-year-old Arthur Baghdasaryan like many of his peers came to Kolkata from Armenia when he was 12. The year was 2008 and there was a certain sense of tension in Arthur who had to leave his home to live outside for the first time. Today, one can’t tell that he is a foreigner as Arthur, a college student swiftly navigates himself through the bylanes of Kolkata. Speaking to The Logical Indian he said, “Education was very expensive at the time in Armenia and my parents wanted me to have quality education and hence decided to send me to India.”
He said that while the Armenian community in Kolkata is small, its very well-knit and his time at ACPA made him feel like he is home. Reportedly the school has also seen cases of Armenian students arriving at their doorstep as a result of political turmoil and unrest in their home country.
The Hindu had reported the story of Razmik Hakobyan, a 24-year-old former student of ACPA who was sent to Kolkata by his father for “safety and education,” after a bomb explosion near his house. Presently the school is almost 90-student strong and has 22 teachers under its wings. While the school is as old as history gets, the facilities inside are modern – an attempt to attract more and more Armenian students from outside said Armen.
Armen said, “I have never felt that I am away from home and while the community in Kolkata is small, it is still Armenian in spirit.” Kolkata, they say, has an interesting history etched in every nook and cranny of the city and the city’s connection with the Armenians is undeniably strong. The Logical Indian applauds the school in reviving and helping the rich Armenian culture thrive in Kolkata.