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Behram (Behli) Sohrab H. J. Rustomji (1912-2002)
Educationalist, Musician, School Principal, Author, Social Worker


Prominent Zarathushtis



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Behram S.H.J. Rustomji was born in Karachi in 1912, the son of Sohrab and Tehmina Rustomji. The Rustomji family roots had been established in Karachi by Seth Hormusji Jamshedji Rustomji, who during the second half of the 19th century was popularly known as the “Merchant Prince” for his business acumen and for the fame he brought to the Karachi Parsee Community by employing hundreds of Zarathushtis. Throughout Behram’s life and career, he carried the names of his father Sohrab, grandfather Hormusji, and great-grandfather Jamshedji, as initials S.H.J. in all his writings. This was his way of showing respect and pride. 

Behram (fondly called Behli) was an average student at the Bai Virbaiji Soparivala (BVS) Parsi High School, but loved participating in all the extracurricular activities. A student of Dr. Maneck Pithawalla, the then principal of BVS Parsi High School, Behli later became Pithawalla’s colleague as a teacher and vice principal, and finally his successor, when he donned the mental of his mentor.

After completing his matriculation and a short teaching period, Behli proceeded to UK in 1935 for further studies and obtained a BA in education from Goldsmith College, University of London. He also took courses at the Royal College of Music and attended summer school at Cambridge. Within a year of his return from UK, Behli married Gool Desai.   

When Behli became the principal of BVS Parsi High School in 1946, it was a year before the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the impending influx of millions of Muslims. With the agreement, understanding, and blessings from the first president of Pakistan and father of the Nation - Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the school opened its doors to thousands of Muslim immigrant students.

During 1947, when the nation of Pakistan was established, the country was in search of a new Pakistani national anthem to replace ‘God Save the King’. A family friend of Behli, Mr. Chagla had just put together and composed the anthem with inspirational words and an accompanying melody.  While visiting Behli’s house, he hummed and tried out the tune for Behli.  At once, Behli played it on the piano, and hence earned the distinction of being the first individual, a Zarathushti, to play the tune of the newly created Muslim nation of Pakistan. The family piano on which Behli played the Anthem (a gift by Behli’s late father Sohrab to his wife Tehmina) is indeed a valuable piece of history!

  Behram "Behli" Rustomji playing the new anthem in 1950

Behli’s vision of the ideal school environment was keeping a fine balance between the required educational syllabus and his passion for extracurricular activities. He strongly believed that academics without extracurricular activities would not give students a competitive edge and therefore made sure that all students, irrespective of individual impairment and interest levels, were given opportunities and encouragement to participate fully. In fact, Behli took the personal responsibility to see that each and every student during their senior years got his fair share of both. Academically, the BVS Parsi High School was among the best in the metropolitan city of Karachi. The tradition of excellence continues today, and it is one of the most sought after schools in the nation.

  Behram "Behli" Rustomji in Parsee High School, Graduating Class of 1956

Behli strongly believed that exposing a student to the ‘world’ was as important as learning textbook material, attaining high grades, and passing exams.  He therefore brought the ‘world’ to the classrooms and assembly halls of BVS.  Local, national, and international dignitaries, academicians, entrepreneurs, ambassadors, and high governmental officials, were all guests and frequent visitors to the school. Officials from the embassies of United States, United Kingdom, and Iran were among the most frequent visitors.  They understood the value of a good well-rounded education and saw in Behli, the strong and dedicated leadership to accomplish these results and benefit the students. They provided the most up-to-date technologies in improving the school’s communication and vocational training equipment. Recognizing that not all students will pursue college careers, Behli made sure that vocational curriculum was provided for those students who chose to pursue it. BVS Parsi High School thus became one of the first high schools in Karachi, to offer matriculation with vocational training and education.  BVS was also one of the first schools in the city of Karachi, to be hooked-up with a internal public broadcasting system (PBS) in each and every classroom, recreational facility, and assembly hall. World famous institutions like the US-based Ford Foundation, and the UK-based British Council provided monetary and material support (books, equipment, fixtures, furniture, etc.) to the school, once again, mainly due to their strong respect and high opinion of Behli’s educational commitment. Some experienced teachers were sent to UK, not only to specialize in their areas of expertise, but also to teach as guest teachers in UK schools. In interschool debates, dramatics, elocution competitions, sporting events, marching band, scouting, and ambulance brigade, the boys from BVS were always looked upon by rival schools as formidable adversaries. Behli took pride and joy in these events and made sure that the boys lived up to the high expectations set by their predecessors – the old Virbaijeeites.     

As a school that was founded on Zarathushti values & principles, religion played an important part in the daily running of the school. Behli believed in daily morning prayers for all the students before the commencement of the classes. Praying took place in separate prayer halls for the Zarathushtis, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians students – a unique multi-faith activity with equal respect and tolerance for all faiths.

In the 19 years he served as principal, Behli preferred to be addressed as Headmaster or Sir rather than Mr. or Principal, a preference resulting from an affinity for British tradition. Behli resigned as principal of BVS Parsi High School in 1965 to pursue other educational and scholarship activities in Pakistan. With his wife Gool, he co-authored a translation of “Dastur DhallaAn Autography” from Gujarati into English. In 1940, Behli published a book titled, ‘Teachings of Zarathushtra’ and his last publication was titled “Karachi (1839-1947).”

In addition to his fulltime profession of teaching, Behli was actively involved with many community associations such as Karachi Parsi Collegiate Union, Young Men’s Zoroastrian Association, Karachi Parsi Institute, and Dastur Dhalla Memorial Institute. Behli was on the managing committee of Karachi Theosophical Society, the Pak-Iran Cultural Society, Sind Boys Scouts Association, Pakistan-United Nations Organization, and various educational bodies.  He was instrumental in organizing the first All Sind Educational Conference and played an active role during the visit of the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – The Shah of Iran to Karachi.  He initiated the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme at the Rangoonwalla Center, a foundation he had assisted in forming earlier. Behli was also was the motivator and organizer of nine youth conferences, countless concerts, annual scout expositions, and producer & director of many musical shows.

It would be difficult for Behli to say whether his first love was education or music, as he has given as much of himself in the line of music, as education. He composed many songs in English and Gujarati which are still sung and remembered, including the Zarathushti prayer - Ashem Vohu. Behli was blessed with a great “musical ear” and after hearing something just once, he could reproduce it on the piano, making it sound like a well-composed concerto. He was most comfortable at the keyboard and presented himself as an accomplished pianist. One of his favorite and most played pieces was the so-called ‘Parsee Anthem’ (composed by his late mentor Dr. Pithawalla), which he enjoyed playing with gusto on the piano and singing enthusiastically in his baritone like voice, while directing the school’s chorus (sung on the music of Sir Edward Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory from Pomp and Circumstance March, No.1 in D):

Children of the Royal Race of Noshirwan,
Rally round his banner, sing of old Iran
Charity and Ashoi, these are watch-words true,
Mazda Lord of Good Mind, ever will save you,
Mazda Lord of Good Mind ever will save you.

A hero-worshipper at heart, his three mentors, Dr. Maneck B. Pithawalla, (DSc, FRGS, principal of BVS Parsi school from1920 to 1946); Shams-ul-Ulema Dastur Dr. Manckjee N. Dhalla, (PHD, D Litt., High Priest of Pakistan from 1909 to1956); and, Jamshed Nusserwanji Mehta, (Mayor of Karachi in 1933) had molded and impacted Behli’s life to a great extent.  Pithawalla exposed Behli to the noble profession of teaching, Dhalla taught Behli the practice of the Zarathushti principles of truth and good mind, and Nusserwanji (Mehta), showed Behli the trait of helping mankind through social work and charity. The three gurus shaped and guided Behli’s life and in turn, the lives of the thousands of pupils who benefited from Behli’s wisdom, amiability, and actions.

Throughout his life, Behli remained a man of high principles and strong convictions. His work ethics include non-discrimination at all levels, fairness, truth, honesty, hard work, and shunning people who indulged in politics, especially when the stakes impacted the education and welfare of his pupils. He never compromised on these principles and remained committed to his vision at all times.   

During his golden years and in spite of his failing health, Behli remained active by writing regularly in magazines and journals like the Mumbai-based Parsiana and Jam-e-Jamshed, US-based FEZANA, and Karachi-based OSHAO, What’s On, and Parsi Sansar.  He was ready to give his wise council to those who sought it, always using the principle of ASHA as his guide. 

Behli Rustomji passed away on December 14, 2002 at the age of 90 in Mumbai. He now joins his beloved wife and life partner, Gool, and leaves behind three accomplished daughters, Roshni Rustomji of California, Armaity Desai of Mumbai, and Soonamai Dessai of California.

His pupils around the world will always remember him with respect, admiration, and fondness, and carry with them the torch Towards That Best Light.