Early riser

The Bai Navajbai Tata Zoroastrian Girls School — 160 years old and counting — continues to be a beacon of learning and progress in Navsari in Gujarat

Jamsetji Tata had on his side precedent and inspiration, if he needed any, when he got thinking about making education the subject of his maiden effort at planned and purposeful philanthropy.

That effort by the founder of the business house and charitable institution that bears his name resulted in the setting up, in 1882, of the JN Tata Endowment for the Higher Education of Indians. Not as well known is a venture from 24 years previously, more modest in ambition and scope but remarkable for its objectives and the milieu in which it was born.

The Bai Navajbai Tata Zoroastrian Girls’ School traces its beginnings to 1858. It was a time of ferment — the sepoy mutiny against British colonialism had burst forth a year earlier — and change was in the air. The old order had to give way and it did when Navajbai Tata, Mr Tata’s paternal aunt, established the school.

Navsari, the historical trading port in Gujarat where the school is located, was one of the places where the Parsi community, to which the Tata family belonged, sought refuge from roughly the 8th century AD following the conquest of their homeland in Persia by Arabs.

The school could not have come sooner, this being a period when the idea of educating girls was met with disdain, even scorn. Navajbai Tata thought otherwise.

Nestled in the heart of Navsari, just a few metres away from the birthplace of Jamsetji Tata, the school is one of the first institutions of its kind in India. Ms Navajbai had started with a traditional school where Parsi girls could learn stitching and craft and this would become the Gujarati-medium Bai Navajbai Tata Zoroastrian Girls School.

The school began with some 40 Parsi girls on its rolls and today, more than 160 years later, it continues standing tall. The Tata family and, later, the Tata Trusts have played a pivotal role in keeping this flame burning bright.

Kindergarten kids from the school participate in a ‘leaders day’ event that was part of an Independence Day celebration
Kindergarten kids from the school participate in a ‘leaders day’ event that was part of an Independence Day celebration

After initial support from various members of the Tata family, the school got its own dedicated source for sustenance and growth through the Bai Navajbai Tata Zoroastrian Girls’ School (BNTZGS) trust, set up in 1886. Since then, every stage of the school’s expansion has been made possible with backing from the trust, from the addition of a secondary school and new classrooms to latter-day modernisations.

The upgrading of infrastructure has gone hand in hand with other changes down the years. The school opened up its portals to girls of all faiths in 1953, it became coeducational in 2007 and, two years later, launched an English-medium section. The learning process at the school is supplemented by computer labs and smart classes and it also has off-classroom programmes in karate, aerobics and the like.

Best of facilities

“Our students have access to the best of facilities,” says Hitesh Parekh, the principal of the school’s English-medium section. “We stay abreast of advances in pedagogy and we are constantly striving for creativity in our students and in our teaching methodologies. Why stick to chalk-and-talk? We keep trying out something new.”

It’s an approach that benefits students most of all, like 14-year-old Ayan Shaikh, who has made a multimedia documentary on the school. The school is also proud of its academic results. “Our students have been doing well in the board exams and other competitions,” says Yasmin Patel, principal of the Gujarati medium section.

A Navajbai alumnus from the 1992 batch, Ms Patel joined the school as a teacher in 2008 and was appointed principal in 2015. The quality at both ends of the scale, from the learning to the teaching, explains the manner in which the school has kept faith with its legacy.

“The school has built up its reputation by providing good-quality education for its students,” says Burzis Taraporevala, secretary, BNTZGS trust. “Our trust has built a large corpus to fund the school’s operations and we also help when it needs funding for expansion.”

The Bai Navajbai Tata Zoroastrian Girls’ School is a shining illustration of how to ensure an equitable education for all. Breaking the shackles around the education of girls was the first step for an institution that has, with dedication and without fanfare, shown the way forward in the field of learning.