By Vishnu Makhijani
New Delhi, Sep 13 | This book is a double delectation. Its an inspiring chronicle of the resilience of the Jewish community in India over the centuries and a tribute to the artwork of Siona Benjamin, who grew up in Mumbais Bene Israel community and whose extensive portfolio reflects her background of being born Jewish in a country that is predominantly Hindu and Muslim but also gives ample space to other religions to flourish.
“The book came about because of a desire to produce a more substantial work on the art of Siona Benjamin than I (or anyone else, for that matter) had written up to this point, because I have long admired her work and the multi-faceted ways in which it presents not only as beautiful, but offers a social agenda directed to improving the world.
“The book grew, however, to encompass the larger matter of the diverse Jewish community within a very diverse India, and the fact that such diversity placed it in a position to be welcoming to the Jewish communities who arrived on Indian shores at various times from various places,” Ori Z Soltes, a Professor of Art History, Theology, Philosophy and Political History at Georgetown University, told IANS in an interview of “Growing Up Jewish in India – Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin” (Niyogi Books), of which he is the Editor.
“So, in the end, the book begins with a broad discussion of the arrival of Jews into South and East Asia, followed by a slightly narrower discussion about the religious history of India and within that of the Jews immigrating to India, followed by three essays that focus on the three major Indian Jewish communities, before arriving at a memoir by Siona and an analysis of her work. She was the inspiration and remains a central part of the overall volume,” Soltes added.
The book is the outcome of intense research, of “many, many hours reading everything” that Soltes could find about the Bene Israel, supplemented by questions to friends from that community.
“I brought to the subject years of interest, study, and teaching and lecturing about India, about aspects of Jewish history, religion and culture, and about Jewish art and architecture—and of course, writing and lecturing specifically about Siona’s work. This includes many years of studying and also teaching Sanskrit and Vedic (texts), providing me with more of a linguistic basis for my understanding than could be achieved simply in translation,” Soltes explained.
Benjamin’s work, he said, makes use of the visual heritage of India—Hindu elements, such as the imagery of Krishna as well as of Siva Nataraja; Moghul stylistic elements—and elements imported by the Moghuls from the Persian miniature tradition.
All this is combined together with elements that resonate from the Byzantine Christian tradition (such as her sometimes lavish use of gold leaf); and symbols, like the seven-branched candelabrum, that derive from the Jewish visual tradition – as well as concepts like ‘Tikkun olam’ (Hebrew for ‘repairing the world’).
“As such, her art reflects the reality of her life: growing up in Mumbai surrounded by Hindu and Muslim friends, going to Zoroastrian and Catholic schools—and then weaving those visual and conceptual influences, together with elements of Bollywood and Amar Chitra Katha comic book imagery with pop art and other aspects of the American art scene with which she became intimate over the following three decades,” Soltes elaborated.
Was it like growing up Jewish in India?
“The Shabbat lights that my mother and father lit every Friday evening, the shema prayers that they taught me to recite, the need I felt to call my mother up and tell her anything and everything in my life and the consolation I felt after telling her, is irreplaceable and will always stay with me. Her strong sense of belief in her Jewish values taught me that it was not necessary to be strictly observant in all ways but to just carry the essence of who I was always with me,” Benjamin writes in her 38-page memoir in the book.
“In my work and life I find it important to stress not just the uniqueness of my culture but to try and cultivate the specifics of my culture, and to try to connect with a diverse universe of people. My transcultural Jewish upbringing taught me to use these specifics, but also to universalise, so anyone and everyone can hopefully identify with my work. This is what I would transmit to my own daughter; it is the gift I got growing up Jewish in India,” she adds.
To what does Soltes ascribe the resilience of the Jewish community in India?
“The resilience of the community is, I think, a function of two features in particular. One is that, as a people worldwide, Jews have needed to learn how to be resilient over many centuries of more than frequent intolerance and sometimes very active persecution. In this respect the Indian Jewish community is similar to many other Jewish communities.
“However, the second element is India itself that, in its strong tendency to be open to varied perspectives on both humanity and divinity, due its own religious and cultural traditions, afforded to its Jewish communities the opportunity to flourish: the only time Jews experienced anti-Semitism was in the brief period in Goa—when the Portuguese were in charge. Being a tiny minority, even within an accepting majority culture, Jews experienced challenges with respect to defining their identity, which pushed them to flourish in India,” Soltes explained.
He also noted that Indian Jews, most of whom currently live in Israel, “see themselves as having two complementary religious and cultural identities: Indian as their mother and Israeli as their father”.
“With that in mind, members of that population maintain consistent contact with India and its now even smaller Jewish population. I don’t see any reason why that would change in the near future: the roadmap of the varied Jewish community is likely to continue along a landscape of maintaining a presence in India, even if that presence is accompanied, paradoxically, by their living for the most part elsewhere,” Soltes maintained.
Thus, in combining discussions of the Indian Jewish communities with Benjamin’s own story and an analysis of her artistic output—and in introducing these narratives within the larger story of Jews across eastern Asia—the book offers a unique verbal and visual portrait of a significant slice of Indian and Jewish culture and tradition. It would be of interest to Jews and non-Jews, Indian and non-Indian alike, as well as to history enthusiasts and the general reader interested in art and culture.
(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)