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Lost and found: Seven fascinating stories of Calcutta's Jewish past

The story of the Jews of Calcutta tends to always be a story about disappearance. There are only about two dozen Jews left in the city where once they were thousands and that makes it a poignant story of loss – of shuttered synagogues without services, a Jewish Girls School without a single Jewish girl, and buildings with names like Ezra Mansion but no Ezras in them. Nahoum's Bakery and its plum cakes are about the only real memory most Calcuttans have of their city's Jewish history. It makes for a melancholic nostalgic story both about the vanishing Jews of Calcutta and the city’s fading cosmopolitan charm.

But Jael Silliman says when she started archiving the city’s Jewish history she did not want it to be a lament about how few Jews were left in the city. She wanted to make a different point– “it is that the time we were here was full, was good and both we and the city benefited.”

JewishCalcutta.in is less a stuffy museum of that 230-year old history and more of a digital album that tells the story through snapshots and film clips and even recipes, through marriage contracts found in auction houses and wedding dresses stored away in attics in America. Silliman conceived of the idea, secured a Fulbright-Nehru fellowship and Jadavpur University's School of Cultural Texts and Records came on board to help create the digital archive.

“My notion of the Jewish community was from my granny and my great-grandma and they were very conservative women, very inward-looking, not politically inclined. Fuddy-duddy kind of people,” she laughs. “I thought their worlds were very limited.”

But she found to her astonishment, her community was anything but limited. She encountered the first person in India to do magic on the radio. Silent movie stars. The first mother and daughter Miss India pair. The first woman to cut a record on disc in India. Communists and Congressis. A woman asking to be a plaintiff in court long before even Britain had female lawyers. A woman lawyer fighting for the rights of Muslim women in purdah. The “Patton” of the Indian Army. And Jewish patrons of the Bengali Star Theatre in North Kolkata. “They loved what they called ‘gaana bajana’” chuckles Jael.

The Jews of Calcutta were mostly Arab Jews from Iraq, Syria and Yemen who came to India as traders. They prospered under the Raj in that grey area between “whites” and “blacks” and left behind grand edifices recalling that prosperity. But Jael says it’s worth remembering that because so many were new immigrants, over 40 percent of the community was poor and started at the bottom of the ladder.

In a way, she says the story of her community’s success is a story about India as well. “I think only a country like India would enable a community like this, which came for such a short time, to have the kind of impact they did,” she says. And her mother Flower Silliman says even though most of the Jews of Calcutta left in the decades after Independence -- unsure of their position in the new country -- there’s one thing worth remembering: “At least we didn’t vanish because of anti-Semitism. India can be proud and say that the Jews left because they wanted to leave and no one told them to go.”

The Jews of Calcutta are mostly gone but here are seven of the most intriguing stories they left behind, now saved on JewishCalcutta.in.

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The Sefer Torah. Photo courtesy: www.sanjitchowdhury.com

The Sefer Torah is a handwritten copy of the holiest book of the Jews usually stored in the Holy Ark of a synagogue. “We used to have 80-100 sefer torahs in the synagogue. Now we only have two. At least we have two” says Jael Silliman.

 

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Arati Devi. Photo courtesy: Edmund Jonah

Arati Devi, a star of the silent film era was actually born Rachael Sofaer. She made three films including Punarianma: A Life Divine and A Man Condemned. She died in childbirth at the age of 35. Her cousin Abraham became a Hollywood actor alongside stars like Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor.

 

Esther Victoria Abraham was voted as Miss India in 1947. But she became more famous as Pramila, the westernized vamp with Anglicized Hindi in films like Bhikaran, Ulti Ganga and Bijli. She married the film star Syed Hassan Ali Zaidi, a Shia Muslim and converted to Islam, yet remained Jewish to the end and her children observed Passover. Their daughter Naqui became Miss India in 1967, the first mother-and-daughter pair to do so. Naqui became Hindu. One son became Wahabi. Another son Haider remained Muslim but married a Tamilian Brahmin and wrote the screenplay for Jodhaa Akbar. When Esther died at 90, her sons, Jewish and Muslim, carried her to the Jewish cemetery while prayers from both scriptures were recited.

Pramila. Photo courtesy: JewishCalcutta.in

Esther Victoria Abraham was voted as Miss India in 1947. But she became more famous as Pramila, the westernized vamp with Anglicized Hindi in films like Bhikaran, Ulti Ganga and Bijli. She married the film star Syed Hassan Ali Zaidi, a Shia Muslim and converted to Islam, yet remained Jewish to the end and her children observed Passover. Their daughter Naqui became Miss India in 1967, the first mother-and-daughter pair to do so. Naqui became Hindu. One son became Wahabi. Another son Haider remained Muslim but married a Tamilian Brahmin and wrote the screenplay for Jodhaa Akbar. When Esther died at 90, her sons, Jewish and Muslim, carried her to the Jewish cemetery while prayers from both scriptures were recited.

 

Aloo makallah has no ingredients except potatos and oil and salt but it’s a taste of Jewish Calcutta oldtimers remember nostalgically. Flower Silliman says the keepers of the kosher rules in Jewish kitchens were often Muslim cooks. “My cook would tell me its shabbat today. You have not made such and such dish. I was not at all religious but he was,” says Flower Silliman.

 

Photo Courtesy: Edmund Jonah

The Jonah family turns sahib. Photo Courtesy: Edmund Jonah

Mr Jonah and his sons show how the Baghdadi Jews quickly picked up British customs as they did business in India. “But he still sits like a Middle Easterner with his legs apart. So I think the transition for some of them was not so smooth,” says Jael Silliman.

 

Photo Courtesy: Ashok Sinha

Magen David Synagogue. Photo Courtesy: Ashok Sinha

There were three synagogues in Calcutta within walking distance of each other. "We used to roam from one synagogue to another. You told your father I am going to this synagogue this time. Not because you wanted to. But your girlfriend was there. Or you wanted to check out the new girl in town," says Flower Silliman.

 

Ketuba or Marriage Contract The elaborate Ketubas are now collector’s items. Jael Silliman was puzzled to be shown a ketuba from Faizabad which was not known to have Jews. But the project put her in touch with the family who owned that ketuba. Their forefather had gone to Faizabad to recruit railway workers for East Africa for the British in 1914. “It was like pieces of a puzzle which came together very neatly,” says Jael Silliman. Photo Courtesy: JewishCalcutta.in

Ketuba or Marriage Contract. Photo Courtesy: JewishCalcutta.in

The elaborate Ketubas are now collector’s items. Jael Silliman was puzzled to be shown a ketuba from Faizabad which was not known to have Jews. But the project put her in touch with the family who owned that ketuba. Their forefather had gone to Faizabad to recruit railway workers for East Africa for the British in 1914. “It was like pieces of a puzzle which came together very neatly,” says Jael Silliman.

 


Updated Date: Sep 14, 2014 00:59 AM

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