From the eyes of an Indian Jew

Sep 30, 2013, 08:05 IST | Kanika Sharma

Siona Benjamin, a Fulbright scholar and an Indian Jew, showcases her captivating photo collages that document the story of Indian Jews, post 26/11

What happens when an Indian Jew sets out to discover her identity and where does she belong to, post 26/11? Siona Benjamin, a Bene-Israel Jew, was faced with this dilemma after Chabad House, a synagogue and a hostel were targeted during the 2008 terrorist attacks. Questioning ideas of identity and home, the Fulbright-Nehru scholar has transformed her quest into a series of photo collages titled, Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives, that will be on display in the city.

Eddna Samuel (Akshikar): businesswoman and mother

Ironically, Benjamin’s endeavour to proclaim the micro-minority of Indian Jews on the demographic map comes at a time when communities world over are still unaware of India’s Jewish population. “I have always been associated with issues of identity along with feminist and socio-political concerns. As a Fulbright scholar, I conceived of this project, which would be a year later after the attacks, and thought of interviewing the community to show what it means to be an Indian Jew,” relays the painter, who emphatically likes to incorporate Sephardic icons and techniques from miniature paintings in Indian art.

Diana Elijah (Pingle): singer and song writer of Indian Jewish songs

Tracing one’s roots
Benjamin embarked on a four-month project where one community person led to another and motivated her enough to envision compiling narratives of 40 individuals. As of now, she has been able to translate 25 of those in her works, yet only 13 will be displayed at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya.

The photo collages comprise myriad narratives that lend an educating view into a hybrid community that can be further identified as Bene Israel Jews (meaning Children of Israel), Cochini Jews (mostly migrated to Israel) and Iraqi Jews (second largest in number after the Bene Israel community).

Siona Benjamin working on one of her photo collages

Benjamin has gone on to showcase intriguing individuals such as Diana Elijah (Pingle) who happens to be a singer and songwriter of Indian Jewish songs plus sings in Marathi. Also depicted in the collages is General (Retd) Jack Jacob, recognised for his substantial role in the formation of Bangladesh while working for Indira Gandhi, the erstwhile Prime Minister of India. While working in Illinois, US, which is now her home; Benjamin discovered echoes of such issues all over the world. “In America, an individual who was half Polish, half Native American and half Russian felt the same thing wondering where does he actually belong,” she recounts.

Benjamin shares a personal detail of her mother Sophie who at her wedding wore a mélange of Indo-Jewish attire, “My mother wore a white saree but with a veil and gloves where the latter is a characteristic of Western brides.” Another interesting observation that the Benjamin family coined was cooking only vegetarian food on Shabbat, the day of rest.

The process involved photographing the people interviewed whose cutouts are computer generated and incorporate biographical or related visual elements of the subject. Following which Benjamin painted the collages in gouache on Hahnemuhle paper. On a parting note, Benjamin concludes the conversation with the thought: “India has always let them be Jews unlike in World War II, when they were exterminated in Europe.” Yet she feels a sense of belonging everywhere rather than being limited to one.

On Today, 5.30 pm; exhibition is on
Till October 20
At Curators’ Gallery, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Fort. CALL 22844484 / 22844519 

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