ACTOR Nadira made her debut in Hindi films in 1952 with Aan. Playing a Rajput princess, she had raised eyebrows with a bold scene in the movie. In 1955, she played a rich socialite named Maya in Shree 420, and also featured in the hit song, Mud mud ke na dekh. Nadira — who acted in more than 50 films thereon — was often cast as a temptress or a vamp.
Born Farhat Ezekiel into a Baghdadi-Jewish family in Mumbai, her mother had forewarned Nadira that no Jewish man would marry her as she played such risque roles. So strong was her desire to settle into a typical Jewish home that towards the fag end of her life, Nadira — who passed away lonely in 2006 — had said that if she lived her life over, she would want to be twins: one, to be a movie star again, and the other, to marry a Jewish man. Other prominent Jewish actors of the time — Sulochana, Ramola, Rose and Pramila — were not averse to playing bold roles either, which conventional Hindi film heroines were shy of accepting.
This, and many such nuggets of information have been put out for the public for the first time in an exhibition charting the course of Jewish community in India, titled “Hodu and the Jews”. The special Bollywood section also features a handful of male Jewish actors who made a mark in Bollywood — prominent among them being David, who came from a Bene Israel family and went on to play character roles in more than 250 films, such as Draupadi (1944), Gol Maal (1979), Baton Baton Mein (1979) and Boot Polish (1954).
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“Though the size of the Jewish population in India has always been very small, their existence on this soil has been remarkable. International migrations, particularly to Israel, have further reduced the number of Jews in India to about 5,000 now,” says New York-based collector Kenneth X Robbins, co-curator of the show. “For most Indian Jews, India is their motherland while Israel is their father land,” he says.
Robbins, who has also authored two books chronicling different sects of the Jewish community in India, adds, “The Jewish connection with India goes back to ancient times. Trade, lexical borrowings in Biblical Hebrew from Indian languages, travelogues of explorers and oral traditions of local communities speak of very early connections. The older communities, the Bene Israel Jews of Maharashtra and the Cochin Jews of Kerala, and the relatively newer communities of Baghdadi Jews of Mumbai and Kolkata have left everlasting imprint on India’s cultural landscape.”
Talking about the title of the exhibition, Robbins says, “Today, there are two usages of the Hebrew word ‘Hodu’, one referring to ‘India’ and another one to ‘praise the god’. These are often invoked together.” Robbins, who was in Delhi at the inauguration of the exhibition, says it has taken them more than two years to source, collate and put together this vast display.
At the entrance of the exhibition is a striking, site-specific installation titled Genizah, modelled after the genizah at Kolkata’s Jewish cemetery. Created by Delhi-based Israeli artist Achia Anzi, the installation represents two genizahs — one showcasing the room used to store old books, and the other, sealed in the ground according to the Jewish customs.
Robbins also explains how various strands of Jewish thought and experiences have contributed to the diverse Jewish cultural heritage of India. “There have been illustrious families of businessmen, politicians, physicians, teachers, artists and writers who have made several contributions to India. For instance, the Sassoons of Bombay, the Ezras of Calcutta and the Koders of Cochin have played a great role in the economy. Poet Nissim Ezekiel, author Ruby Daniel, dancer Leela Samson, writer and sculptor Esther David, actors like Nadia and Sulochana are among the many distinguished personalities,” he says.
The Jewish community has left an impression in the field architecture as well. Israel-born Moshe Safdie and American architect Joseph A Stein contributed to the field of urban architecture — be it the Sikh Heritage Museum in Anandpur Sahib or the India International Centre in the heart of Delhi. French artist Mirra Alfassa Richard, known as the Mother, was a great mystic who worked with the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo.
Another section in the exhibition, titled “The Synagogues of India: Architecture, Identity and Sense of Place” is devoted to watercolour paintings by American artist Jay A Waronker. The exhibition also includes a collection of photographs of luminaries from the community in fields of medicine. An enclosure is also dedicated to “Refugees and the Bombay Arts Scene”, which displays pictures of and by artist Magda Nachman, who was once acknowledged as a great Indian painter.