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Finding Home and the Dilemma of Belonging

By Siona Benjamin

My parents (and I) lived in what everyone called the Bollywood suburb of Bombay. My mother, a Bene Israel Jew from Poona (a small city near Bombay) ran a private Montessori school for 20 years and drew on mostly the children of glitzy movie stars (Bombay being the mecca of the movie-making industry in South Asia). So quite often I had to sit through three-hour long Bollywood movies which, to sum up quickly, were mostly Indian versions of Rambo with the spice of some song and dance thrown in. One minute, the hero was beating up the villain (whose side kick almost always was this British actor whom he called Anthony and who incidentally never said a word but just carried out the treacherous orders of the villain) and the other minute, the hero would be prancing around in the middle of corn fields belting out a song with a doe-eyed damsel dressed in chiffons.

My parents were staunchly Jewish and proud of it (especially, since India was one of the only countries, where there was no anti-semitism against the Jews). So they carried out rituals and Jewish festivals with great fervor, and before what seemed like the exodus of the Jews from India to Israel mostly in the 50s, 60s and 70s, I remember preparations for the Eliyahu Hannabi prayer, the Sabbath, and large pots of Jewish halwa (sweets) made out of coconut milk for the Rosh Hannah and Yom Kippur festivals.

My schooling…well, I started off in a private Catholic convent school run by British, Swedish, and Indian nuns and I ended up doing my high school in a Zoroastrian (Parsi) school. These schools somewhat remind me now of parts of the Harry Potter movie…no we did not have changing stairs and flying brooms but we did have thick stone walls and nuns in white, who seemed to glide down the stairs in a very Harry Potterish way. So to give you a snapshot…Sister John of the Cross and sister Mary Magdeline would conduct the daily Hail Mary prayers and, then, we stood in pinafored rows in our separate houses to be taken to gym or to our respective classes. I belonged to the Green House, otherwise known at the House of Scott, Walter Scott that is; other houses were Red, which was Shakespeare, Blue was Tennyson, and Yellow, Dickins. The high school was just as formidable; the same thick stone walls (which, by the way did little to stop the interaction with the boys school next door, which was run by the priests), and the large open fields that looked onto the Arabian Sea. So here we were, girls with names as diverse as Radhika Verma (the American returned, blue-eyed Punjabi girl), Zehra Mahmood, Kawaljeet Singh, Yevonne Aptekar, and Miriam Abraham (the other two Jewish girls in the class), and others like my friends Lorraine De Souza, Mohini Char, and Nuzhath Iraqi.

As for art school, which came after high school, it was a slightly different experience. It was a mixed bag of students from English speaking and vernacular schools. I got a chance to brush up my Marathi speaking skills. Marathi was the language spoken by the locals and also the Bene Israel Jews in and around Bombay; they even had the Hebrew prayers transliterated into the Marathi alphabet. The art school campus was a haven away from the bustle of the Bombay Bazaars with its Indo-British architecture and stories of Rudyard Kipling walking the shaded pathways of the art school. We sat in these very shaded lawns and munched on spicy Indian snacks and discussed the painting class, where we had just finished an Impressionist style painting and had poured over books of Rembrandt drawings.

So while in India, I got called everything from Parsi to Punjabi and even occasionally was called a “cocktail” since my mother was too non-Indian and more Iranian looking. And here in America, a similar question is often asked, “Where you from?” And now anything from Puerto Rican to Persian is a good guess.

Thus in my paintings, I raise questions about what and where is “home”, while evoking issues such as identity, immigration, motherhood, and the role of art in social change.

I remember the ornate synagogues of my childhood, the oil lamps, the velvet and silver covered torahs, a chair left vacant for the prophet Elijah in the synagogue. Growing up in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim society, educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, raised Jewish in India and now living in America, I have always had to reflect upon the cultural boundary zones in which I have lived. In this multicultural America, I am compelled to create art that speaks of shared similarities with my audience, not differences. My intent for my viewers is to re-evaluate their notions and concepts about identity and race, thus dispelling misconceptions that result in racism, hate, and war. In making images that question issues like identity, I feel I can contribute to a much-needed repair to culture and society.

As a Bene Israel Jewish descendant, my recent work reflects my background and the transition between my old and new worlds. Using the rich colors of gouache, I apply layers literally with the paint and metaphorically with the content. I am inspired by the traditional styles of Indian/Persian miniature painting and Christian and Jewish illuminated manuscripts. I blend these ancient forms with contemporary pop cultural elements to create my own new vocabulary. I also take inspiration from Jewish and Indian myths, in particular the stories of the goddess, Kali, and the famous blue god, Krishna. Making them come alive to enact their stories from a mythological past, these blue-skinned characters tell (or mostly retell) stories that are divine in nature but very human in drama. In this process of recycling and rejuvenating, I am reminded of Joseph Campbell’s book, The Power of Myth, in which he eloquently states that myth-making is cyclical, timeless, and universal.

Very often I look down at my skin and it feels as if it has turned blue. It tends to do that when I face certain situations, such as when people stereotype or categorize others who are unlike themselves. I have, therefore, over the years developed these varied blue-skinned characters as self-portraits in assuming multiple roles and forms, theatrically reenacting many ancient and contemporary dilemmas. I employ them as social and cultural agents in raising provocative issues about identity, immigration, and the role of art in this transcultural world.

In my series of paintings titled “Finding Home”, I question the “what” and “where” of home. The desire to “find home”, spiritually and literally, has always preoccupied me — a concern in which many Americans can relate, as this comparatively younger nation is largely formed by immigrants and their descendants. My paintings also explore female energy and power, as I am inspired by tantric art (of ancient India).  The work is informed as well by Indian miniature paintings, Byzantine icons, and Jewish religious art from my childhood. This work emphasizes women’s issues and raises questions about identity. The forms, though, may appear unconventional and exotic to some. In this multicultural society, I would like the viewers to transcend this apparent exoticness and absorb the core message — tolerance of diversity.

Painting examples: 

Finding Home # 46 Tikkun ha- Olam

Finding Home # 46 “Tikkun ha- Olam” (11.5” x 9”, Gouache and 22 K gold leaf on paper, 2000), which means “the reconstruction of the world”, is inspired from a concept in Kabbalah. Here the world is compared to a pot or vessel which contains all the virtues. However, the cosmos was unable to contain this divine energy and the pot shattered, but the broken shards retained the divine light or energy. It is the task of humanity to reconstruct this vessel which is done through various ethical, spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic acts, which reestablish values in our world. By making images that contribute to this “Tikkun”, I am thus participating in my own small way in this process of “Restoration”.

Finding Home # 53 “Amistad”

Finding Home # 53 “Amistad” (9” x 14”, Gouache on paper, 2002) is the image of a slave ship transformed by an army of women artists, pro-creators and creators – women performing prayers and rituals of love and peace. Is the sensual/sexual energies of the women combined with their spirituality potent enough to reduce the violence of the army tank to the mere shadow of its original form or is this army tank going to be triumphant in the end? These women, pregnant with the new creation of the Aleph are praying, painting, and envisioning new colors…..will they cause life to triumph over death and peace to flourish where once there was war?

Finding Home #73 (Fereshteh) “Miriam”

Finding Home #73 (Fereshteh) “Miriam” (10” x 7”, Gouache and gold leaf on wood panel, 2006)

Miriams cup
Brimming with
Sustenance, health and wisdom
Will she?
Turn off the switch
In time
To stop
The violence
The demons
Is she
Asleep?
Sick?
Oblivious?
Controlled?

Finding Home #81 (Fereshteh) Leah and Rachel

Finding Home #81 (Fereshteh) Leah and Rachel (25″ x 20″, gouache and gold leaf on board, 2006)

In her 40th life
Leah was sent off to the convent
There she learned many languages
Such as Hinlish
Rachel stayed and danced
They communicated with each other
And wrote letters
Each telling of her experiences
But Leah was not allowed to return
And could not meet Rachel again
They said
The country is closed
And the roads blocked
Red tape was everywhere
So they built a monument instead
To the sons and daughters of genocide
From before her 40th life
Then Leah learned to dance on daggers
And Rachel on broken glass
The flame of their penance
Promised to endure
And recycle from our traditions
The vines of new interpretations
Entwined and encircling
And to continue this rebirth
Till after her 40th life

FH93Mahalat

Finding Home # 93  (Fereshteh) “Mahalat” (22” x 22”, Gouache, gold leaf and digital image on paper, 2006)

Does forgiveness come easily to Mahalat?
Daughter of Ishmael
Granddaughter of Hagar
A bridge in the midrash
Wife of Easu
In the ying yang of her destiny
The circle must complete
What we have left undone.

Finding Home# 68 “Lilith”

Finding Home# 68 “Lilith” (13″ x 10″, Gouache and 22K gold leaf on paper, 2004)

Lilith has lead many lives. Once born as a Palestinian refugee and once as a holocaust survivor and once as both, she has sown many saplings and seen them grow. She tends to them carefully; building a fortress of hope, for tomorrow their roots will reach the far corners of the earth. But wait…with all the nourishment Lilith is giving them the saplings will not grow!! She finds out that they are just buried saplings from yesterday’s wars and tomorrows plunderings. She wears an armband, left blank for the oppressed and opressors of the future.

Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives – Fulbright project 

The terrorist attack that occurred in Mumbai from 26-28 November, 2008 was a massacre of both resident Indians and visiting foreigners. The Chabad house in Mumbai, a Jewish outreach center with an educational site, a synagogue, and a hostel, was under attack and six of its occupants, including the Rabbi and his wife, were killed. These attacks brought notice to the world of the existence of a small but ancient group of Indian Jewish people that inhabited the Indian subcontinent for approximately 2000 years.

Since I was brought up as a Bene Israel Jew in a predominately Hindu and Muslim India in the heart of Mumbai, some of my American friends, seemingly confused, asked many questions. “Did Jews first inhabit India upon the establishment of the Chabad house?” “If not, then what did the local Jewish population look like? Sound like?” This dialogue with my friends birthed the impetus for this proposal. The Fulbright grant has helped me to initiate a project to explore and reveal the various Indian Jewish faces of India in a photographic visual art exhibition.

I have videotaped and photographed about 70 Jews living in India. Forty large cutout photographic portraits of a select group of participants from the interviews will be printed on 3 feet x 3 feet Hahnemuhle paper for the works presented in an exhibition. I have used gouache and 22-karat gold leaf to paint their stories using iconographies around the photographic portraits. The style which I will use will be mostly be reminiscent of the styles of Indian and Persian miniature paintings.

Visualizing the Bene Israel Jewish faces and the painted ornamentation around them, they could be the ghost images from my past, my childhood in Jewish India, weaving new and old stories. Are these faces from dreams and memories or are they just other faces on passports or immigration cards or perhaps from my family’s photo albums?  It is with these faces, their photographs and their stories that the rest of the world, I hope, would come to know of the Bene Israel Jews in a very transnational India. My goal is to promote the understanding about the true diversity of people in India. My project will help my audience understand the meaning of racial diversity and the need, therefore, to stop compartmentalizing “the other.” I believe in the power of art to be able to make socio-political change in this world.

Examples from the project: 

MozelMonicaMoses

Mozel and Monica Moses (Pugaonkar), mother and daughter.

Monica’s father was the only Jewish firefighter in the 2008 terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal hotel. I have represented water and fire as symbols of this incident around the portrait of this mother and daughter.

EstherSukkur

Esther Sukkur (Belkar), Sukkur Enock, and Queenie Sukkur. Bene Israel family in Mumbai

I met with this family several times at the David Sassoon synagogue in Mumbai during my Fulbright time in India. Esther is a Jewish woman rooted in her identity and tradition. She explained to me how important the keeping of this tradition and the Jewish customs were to her. She gave me a beautiful picture to create around her, her Jewishness was in her garden and the multi-religious India was respected but was definitely outside her walls. I therefore made a photo/collage/painting pointing this out, how Esther’s strong monotheistic beliefs were in her garden and the rest of the multi diversity that India presented was on the other side of her walls, together yet separate.

KarenSimonBorgawkar

Karen Simon (Borgawkar), Indian Jewish (Bene Israel) Bride

Karen is the beautiful Indian Jewish bride. Her rich hennaed hands radiate inwards and her husband’s prayer shawl (tallit) is wrapped around her. Karen told me that she likes to paint as a hobby in the traditional tribal Indian Warli style. I therefore used the Warli style to show some scenes from this young couple’s life. The hands around her neck symbolize the Kohanim (Priestly) Jewish blessings given during any auspicious event like at a wedding.

HannahEmanuelSamuel

Hannah (Munmun) Emanuel Samuel (Pezarkar), Bene Israel community chef. 

Everyone calls her Munmun and the name I feel suits her well. She is a bubbly, sweet person who loves to feed everyone with her tasty Indian Jewish dishes. I followed Munmun around several times, recording and photographing her as she bustled around Jewish ceremonies, parties, and gatherings making and serving her Jewish delicacies. Fried gharis, and puris stuffed with sweet coconut filling, sandaan a rice pancake, savory kosher coconut curries and specially prepared Bombay duck fish are some of the specialities Munmum creates. Although she looks like a many handed Indian cooking goddess in my photo/collage/painting, she is also actually a menorah (the traditional Jewish candle stand lit during festivals) as from the many plates she holds up are the flames of strength of her steadfast belief. Around her is a saffron color with real turmeric spice mixed in with the paint, so you could smell the strong flavors of her cooking.

JackJacob

General (Retired) Jack Jacob (and Pal Singh Gill, his assistant)

General Jacob is one of the prominent Indian army heroes responsible for the formation of the country of Bangladesh. He worked for prominent leaders like Indira Gandhi and for well-known military officers like Sam Manekshaw. When I interviewed him, General Jacob had many war stores to tell. Pal Singh Gill has been by his side working for many decades and I was fortunate enough to photograph these two lifelong friends together.

Author:

Siona Benjamin is a Jewish painter originally from Bombay, now living in the US. She has exhibited in the US, Europe and Asia and was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 2010-11 for her art project titled: “Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives”.

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