Malayalam Zionist Songs of the Kerala Jews: Inspiration from Indian Cinema and Political Music
By Barbara C. Johnson
Malayalam Zionist songs incorporating melodies and rhetoric from 20th century Indian cinema and political music provide a striking example of Jewish immersion in and contribution to the cosmopolitan culture of Kerala. Right up to the time of their departure for the newly created nation of Israel, Kerala Jews were composing songs in Malayalam, and ten modern Zionist songs were copied down in the hand-written song notebooks preserved by women of the community and carried with them when they left.
These 20th century Zionist songs are among the approximately 330 Malayalam-language Jewish songs that have been collected from Jewish women’s notebooks in India and Israel – some songs with many variants, some of them many centuries old, and many showing significant intersections with the folk literature and songs of other Kerala communities. Unlike earlier songs which expressed a messianic religious longing for the holy city of Jerusalem, these are directly related to 20th century events – the early Zionist movement, the end of the Ottoman Empire, and finally the mass emigration of most of their community to Israel between 1949 and 1954.
In contrast to most other Jews moving to Israel during that period – survivors of the Holocaust in Europe, or those fleeing from the new anti-Jewish policies and atmosphere of countries in North Africa and the Middle East – these Indian Jews had left their Kerala homes not because of any history or fear of anti-semitism, but for religious, economic and personal reasons, including loyalty to other family and community members who had decided to emigrate. They would remember with pride the long-term safety, respect, and neighborly relationships they had enjoyed in Kerala. Nevertheless, like all the new immigrants, they had to accommodate quickly to a very unfamiliar situation. Scattered in a number of different locations in the new country, it was essential that they quickly learned Modern Hebrew (quite different from the Biblical and liturgical Hebrew they had already known in India) and acquire the skills needed for farming and urban jobs. Whereas they managed to establish their own Kochini synagogues for worship and keep up former community ties (especially for family and festival occasions), almost all but the oldest generation left behind their Malayalam language, including the women’s songs. Fortunately, through the effort of some older Kochini women and a few scholars, 38 of the song notebooks were copied and about 100 songs were recorded in India and in Israel during the late 1970s and early 1980s – making possible various collaborative research and translation efforts and publications (see references).
Between 2002 and 2008, a group of older Kochini women who remembered Malayalam from their early years in Kerala initiated a small performance revival of the songs. Calling themselves the Nirit Singers, they came together from many parts of Israel for rehearsals and public performances.
Nirit Singers 2005 (Courtesy: Galia Hacco)
They also produced the CD from which songs are borrowed for this article, with lyrics transliterated into Hebrew script by Tzipporah (Venus) Lane for the benefit of younger generations. Their success inspired the efforts of Tova Castiel Aharon, who led a similar Kochini women’s group for several years.
Three of the modern Zionist Malayalam songs were composed early in the 20th century, when the creation of an independent Jewish nation was only a hope. The most popular of these, “Our Ancient Hope,” shares elements with the Hebrew poem Tikvatenu (Our Hope), which was widely circulated as an unofficial anthem of the early Zionist movement and was later modified to become Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. Its European-born composer Naftali Herz Imber began his song with an image of the Jewish soul turning “to the EAST” toward Zion. But Isaac Moshe Roby of Kochi, composer of the Malayalam song, made an important geographical and cultural statement in his first stanza: “The soul of the Jewish people dwells in BOTH SIDES of the world.”
[SONG #1, Ancient Hope, Nirit Singers]
The hope we have had since ancient days still has not faded away,
The hope of returning again to our land, given to us by God.
Brothers and sisters in so many lands, oh hear our future song.
As long as the Jews are remaining alive, our hope will always endure.
Set to an attractive tune, this Malayalam song is a favorite for Kochini ethnic celebrations in Israel, where it has increased in popularity over the years. In 2013, it was recorded with musical accompaniment by Tova Castiel Aharon, and the same year it was performed in Edapally, Kerala, by the Carnatic classical vocalist and composer, Sreevalsan Menon.
After the independent Republic of India was established in 1947 and the State of Israel in 1948, Kerala Jews had two Independence Days to celebrate. Rejoicing in the end of British colonial rule, they participated in flag-raising ceremonies for Indian Independence Day each 15th of August and for Israeli Independence Day on the 5th day of the Jewish month of Iyyar – the date on which the British Mandate over Palestine had ended – creating new Malayalam Jewish songs for their flag-raising celebrations.
According to the late Rivka Yehoshua from Parur, who copied many of the new songs into her notebook and recorded the following song in Israel in 1981, its lyrics were written by a young man named Sion Vadakamuttu in her village, to be performed by her and other girls for such an annual celebration. Galia Hacco from Chendamangalam remembers the lively song competitions held on these occasions, which inspired the composition of more songs. Responsibility for performing the new Zionist songs had shifted from the older generation of “grandmothers and aunties” to the younger generation. The centrality of community participation in such events is highlighted in the second stanza of this song:
[SONG #2, Fifth of Iyyar, Nirit Singers]
Counting, counting, count the days;
The Fifth of Iyyar has arrived!
With dancing and songs of joy
Let us celebrate that day! (2)
Never will this happy day
Be erased from our minds.
A Jew who fails to celebrate –
Is he a member of our caste?
Can he really be a Jew?
When the brutal English left,
Who behaved like animals,
Our freedom they left behind,
And our youth took it up. (2)
Disparagement in this song of the “brutal English” – who behaved “like animals” in Mandate Palestine as well as colonial India – offers a stark contrast to the almost messianic hopes for British rule which had been expressed in an earlier 20th century Malayalam Jewish song entitled “Our Country” (which had optimistically celebrated the establishment of the Mandate as a relief from Ottoman rule). It also shows the influence of nationalist songs of the Freedom Struggle leading up to Indian Independence in 1947, but its tune was taken from the 1950s hit song Enni enni parkum manam, composed by R. Sudarsanam, from the Tamil film Valukayi (“Life”). Beginning with the same words “counting, counting,” of course the singer of the popular cinema song was counting the joy in his heart, rather than the days to Israeli Independence.
The following song – “It Is Dawning” – also carries influences from Malayalam songs of the Indian Freedom Struggle, both in vocabulary (e.g. the repetition of swatantram) and in melody. The tune for its chorus is still widely used for political demonstrations and street processions in contemporary Kerala. As pointed out by Dileepkumar (2006), the second part of the melody and the insistent cadence of the entire song are reminiscent of the Malayalam song Varika Varika Sahajare by Amshi Narayana Pillai, composed in 1930 and sung during Gandhi’s Salt March that year. It is also similar to the popular 1940s Hindi song Kadam Kadam Badaye Ja, which has become the official marching song of the Indian Army.
It Is Dawning
It’s dawning now, it’s dawning now –
The Freedom we were longing for and praying for so long. (2)
Spreading out its golden beauty, Independence came.(2)
With bravery the Freedom of Jerusalem we gained. (2)
Eretz Israel, Eretz Israel – sing loudly!
A song of Freedom sing – our song of Freedom sing.
One flag is rising up; it’s rising up again. (2)
Chains are breaking; chains are falling, falling from our legs. (2)
Nirit Singers performing in Rishon LeZion 2005 (Courtesy: Galia Hacco)
Perhaps most popular and widely remembered of the mid-20th century Zionist Malayalam songs, “Golden Immigration” refers to questions which were raised and finally resolved during a long and trying period of delay before the largest group of Jews left Kerala for Israel in 1954. It names one of the Israeli government emissaries who came to India to make arrangements (Shlomo Schmidt) and refers to the unwelcome experience of required medical examinations. The lyrics are attributed to two Ernakulam Jews, Moshe Joseph Hai and Yaakov Itzhak. Its catchy melody is that of a beloved Malayalam song from which they also adapted its title, transforming Ponnarival (“The Golden Sickle”) into Ponnaliya (“The Golden Immigration”) – in both cases, the term “golden” referring to something of precious value. Lyrics for the much more poetic “Golden Sickle” (referring to the symbol of Kerala’s Communist Party as well as the crescent moon under which two lovers stand) were written by the noted poet, O.N.V. Kurup, with music by G. Devarajan. This hit song appeared in the popular Malayalam drama, “You Made Me a Communist,” produced in 1952 by the Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC) and later made into a film.
[SONG #3, Golden Aliyah, Nirit Singers]
Now the issue has been raised
Of golden aliyah
The flag of Zion flies on the pole;
It’s flying in the air, flying in the air.
Schmidt has come for immigration; Doctor has come for examination.
We must go there, We must go there,
Go to Israel.
In some sense, a circle was completed in 2008 by performance of another Malayalam Jewish song during official ceremonies for Indian Independence Day in Tel Aviv, Israel. Invited by the Indian Ambassador to perform, the Nirit Singers celebrated the raising of the Indian flag in Israel by performing a Malayalam song which had been composed in the 1950s to celebrate the raising of the Israeli flag in India. They adapted it and re-affirmed their Indian patriotism by changing the word “Israel” to “Bharata”– transforming “Israel Padake” (flag of Israel) to “Bharata padake” (flag of India). With the melody of a popular Hindi film song Jiya Beqaraar Hai (composed by Shankar Singh Raghuvanshi and Jaikishan Dayabhai Panchal for the 1949 film Barsaat) they sang:
[SONG #4, Flag of Israel, Nirit Singers]
Oh flag of India, flag of our native land,
Rise up to the sky,
Quickly rise to the sky!
Courageous warriors raised you high, oh flag of our land, (2)
Oh living flag of ours, India’s hope is in our hand. (2)
Icon-photo: Nirit Singers in Ramat Eliyahu 2006 (Courtesy: Barbara Johnson)
Daniel, Ruby & Barbara C. Johnson. 1995. Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
Dileepkumar, K.V. 2006. “Popular Culture of Kerala and the Jewish Malayalam Folk Songs.” Paper delivered at The International Seminar on the Jewish Heritage of Kerala, Association for Comparative Studies, Kalady, Kerala.
Johnson, Barbara. 2004. Oh, Lovely Parrot!: Jewish Women’s Songs from Kerala. Jerusalem: Jewish Music Research Centre, The Hebrew University.
Zacharia, Scaria & Ophira Gamliel. 2005. Karkulali – Yefefiah-Gorgeous!: Jewish Women’s Songs in Malayalam with Hebrew Translations. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute and The Hebrew University.
Thanks to Galia Hacco and the Nirit singers for use of musical excerpts from their CD Jewish Women’s Malayalam Songs, and to Galia Hacco for use of the photographs. English song translations by Tzipporah (Venus) Lane and Barbara Johnson. Dedicated to the memory of Ruby Daniel and Rivka Yehoshua.
Dr. Barbara C. Johnson is a Professor Emerita of Anthropology from Ithaca College and a Visiting Scholar in the Jewish Studies Program at Cornell University. After researching and writing about the Kerala Jews for more than 40 years, she is now completing work (with Tzipporah Lane in Israel) on a volume of English translations and explanatory notes for 80 Malayalam Jewish songs, accompanied by musical notation and with essays from other scholars in the field. Her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.
I’m wondering why the author didn’t explain why Zionism appealed at all to the Jews of Kerala. I’ve only just recently begun to explore this subject, but still have not found a convincing reason as to why Zionism was taken up by some Indian Jews.
Sorry I didn’t have space to go into detail. After speaking with many Kerala Jews about this over the past 40 years, I have heard many answers to that question. The Kerala Jews were well-versed in traditional Jewish texts and liturgy which expressed a religious longing for return to the land of their ancestors (as did many of the old Malayalam songs). Many were also aware and supportive of the modern Zionist movement and its hope for creation of a safe home for Jews who were persecuted in Europe. When the State of Israel was created, individual Kerala Jews and families had varied reasons for deciding to go – many for religious reasons – some in search of improved economic opportunity (though others left behind personal wealth and important jobs) – some because the younger members of the family were eager to go, some because the grandparents wanted to go …. Eventually, as it became clear that a significant number were leaving, there was a strong desire to preserve family and community ties and not be left behind. Thanks for your interest!
Thanks for your reply, although I’m still not quite convinced. Zionism is a European phenomenon and given the lack of anti-Semitism in India I’m not sure I can understand how it initially would be attractive to Indian Jews. Certainly there must have been some apprehension or something, no?