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An open letter to a teenage student of Ahmedabad

I have been following Happy Streets in the Times of India and so far, I was pleased to note that all of you have the freedom to roam and have fun on traffic-free roads. But, just two days before Yoga-Day, midday, one of you, riding his cycle at full- speed; hit me on this very road. I was crossing the road and was on the right lane, when there was a red light at the crossroads and there was no traffic. But, even as I turned to cross, I felt something like a boulder hit me and felt myself falling. The next thing, I knew was that I was sprawled out on the road, even as the green light blinked and the traffic started, but before that, some shop-keepers hauled me onto the pavement like a ton of bricks. I was in great pain, as I stood up and saw you were stopped by the shop-keepers and although I was shocked and badly hurt, I gave you a lecture on traffic sense. But, I was in for a greater shock, when like all young people, instead of being sorry, you were defiant and angry with me and held me responsible for crossing the road and did not accept that you were wrong, going ULTA, instead of being in the regular correct lane on the other side of the road. I had half a mind to shake you and hand you over to the traffic police, but let you go, as you were as old as my grandson. But, I will always remember your face. So, like all grandmothers, I would like to advice you to have a heart, accept your mistake and follow traffic rules.

(p.s. This note is for all heads of schools that they instill traffic rules in students, as I believe, we also have a Traffic Park at Lal Darwaza, which could become functional and help students understand the rules, as every day, many people of all ages are hit by vehicles)

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I am a seed of the tree

An extract from Esther David’s manuscript of her proposed book I am a seed of the tree – a result of a three year documentary effort facilitated by  a research grant from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute Research Awards, U. S. A and the cooperation of the Jewish community and the Magen Abhraham Synagogue of Ahmedabad, the only synagogue in Gujarat. 


The Jewish community of Ahmedabad is very small, we are about four thousand in India; with fifty families in Ahmedabad and so our lives revolve around the Synagogue.

The Magen Abhraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad has an Indo-Judaica architectural form with old religious artefacts. It has Grecian pillars, a triangular roof, a high ceiling; artistic grills, stained glass windows and chandeliers which lend an ethereal glow. It is similar to Art Nouveau style of architecture with a women’s gallery built without pillars, the Ark, where the Torahs are placed; facing Jerusalem, while the Ten Commandments are inscribed in Hebrew and Marathi.

The Bene Israel community has never had a rabbi, but an elder conducts prayers and is known as Hazzan and since the community has become smaller we celebrate most festivals together. Bene Israel Jews refer to India as their Motherland and Israel as Fatherland or Homeland.

Most Bene Israel Jews follow the dietary law and do not mix meat dishes with dairy products. So, we use coconut milk and traditional dishes are made during festivals or weddings, but, poha or beaten rice is used for the Malida, made as an offering to Prophet Elijah, for wish fulfilment.

The Bene Israel Jews have been living in India for two thousand years. They came to India from Israel after the fall of King Solomon’s second temple in 70 B.C. to escape oppression from a Greek warlord.

Out of the ten lost tribes, it is believed that the Bene Israel Jews belong to the tribe of Zebulum. Bene Israel Jews reached India after a ship wreck near Alibaug, so Maharashtrian, Konkani and Gujarati influences can be seen in their lifestyle, food, dress, jewellery and a mehendi ceremony during weddings.

On the Konkan coast, our ancestors worked as oil pressers, observing Sabbath from Friday evening to Saturday and were known as “Saturday-oil-people or Shanvar-Telis.” They had Biblical names and also adopted names of their villages as family names, like Navgaon. In this way Jews assimilated into Indian society with Marathi as their mother tongue, but continued to pray in Hebrew. Two mound like graves in Alibaug, bear testimony of their arrival in India.

During the shipwreck the Bene Israel Jews had lost their religious books, so they followed an oral tradition of observing Sabbath, prayed to Prophet Elijah, circumcised their male-child, observed certain dietary laws and only had fish with scales. The British and Dutch identified them as Jews and gave them religious books, which were translated into Marathi and David Rahabi, a learned Jew from Cochin gave them religious education.

There are five Jewish communities in India, the Bene Israel Jews of Maharashtra and Gujarat, Jews of Cochin, Bagdadi Jews of Kolkatta, Bene Ephraim Jews of Andhra Pradesh and Bene Menashe or Jews of Manipur-Mizoram. There are synagogues in Cochin, Kolkatta, Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Ahmedabad. Lately, the number of Jews has reduced in India, as they have immigrated to Israel, America and Canada

Jews have a matriarchal law, so the birth of a girl-child is welcome, because it is believed that a woman preserves the Jewish heritage in a family and helps her children understand Judaism.

Bindi Sheth’s photographs show how the Jewish community preserves its cultural identity and assimilates into Indian life, while retaining its Jewish essence.

View Bindi Sheth’s accompanying photographic documentation and exploration, on the journal here.

Esther David writes novels about the Jewish experience in India and has been translated in French, Gujarati and Marathi. She has received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2010 for English Literature.

Bindi Sheth has received many awards for photography and participated on the theme of RECOVERY for PIX a Photographic Quarterly, Delhi. 


– Courtesy : Tasveer Journal


Seen and Unseen  : The Net Sculptures of Janet Echelman

Summers in Ahmedabad  can be unbearable, but the evenings are unusually pleasant. As a child I remember the pleasure of sprinkling water in the garden at sundown. After that the beds were made there amongst the Asopalav trees. The mosquito nets were dusted and tied to the four poster iron beds, making each bed look like a square room of transparent white net. Later, there would be a cool breeze and after dinner it was a pleasure to creep into the net-room. Mother would tuck-in the loose ends and one could weave stories and dreams uninterrupted….in the cocoon of the mosquito net, with the fragrance of mogra and Raat-rani. In my net-room, I assumed I was not seen, but I am sure, I was.  This is the feeling one gets when one sees Janet Echelman’s sculptures, currently openly suspended in the open corridors of the National Institute of Design, looking very frail and delicate against the backdrop of a fresh green lawn.

Here, I seemed to regain the fragment of objects from the past. But, would I have ever thought of making a sculpture out of our very own mosquito nets? Perhaps not.

India has a rich tradition of sculpture, seen inside and outside on temple walls. Also, contemporary sculpture is made in many materials like wood, stone, terracotta and fibreglass and more recently, artists are experimenting with installation art.

The normal conditioning of most of us is to see a sculpture on a pedestal. Not that we do not know Calder’s sculpture and more recent trends across continents. Granted, it is difficult to articulate a new sculptural language, especially in India, where one doesn’t really have to look for installations in galleries, since they are all around us, like paan-bidi kiosks, tool boxes, offerings of coconuts to trees or the colourful quilts drying on trees.

Janet Echelman has succeeded in taking objects from India’s daily life….like the mosquito-net, the brass lamp, the fishing net….and used them with imagination and innovation to create a subtle, personal visual language which crosses all boundaries.

She encountered mosquito nets at a friends house in Ahmedabad and was stirred by the bells at a Jain temple in Kutch.

She remembers the pure whiteness of the marble flooring and the ringing of bells. Both these forms have been recreated as installations, which are suspended from the ceiling and have an inviting feeling which seems to say, “enter and feel the space.”

In this context, there is a touch of spirituality in Janet’s work. It is like an Indian prayer. Hands folded, eyes closed and the inner self communicating with nature – in silence – which transforms into the transparent space around the spirit within.

Here transparency becomes a game between the seen and unseen. Like the artists lamps. One could almost brush past them, hear the sound and not know what they are all about. But, look closely and see that it is the world of the visible and invisible which extends to the net sculptures.

The first bronze piece, Bell with Nine Nipples welcomes the viewer into Janet’s world. It elicits ancient memory : the Mother Goddess, Mother Earth, Nature, Prakriti, the female element of nature. The other bells are shaped like a thorny cactus plant, hard and formidable from the outside, yet full of milk.

The bell forms combine the male and female principles of nature as Shiva’s Ardhnareshwar form. This erotic mixture of both elements exhibits a strange tactile quality. The net sculptures are held with metal wires and flow from squares to circles or the other way around, rather similar to the complete form of the Shiva-Linga.

At times these forms resemble flapping tents or mother’s skirts under which children like to protect themselves, an image from pre-verbal memory. By suspending the forms, the viewer gets an opportunity to look upwards or rather inwards. Perhaps these creations invite the viewers to find their own place-space. Or just be themselves once inside. This is best seen in Playpen and in More than you can chew, Janet uses black and white textiles from Bali, which signifies the balance between evil and sacred. Third Eye has an interesting form composed with three breasts, almost like a child’s view of an older woman’s breasts, huge, sagging yet comforting.

Through the net, one can see other colours and forms like the vertical Yellow Bellied Button, which has an inner form of a black bandhani fabric which looks like a flimsy yellow form. These forms seem to spill out of the base of the sculptures. In fact, they emerge from the transparency and expose themselves like the passionate blood red bandhani fabric – in – Red Hot Dripping Bellsy.

The final piece is composed of eight bronzes sensuously shaped bells at the end of the corridor, you can ring them by striking each other as it suggests the interaction between people.

In totality, Janet’s work is based on the human experience of the seen and unseen, forms emerging and disappearing and yet bringing into focus the limits of the horizon line, a meeting between art and an unusual flight of imagination.

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The Great India Potter – Esther David

Early morning, even as I was having tea and reading about the ban on plastic items in the newspaper, I could hear a matka-seller passing by, beating a tune on a matka with a ringed finger, almost a Ghatam player. As, it is the perfect timing to introduce clay kulhars to serve tea in roadside kitlis, instead of those wobbly plastic cups. Terracotta kulhars are both eco-friendly and easy to hold. Even restaurants could serve, water, chai and chaas, by buying them and supporting potters, as they are soon disappearing from our life. Sadly, most homes do not have matkas, as the designs of filtered water systems are not conducive to fill the same water in a matka. The idea of serving chai in kulhars, immediately conjures images of the earth, water and fire, as clay is a symbol of our earth-based,  crafts-based culture. It is also, an inheritance, we received from the Indus Valley Civilization. Kulhars were not heavy, neither big nor small, but have the correct size of a normal teacup and it is a mystery, why we cannot revive the kulhar culture in Gujarat. Of course, some people argue, about the disposal of kulhars, but,  this can be worked out with experts working at design schools. The potter’s art can be revived, as our city still has gaams and puras, which always had a resident potter, working on his wheel, sitting hunched on the floor, under a banyan tree and like a magician creating innumerable pots from just one ball of clay.

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Jaws – Esther David

Remember the film Jaws, where sharks hunted human beings? Well, you may not know that roles are often reversed when human beings also hunt sharks for food. It is rather hard to believe that if sharks relish human beings, we can also eat shark meat, by creating some unusual sea food recipes. In many countries, it is supposed to be a delicacy and even in India, it is made in some southern states. Few years back we had the rare opportunity of tasting shark curry, made with filets of the white cheeked shark. The taste was different and the experience worth repeating. They say, shark filets are cut from the middle of its enormous belly and have a rather rubbery taste. To minimize the rubbery feeling, shark filets are first marinated in vinegar to soften the meat. There are three ways of eating shark meat, fried, curried or made with pieces of sun dried shark, which is powdered and mixed with fried onions, curry leaves, spiced with red chili powder, cooked like a dry chutney and eaten with plain steamed rice. Fried shark is made with slightly larger filets and made like any other fried fish, only after it is marinated in vinegar. While shark curry needs much more finesse in the preparation. To start with, oil is heated in a casserole, onions browned and spiced with turmeric, fresh green chilies, red chili powder and ginger paste, till the masala absorbs the oil, pieces of shark are added along with a thinner second press of coconut milk and cooked on a slow fire, till it softens. At this point, the thicker first press of coconut milk is added, brought to a boil and mixed with a little vinegar, again simmered on a slow fire and then served piping hot with appams or rice, so that your Jaws tingle for more and some more…

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