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Saffron Dreams – Esther David

Yesterday, I was re-organizing my kitchen and discovered a few bottles of different sizes. I could not recognize their contents, as I had them for a long time, but for one reason or other, I had never used them. On close scrutiny, I noticed that these bottles had small quantities of saffron stuck at the base of the bottle. The saffron was very old and I knew, I would never use it, yet I tried to open the lid of one of the bottles, but could not. So I placed them behind containers of other spices. I did not know what to do with so much saffron and nor did I want to throw it away, as I knew saffron was a precious condiment. Ruefully, I looked at the saffron bottles, standing amidst containers of cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom.

That day, when I tried opening the saffron bottle, I felt transformed into another world, as I felt; I was drowning in a sea of memories.

I smelled my fingers and saw that they had transformed into strings of saffron, as their fragrance enveloped me in a cloud, from where, the past emerged and I remembered the time, we had lived as a joint family.

I became nostalgic and wanted to break open the cloud, which held me captive. All, I wanted to do; was to remove the fragrance of saffron, which had enmeshed me. From this cloud, another form emerged; it was that of my grandmother clad in a white sari. She always kept her precious saffron in a coin-size box, which was hidden in her cupboard; in between the folds of her neatly folded saris or in a tiny pocket stitched inside her sari-blouse. Interestingly, when she needed it most, she always forgot where she had hidden it; and searched for it, all over the house.

Whenever, she opened her cupboard, the fragrance of saffron hit me; and made me dizzy with desire. When, she did not find the saffron in her boxes full of old photographs and mementos or the cupboard, she upturned all her belongings, worried that she had lost it. She perspired profusely and wiped her face with her sari and eventually found the tiny box, tied into a knot in her pallav, which was tucked into the soft folds of her waistline. Relieved, she would smile, unknot it, hold the box in her palms, open it and sprinkle saffron into her favourite recipes, saying, “Saffron is precious, it is as expensive as gold…” And, when we sat down for dinner, we bonded, like one big family, as just one pinch of saffron worked like a magic potion.

As a child, I often slept in her lap and felt myself floating in saffron dreams…which were forgotten when she passed away and only returned, when I found the bottles of saffron.  Memories of the past blossomed like the bewitching saffron crocus flowers in my being. This feeling was so strong that it took me backwards into time and I felt locked in a diorama. I felt blinded as the fragrance of saffron became a metaphor to memory, leading me through a path, towards the rose-wood dining table, where we ate together in the old ancestral house in the walled city of Ahmedabad. And, as our plates were piled with chicken kesari, coconut rice or biryani made with a sprinkling of saffron, it filled with euphoric aromas.

I knew that fragrance and memory had a deep connection with the past. Yet, I wanted to dust them away from my hands, my clothes and the very air I breathed.

Again, I reached for the bottles and magically the glass-cage disappeared. I lifted the bottles, placed them in the front row of the kitchen shelf and moved the spice bottles to another shelf. I saw the saffron had dried with age, but had the power to move me…


We are islands within ourselves – by Esther David

As soon as the Corona-virus spread its fangs all over the world, followed with a Lockdown and curfew, I felt like an island surrounded by a sea of conflicting emotions.

Nine months later, even after the Unlock, when shops have opened and life appears to be normal, yet we are afraid to meet each other…do not touch, keep a safe distance. Agreed, but we can at least speak a few words of concern, because it is important to communicate or else the island within us will float away towards unknown horizons…

I feel my body has a millions of pores, from where the virus can enter and drag me to the final destination…and dust will turn to dust….

There were many patients who were admitted to Covid-hospitals, they could not see their families and the trauma of those, who were quarantined at home, is unimaginable. I am sure, they felt ostracized by society, yet there were some good Samaritans, who looked after their needs.

A surrealistic image emerges in my mind, of a vast desert-land full of specks of human beings, keeping a safe distance from each other, silently walking towards a dark horizon….  

When our area was declared as a contaminated zone, I called the police control room and the receptionist wanted to know the reason of my call, so I told her, I needed groceries and medicines. In ten minutes, a police van arrived at my door with four young police women, dressed in uniform, berets, gloves and masks. They were friendly, took the list and drove away and much to my surprise, in an hour they were back, with all that I needed.

My house-help could not come to my place for almost four to five months. Soon after the Unlock, she arrived, wearing a mask and smiled as I gave her a bottle of sanitizer, she rubbed it over her hands and was happy to be back to work. I realized; all I needed was someone to ask me, “How are you today?”

During the Pandemic, followed by the Lockdown, whenever somebody called, I felt energized and came to the conclusion that the human voice has a great capacity to heal, comfort and lend warmth. In contrast, I also heard stories of discord amongst couples and families. Almost every single human being was finding it difficult to be locked-up at home. Maybe by the time, the Pandemic recedes; it will leave behind broken relationships and dissent amongst most families.

Before the Pandemic, I had noticed, hospitals used deep green curtains and the medical staff, even wore masks of the same colour, along with their white coats. But, as soon as the Pandemic arrived, I started identifying the medical staff by their Personal-Protection-Equipment in white and sky blue colours.

Blue and white are the colours of the universe, purity, beauty, silence and exude a feeling of peace. Strangely, it has become a colour we associate with Corona-virus and death.

In Gujarat, according to rules, Navratri was celebrated in private homes or inside housing societies. The festival passed peacefully, but everything changed with Diwali, when there was an air of festivity, as though; there was no Pandemic looming large over our lives. And, as the fireworks, shot upwards, there was an increase in cases, eventually a two-day curfew was imposed in the city.

Every morning, I wake up, remembering the labyrinth of long silent hours, but alive in a world, where we have transformed into islands within ourselves.

This article appeared in THE SPEAKING TREE column of THE TIMES OF INDIA on 18th January 2021



On invitation of the The Asiatic Society of Mumbai, for the online lecture series ‘Shalom Bombay.’ This is an excerpt from her talk –  

“If you were to meet me in the street, you would never guess that I am a Jew. But, I am an Indian Bene Israel Jew with a very Biblical name like Esther. Maybe, most of us feel this, but at home, for shabath prayers or at the synagogue, the women cover their head, men wear kippas and prayer shawls, and together we say our prayers in Hebrew, so, I refer to our Jewish life, as a secret life…and with diminishing numbers, as our families live in Israel and other countries, Bene Israel Jews of India prefer to celebrate festivals together, like one big family. While I was writing and researching for my novels, ‘Book of Esther’ and ‘Book of Rachel,’ I realized that in a multi-cultural country like India, where Bene Israel Jews are a mini-microscopic minority community, they have retained a strong Jewish identity; with their rites, rituals, traditions and lifestyle. Indian influences can be seen in dress, food habits, choice of jewellery; wearing flowers in the hair, the mehendi ceremony, before a wedding and using coconut milk instead of dairy products to keep the dietary law. Maharashtrian influences can be seen in their lifestyle, for example, puran-poli is made during the festival of Purim. They also make an unusual sweet during the Jewish New Year, known as ‘chik-cha-halwa,’ made with wheat extract and coconut milk, which is different from Indian milk based sweets.Traditional dishes are made during festivals or weddings or at community gatherings. Poha or beaten rice is used by Bene Israel Jews for preparing a malida as an offering for wish fulfilment to Prophet Elijah. Poha is washed, mixed with grated coconut, sugar, raisins, chopped nuts along with dates, dates, bananas and seasonal fruits. The Malida is followed by a community dinner. As a follow-up of my research for my novels, when I went to Alibaug and stood at the ‘Rock of Elijah’ or ‘Eliahu Hananbi cha Tapa,’ I was fascinated with the abstract concept of the Prophet. The malida ceremony for Prophet Elijah is held; only by the Bene Israel Jews. So, the Prophet appears in most of my novels, like ‘Book of Rachel’ as a divine intervention and in ‘Shalom India Housing Society,’ where he arrives to keep the Bene Israel Jewish community together. Here, I have also explored the cross-cultural conflict of staying back in India or immigrating to Israel, where they have family and community. Most Bene Israel Jews have Maharashtrian surnames, which indicate the village, which adopted them, after they were shipwrecked in the coastal area near Alibaug. They are fluent in Marathi, but, prayers are said in Hebrew. Much earlier Hebrew prayer books were translated into Marathi and are often seen at some Jewish homes and synagogues. More recently, I have noticed Bene Israel Jews are well versed in Hebrew, as they attend Hebrew classes and often travel between India and Israel, yet; I have heard them saying, ‘India is our motherland…”      



Since I became known as an ‘Indian Jewish author,’ and being a Jew, I would often wonder, if my novels would ever be translated in Hebrew, about which, I had written in ‘BOOK OF RACHEL’ – ‘the language of our prayers.” Then, I gave up, but last year in 2020, I received a phone call from Gandhian scholar Shimon Lev, author of ‘Soulmates – The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach,’ published by Orient Black-Swan 2012. He was in Ahmedabad, working on another project. So, we decided to meet at a café, where I often meet friends. I do not know, at which moment, over cups of tea and cold-drinks, Shimon asked about my novels; and was surprised that am not translated in Hebrew. 

Later, miraculously, during the Lockdown, I received an email about such a possibility and the rest is history….

As the Jewish New Year approaches and my novel ‘Book of Rachel,’ Hebrew edition, titled, ‘Sefer Rachel’ is available in Israel, I wish to say – A big “Thank You” and “New Year Greetings” to my publisher Ktzia, friend Shimon for believing in ‘Rachel,’ so that the book is a reality, also for his endless questions, detailing and editing the Hebrew edition, Yontan for translating Book of Rachel, Roni for her article and dear friend Shalva… 

–      Esther David      

Publishing House Gamma, Tel Aviv

Link:  (Owner Dr. Ktzia Alon)

Editor and Academic editor – Dr Shimon Lev

Translation: Yontan Alon

Content of the Book:

Preface: Shimon Lev

The Book of Rachel – Esther David

(Hebrew Title – SEFER RACHEL) 

Food and related items glossary: Dr.  Shimon Lev

Epilogue: Dr.  Shimon Lev

Between Danda and Dimona – The Story of Bnei Israel Community in India and Israel – Prof. Shalva Weil

 Exoticizing the Self: Indianness and Jewishness in the Literary Work of Esther David –  – Dr. Roni Parchak

Being an Indian- Jewish Womam – The Mizrachi Feminism of Rachel (Dandkar) and Esther (David)


In Conversation: Esther David by Shweta Rao Garg

Shweta Rao Garg – First of all, congratulations for winning Sahitya Akademi award for Book of Rachel. How did the idea of an Indo-Jewish recipe book cum fiction first occur to you? Rachel, the sixty something protagonist of your book seems to choose food as her personal memoir, food also helps her win friends who eventually help her win the synagogue back, thus food becomes political. How important is food in the novel?

Esther David – Book of Rachel happened because of various reasons. While researching for Book of Esther, I met an elderly Jewish lady living in a village near a Synagogue, which was no longer used for services. It gave me the perfect setting for Book of Rachel.

During those years, I was already known as Jewish writer after the publication of The Walled City. And, I received innumerable mails and letters from people who had read my book.

One such email was from a Pakistani journalist Shershah Syed, who wrote to me about a certain Aunt Rachel, the last surviving Jew of Pakistan. I knew that Pakistan once had a Synagogue and a Jewish graveyard. I was told that the Synagogue was destroyed in a fire and the aging aunt Rachel, looked after the cemetery, as she protected it from land sharks. Since, she died a few years back, I do not know what has happened to the cemetery. And, while working on Book of Esther, I had seen many old Synagogues on the Konkan coast, which were in ruins. Around this time, I also became involved with the Baroda Jewish cemetery dispute, which took place in a city near Ahmedabad. With the help of prominent citizens of Baroda, I could save it from real estate agents, who had already started demolishing a part of the cemetery. So, I could collect first hand information about this matter.

This was also the time that I noticed that Bene Israel Jewish food habits had changed and realized that some of our traditional food habits would soon be forgotten.

And, once while going through my papers, I found an old file, written by one of my aunt’s and saw that the recipes were different from what we made in our homes or at community dinners at the Synagogue.

So, Book of Rachel is all about preservation of the Jewish heritage in India. I wove the story around the theme of love, food and heritage. Often, about the old who have been left behind by families, which immigrated to Israel. About Synagogues, which have been abandoned and are in ruins. In the novel Rachel’s life revolves around her fight to preserve an ancient Synagogue in her backyard, as she tries out an ancient recipe at the beginning of each chapter.

SR: How much of a Rachel is Esther, especially in interspersing memories with flavors?

ED: Here and there, but mainly researched women of Jewish community and my own return to traditional Jewish food as preservation of heritage, tradition or ritual, as mentioned in chapter of Purim and Puran Poli, where young Rachel wins back her fiance. I also believe food, if cooked with good energy and love helps relationships and transforms into a magical potion. When I wrote Book of Rachel, both my children, now adults had left to make their own homes. So, I started coping with the vacuam by trying these recipes, either with my cook and her niece-in-law, Lila and Raili. Later, I discovered Julie Pingle, the cantor Johny Pingle’s wife at the Synagogue and saw that, as she was from Bombay and came from a traditional background, she could cook, all that I had known as a child from the women of house. So, we started experimenting and every week, she brought for me a dabba of traditional food and even demonstrated how to make kanavali. When she cooks in large quantities, I often spend a lot of time with her and watching her cook. And, while researching in Alibaug, the ancestral hometown, I discovered many Jewish women cooking like my grandmother, especially Sofie Wakrulkar, mother of Irene, who is married in Ahmedabad to a distant nephew, but does not cook like her mother. So, it became important to write about it. Actually, Julie Pingle is the Synagogue caterer and if by mistake she does not make Paneer bhurjee or Punjabi style food or dhosas, Undhiyu-puri-jalebi, chana puri, kadhi-pulao-shrikhand etc, nobody eats her Bene Israel style food, which is traditionally Bene Israel Jewish food, made with the dietary law of not mixing milk with meat. So we use coconut milk. But, they dont mind, if she makes mutton as a Jewish style masala curry. They also like Chik cha Halwa and Kippur Chi Poorie as mentioned in Book of Rachel as they are sweet and very few women can make it. So, now Bombay also has a woman caterer for Bene Israel Jewish food, if somebody feels like it. I think, this is an important study for me as a writer, who also happens to be a woman. I respect traditional food of not only Bene Israel or Polish Jews from my daughters in-laws side, but from all over the world.

SR: Can you tell the readers more about Bene Israel food and how it is linked to their identity? You were also a part of a food festival in Ahmedabad and started writing columns on food. Is preoccupation with food something to do your being a woman belonging to  a minority ethnic group?

ED: Yes and No. In the process of my food column, I was convinced that human beings in general, are getting caught up by the global invasion of fast food, fusion, multi cuisine and assume that there is no reason to be proud about traditional or ritualists food as they sound too desi. This shocks me, in my own community and others. Like, during Divali, chocolates have replaced mithai. I am even more shocked when Jews don’t like Sol Kadhi. Or when Gujaratis say, Gujarat is not only about dhoklas and handvo. Actually, today, very few women can make dhoklas. Do what you like and become global in food, etc, but dont deny the rich history of your existence. So, Book of Rachel is about such interrogations with myself.

SR: How much is a food a legitimate subject for Indian fiction and why?

ED: If it is important in cinema, why not in literature? look at the best cinema of the world, not India, where most things happen around food. I think, food is an important element of detailing, which can be used in literature and helps even in describing certain characters or differences between characters. It gives colour to situations. My favourite books and Spanish film is- Like water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Aphrodite by Isabelle Allende. I love them and also the way Amy Tan uses food in her novels, is just fascinating. But, one word of caution, one cannot do too much of it, or else, your novel can become a cook book. So, although I have 300 Bene Israel recipes, I chose carefully. I love to read Madhur Jaffery, but eventually, it does go into the category of cookbook. But, Chitrita Bannerji did use it to great effect in Hour of the Goddess, but again, the recipes are included like a cookbook. Actually, food has to be woven carefully into novels, so that, in totality,the story line remains important, not the food.

(“Food in Indian Literature”, Muse India, May-June 2011 issue)


When Cyclone Nisarga reached me… – Esther David

I live in Ahmedabad.  And, after a long summer spent in Lockdown, suddenly one morning, the light changed and it started raining. Monsoon had arrived. That evening, while watching Cyclone Nisarga on television, I started receiving innumerable phone calls and messages from India and abroad, asking me, if all was well, with my family in Alibaug. I did not answer, as I was intently watching the havoc in Alibaug, as the waves were rising as high as the coconut trees against the backdrop of a dark clouded sky and turbulent sea. Yes, I know Alibaug, as often, I use this place like a stage to set my novels, but I do not have relatives there, except for a friend’s family. 

Alibaug is the land of my ancestors; as the Bene Israel Jews landed here, after a shipwreck, some 2000 years ago, while fleeing from their Greek persecutors. And, since the millennium, I have often been to Alibaug, researching for my novel BOOK OF ESTHER and then BOOK OF RACHEL.  During these years, I discovered, the ROCK OF ELIJAH in Sagav village near Alibaug, where he is known to have landed. It is believed, when he flew back to heaven in his chariot of fire, the wheels left a dent in the rock there, which is worshipped by Bene Israel Jews as a pilgrimage site. This coastal landscape inspired me, so I set BOOK OF RACHEL in my ancestral village near Alibaug and the novel starts like this, ” The cyclone lashed Rachel’s house exactly at three thirty that afternoon and brought with it a fish at her doorstep…”.

Soon after Nisarga hit Alibaug and the messages started pouring in, I did not know how to tell them that I did not have any relatives in Alibaug. I was connected to Alibaug through my novel BOOK OF RACHEL, where the story revolves around Rachel, her family and some other characters.

Slowly, by midnight, as the cyclone moved away from Alibaug, I realized that, for those who had read BOOK OF RACHEL, the protagonist Rachel, her family and all those who were part of the story had transformed into real characters for my readers and had become part of my family. I was deeply touched and did not tell them that the only relative, I had in Alibaug was Rachel….   


The Worry Box – Esther David

During these difficult days, we all need something to comfort us.

I found my comfort in a worry-box.

But, the other day, I forgot to close the lid of my worry box and the house was flooded with worries. To add to it, I lost its lid. And, I started looking for the lid, so as not to blow my own lid. In the process, the whole house was in a mess, as I looked for it. It added, one more worry to my deluge of worries, as I knew, it would take hours to get back some semblance of sanity in my house and head. Even after tables, drawers, cupboards, shelves and every possible space had been turned upside down; the lid could not be traced. I even looked for it, under pillows and mattresses, wondering if it had sneaked into the quilting.

It hadn’t.

Exhausted, I sat down on the floor and leaned against a chair and jumped as I felt, something touch my hand, it was the lid of my worry box. Strangely looking alive, as it tried to tell me that it was there, sitting very close to me and telling me, that I need not worry about anything. Actually, it was comforting me.

Quickly, I picked up the lid, as though it was the most precious object of my life. I rushed to my worry box, closed it and felt an ethereal calm descend upon me. It felt so good, that, I put away all the things I had pulled out, while looking for it.

Only when the lid was firmly placed on the worry box, did it bring some order in my life.

A worry box is one of the most delicate objects on earth.

If, by chance, you misplace the lid, you must also be careful that the bottom of the box does not give way, because, then, your worries will find a thousand and one ways of returning back to you.

Sometimes, seemingly small inconspicuous objects like these; have the capacity of changing our lives.

Few years back, a friend who had gone Mexico for a conference had brought it for me, saying it was the perfect gift for a worry-bird like me.

The worry box is a beautifully crafted artifact from Mexico, where worry is crafted as a work of art.

It came packed in a tiny cloth bag, as the box within was no bigger than a walnut. It was made with strips of bark, decorated with red brush strokes. It was so small, that I could sleep with it, tucked under my pillow.

Seven dolls lie cradled inside the worry box, in accordance to the laws of numerology. The stick-figure-dolls are made of wood, have two black dots for eyes and another dot for the mouth, while the hair is braided in U-turns, like Mayan women.

The dolls are dressed in shirts and sarongs, in greens, pinks, purples, blue and reds, held at the waist with a bright sash, which contrasts with the colour of the dress. They could look alike, yet each doll has her own identity and a body language, which is not immediately evident, but, if you look closely, you will notice that the dolls change shape according to the nature of worry.

Telling the doll about your worries, is an art in itself. When worries start buzzing like bees in your head, open the lid of your worry box, pick up one doll, hold its ear to your mouth and whisper your worry into the dolls ear. People, like me who habitually speak to their dolls, will tell you that, when you open the box, without thinking, you immediately pick up a doll, which is supposed to listen to you. Sometimes, it even raises its arm and reaches out to you, maybe even comforts you by caressing your cheek. It is believed that once you start speaking to your dolls, automatically your worries are transmitted to them and you can sleep in peace.

Just one word of caution, the worry box is not known to be effective during the day. It is an unspoken rule, that worries must be whispered to the dolls, only at night, that too, just before you go to bed. The other rule, is that you must be alone with your worry box. You are then, supposed to open the worry box, tenderly pick up a doll, hold her in the cup of your palm, wake her up, wipe her clean, arrange her dress, whisper your worries to her, put her back in the box, tuck her in, close the lid and place the box, under your pillow, so that your worries stay within the box, and you can sleep uninterrupted…..(This is a highly artistic device, more effective than any other treatment used by worry-birds.No social distancing necessary…)


A Living Statue – Esther David

She was sitting still on the pavement. In fact she was kneeling in silent prayer. Long lashes curled over her closed eyes, her lips curved in a soft smile and the drapery flowing around her. Her face was painted white and she resembled a marble sculpture. There was a bowl at her knee. It was full of coins. She was one of the many roadside “Living Statues” of Paris.

There are many ways to earn a living in Paris. Besides the usual jobs, artistes like this young woman make a living by playing statue on tourist spots. Nearer the Louvre museum, there are those who dress like an Egyptian pharoah, a Greek god or imitate one of the many sculptures from the museum. This is good business, if the artiste has the courage to face the changing climate and pose without moving for innumerable hours.

The queue was long at the Musee d’Orsay on the River Seine, which houses one of the best collections of Impressionism. Here, the queues are not boring, as all around entertainment is for free. If you like what you see, you could leave a few cents for the street-artists.

On this particular day, we saw the kneeling Madonna on the pavement. She was definitely a hit, because her bowl was full. For background music, a musician was playing a one man brass band. He was sitting on a folding cycle seat and playing a drum; an accordion, a flute, all connected to system, which relayed taped music. His hat was placed at the base of the drum, but in contrast to the kneeling Madonna, his hat was empty.

The scenario was like a theatre-of-the-absurd, as we also saw some Indians. They were selling post cards of the Eiffel Tower or roasting chestnuts. They were brilliant salesmen, because as soon as, it started raining, the cards disappeared and they started selling umbrellas. They were dressed in old track-suits and torn shoes. Sadly, they live in small apartments, situated in the faraway suburbs of Paris; about ten to a room, surviving hand to mouth, yet sending home; a part of their earnings. It is a mystery, how they manage on a shoe-string budget. They are hard working, as they sell flowers at night; around restaurants. The team of four works in unison as they speak to each other in Hindi or one of them teaches them a few words of French, to induce better salesmanship. Every morning, they travel long distances to buy cheap flowers, toys and umbrellas. But, the tinkle of Euros in their pockets is more important than anything else.

Going back to our story, the vendor of chestnuts had attracted people who wanted to eat something warm. And, as the rain slowed down, one of them; brought out colourful plastic spider-men and stuck them to the walls of the museum. Children started pestering their parents to buy these toys.

But, all eyes were on the kneeling Madonna. There were long discussions whether she was breathing? Some said, they had seen her breathe, some had seen her face muscles twitch and others said, her eyelashes fluttered or that she had raised her eyebrows. Some had seen her body move under the drapery. We wondered what made her do what she was doing. Did she need the money? or was she a young art student working for her fees? We were worried that she would be cold and drenched, because it was washing away her white make up and exposing her pale pink cheeks. She was a beautiful young woman and resembled a marble nymph.

One young man, decided to tell her to move elsewhere, but nobody spoke to her. The queue moved on and we looked backwards to see what happened to our Madonna.

The end of the story is something like this, a big rough man appeared from the bar behind her, emptied the money in a pouch, pulled off, our Madonna’s – plaster-cast-head-mask with a jerk, exposed her real, simple, human face, held the mask under his arms, picked up the chair, hidden under her flowing drapery and placed it under the balcony. Then, like an expert make-up artist, he touched the make-up of the mask and put it away on a rack in the bar, along with the drapery, which our Madonna had neatly folded for him. Then, she went into the bar and after a few minutes, she emerged, having transformed into a young woman dressed in jeans and a sweater, who walked away, without a backward glance.  

We did not know whether to laugh or cry, as we had come to believe that she was real.


Great Minds Think Alike – by Esther David

They say; ‘great minds think alike.’ Recently, this became obvious, while I was reading a comparative study about famed artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso’s paintings and sculptures, which were created in 1906.

Matisse and Picasso had many common elements. Both artists were like opposites in every possible way, yet, they bonded with their artistic sensibilities, which was a mixture of friendship and competition. According to their patrons Leo and Gertrude Stein, together they blazed a trail leading towards modern art, while breaking down boundaries between sculpture, painting, drawings, graphic arts and leading, the arts towards total artistic freedom.

Their work shows many common themes which run in parallels. Both artists are known to have been deeply involved with cubism and fauvism. Their styles and colours come through in their work with tremendous variations, connected somewhere or other with a surprising common link. There may be some differences here and there, yet the strain is the same in colour application and the use of volume in their forms. For example, if one sees Picasso’s fascination for the guitar, Matisse painted the violin. If Matisse was photographed with a dove on his shoulder, Picasso had an owl perched on his arm. Matisse can be identified by bright pinks, while Picasso is known for his blues. The human figure is a common thread between their works, as it can be seen as a tree or a cathedral. The sitting woman with hands raised and the reclining figure or the Odalisque appears repeatedly in the works of both artists. Often, the human figures moves with a certain serpentine grace, even if a slight difference is seen in Picasso’s human figures, as he was impressed by African masks. Picasso painted the human face like a mask or slashed the human figure with brutal angular brush strokes. But, in Matisse’s work, there was more detail and loving colour application, yet the portrait as a cube, appears with variations in the works of both artists.

When one looks at the paintings of Matisse, we tend to focus on his bright colours and floral-Persian-carpet backgrounds.

Fauvism was a word coined by an art critic for Matisse, who attacked the artist, saying that the bright colours used by him and other artists were wild, meaning ‘fauve’ in French.

Today there are no such reservations in the arts, thanks to Matisse and Picasso, as the wilder the better.

In the same context, the cube as a geometric volume appears often in the sculptures of Matisse.

In the history of sculpture, his work is of great importance, as Matisse stands apart with his sculpture of a woman’s back, which resembles a tree trunk. Together, when one views the sculptures of Matisse and Picasso, surprisingly, one cannot tell Matisse apart. He sculpts his heads by cutting them into leaf like cubes; an extraordinary exercise in cubism, the difference between the two appears to be subtle, because Picasso’s heads have a heavier organic quality.  But, both artists use the human figure like a cut-out, almost like a strong silhouette emerging from a wall. The sculpted limbs, stretch, move, turn inwards, reach the sky, dance or turn somersaults.

While, the dancers painted by Matisse move in entwined circles, while Picasso’s dancers have an edgy upwards movement. Even in matters of materials, Matisse preferred collages and Picasso painted or twisted paper or metal sheets  into dancers, creating his famous Minotaur’s’ or half human-half animal forms.

Both artists explored various themes with the utmost simplicity, like the reclining figure, the standing figure, bathers on a seashore or melancholic dreamers.

They look like forms, as seen from a distance, composed within interiors with floral background, which have paintings, collages, sculptures; all created with a brilliant use fauvism and cubism. 

To study these great artists was an exciting journey into the language of the human figure, as revealed by Matisse and Picasso, because; ‘great minds think alike.’


Flying-Around during a Lock-Down – Esther David

During these difficult times during Covid-19  and the ensuing total lock-down in India, while staying at home, bird watching was not on my my list, to go through the day. But, since the lock-down, my mornings have changed, as I hear bird songs, which gives a good start to the day. Suddenly, with the absence of human beings and rumble of vehicles, if one can turn a deaf ear to the barking of stay dogs and see the birds around you, it will bring you closer to nature. These birds around your homes or housing societies are becoming daring and unafraid of coming closer to us. If you look  carefully and listen to their calls, you will see that they are all over the place. Even, as squirrels are boldly running around and giving final touches to their nests in secret corners; which are woven with spun strings, shredded textiles, pieces of cotton, moss, dry grass and fibrous strings.   

The other day, a Sun Bird flew into my ground floor apartment as the door was open, then feeling rather confused, it made an U-turn and flew away. The other day, a friend told me, that Babblers are out-numbering Pigeons around her housing society. Crows, Pigeons, Swallows are also seen, as Babblers fly around in groups or have a leisurely sand-bath in a children’s play ground. And, when she is in the kitchen; making her first cup of coffee, a pair of Swallows fearlessly sits on the rim of her kitchen-window-sill or knock on the window panes with their beaks and make her smile. While, behind her apartment building, there is an unused green zone, which gives a pleasant view from her balcony, as a flock of Black Ibis roost there on a tree. From here, she watches the Ibis and many other birds flying amidst the foliage or nesting in the trees. The closeness between wild life and us humans; is increasing. 

To continue the bird story, last week, a young friend living in a tenement; opened her front door and saw a sparrow. Excitedly, she called; ‘I just saw a sparrow,’ as she believes, sparrows are an endangered species. She quickly closed the door, so as not to frighten the bird, as it was perched on a branch of the mogra creeper; she had planted next to the main door. Since then, every morning, she leaves bowls of grains and water for the sparrow, so that it continues to visit her and eventually feels inspired to make a nest in the foliage of the fragrant mogra creeper. 

I spend my mornings watching the aerial gliding of Sun-birds, along with Bulbuls, Robins, Mynahs, Babblers, Flower-peckers and if you are lucky, you could also see a stray Egret or Starling. Since the Lock-Down, in this still-silence around me, I can hear the distant cries of a Kingfisher, Coppersmith, Koel and Peafowl, as Kites and Falcons patrol the skies, while looking for a prey, down below on earth. 

Every morning, I study a flowering bush, close to my bedroom window, as I disturb a few butterflies, flitting over the flower-beds. As, they disappear, I look for the nest, a pair of Tailor-Birds are making in one of the broad leafed plants, stitching the leaves into a cozy nest for their brood. And, to add colour to our surroundings, during the sleepy mid-afternoon hours, a flock of wild Indian Parrots arrive to perch on a young Neem tree, chattering away, maybe about the sudden silence zone, which has descended upon a world, predominantly inhabited by human beings. I try to decipher the hidden meaning of these bird songs, as we have a lot to learn from nature…because as they say ‘Nature is a great educator…’