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Hellaro – An Ode to Freedom – by Esther David

Can music empower women, heal them and awaken them?

Yes.

These were my first thoughts, as I watched the Gujarati film ‘Hellaro’ by Abhishek Shah and his team. Truthfully, the poster attracted me and I went to see the garba sequences. As, I watched the film, I got trapped into the waft and weave of womens empowerment; with the resounding rhythm of the dhol, which awaken an entire community of suppressed women. The beats of the dhol also tell us the untold story of the agonized drummer. The film, based on folklore, begins with the symbolic use of a sword-dance is performed only by men; as the women stay indoors. The sword becomes a metaphor of a patriarchal society, which is a way of life in a far away village of Kutch. Late at night, the men perform the vigorous sword-dance to evoke the Mother Goddess, as rains have eluded this region for the past three years. The women stay indoors, suffocating under rules and regulations; laid down by men. These men worship the Mother Goddess-who also happens to be a woman, but they treat their own women as objects of lust and violence in a decadent society. The situation changes with the arrival of the new bride Manjhrii. Slowly, the women are empowered, as the wave of change comes in the most unexpected manner. The only respite these women have from their dark world is when every morning, they carry headloads of brass pots to fill water from a lake; farway from their village. At the lake, they breathe; the air of freedom, even if it is for a short time. On one such day, they see a man, sprawled in the desert, dying of thirst. Manjhri breaks all rules, offers him water and revives him. He is carrying a dhol, as he is a drummer and as a gesture of gratitude, respectfully; stands with his back to them; playing the dhol for them and the women cannot control their desire to dance. Suddenly with beats of the dhol; they feel unshackled and their garba becomes a spontaneous act of freedom. Walking long distances in the desert to get water is no longer an ardous task. As, every day, when the women leave the village to fill watter, they look forward to the moment, when they can smile, laugh, chat, sing and dance with gay abandon, enjoying a short but precious moment of happiness. These are some metaphors, which become symbolic of freedom. This is also the beginning of protest against a male dominated society. The reverberating beats of the dhol inspires the women. It also inspires young women viewers like my niece Dhara, who said, ‘Actually, the real protagonist of this film is the garba.’ With the mere act of dancing, the women cross swords with a male dominated society, which has so far suppressed their voice, their expression and their very existence. It infuses in them; a desire to break all barriers under Manjhri’s leadership. Her eyes speak volumes about womens lives and their need to express themselves through garba. If the men perform an aggressive sword-dance; late at night, in contrast the women dance under the scorching sun, in the stark desert-land of Kutch. Dressed in colourful clothes and swirling gracefully, they remain untouched by the blistering hot sands of the desert. They bond into a chain, which eventually leads them into a direct confrontation with the men. The only man, who wordlessly supports them, according to Manjhri, is a man with the soul of a woman, which is the Mukhi’s son. I was mesmerized, as there was nothing artificial in the film, be it the set, the bhunga, the village, costumes, embroidery, interiors, jewelry and the women themselves. I felt, I was in a real village of Kutch with real people and I was part of their lives….

Come, what may; when they dance; the earth, trembles with their united power and strength, as they are determined to break all shackles. They are no longer birds with clipped wings, as their colourful saris grow wings and they are about to fly away… 

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Sara Cohen – Obituary – by Esther David

( article appeared in Times of India, Kochi edition 31st August 2019)

On Friday, before Sara Cohen could light the shabath candles; and before Monday, when the call of Selihot, for festivities of the Jewish festivities begin on Monday, Sara; one of the last few Pardesi Jews of Kochi, closed her eyes and left for her heavenly abode at 96. She will be laid to rest at the cemetery near the synagogue at Mattancherry.

Sara was married to Jacob Cohen and became synomimus with Cochin Jews, as Sara was a living legend. Prof. Shalva Weil, senior researcher, RIFIE, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Israel; who has extensively researched Indian Jews, writes – “Sad. I knew her for 40 years. Everyone loved her. She was dearly looked after by Muslim caretaker for many years now. He expanded her embroidery cottage industry. There is no visitor to Cochin who didn’t pop in to buy a challah-cover (shababth-bread cover) or a kippa (yarmulke).”

 

A year back, when I was in Kochi, at Jew Town, Synagogue Street, Kochi, amidst spice shops, antique warehouses, old Jewish homes with railings and grilled windows with the Star of David, I saw Sara Cohen, one of the oldest Jews of this small community of Cochin Jews; sitting at the window of her home, watching tourists, as her craftsperson Celine embroidered ceremonial hamotsi covers, kippas, Jewish sacred textiles trimmed with lace borders and other ritualistic objects, which were on display in the foyer. Thaha, Sara’s caretaker and Man Friday was looking after Sara’s Embroidery shop in the hall of her house. He became part of her life, like a family member as outside her window with the grill of the Star of David, his uncle sold post cards.

He started helping her and set up the sales-center, which resembles a museum. It preserves the rich heritage and essence of a Jewish home, as it gives a rare insight into Jewish life, with Sara’s artifacts and a few black and white photographs of her family. Sitting at the window, as Sarah chants Hebrew prayers and keeps a watch on her kitchen, as her cook makes traditional Jewish dishes, which she had taught her, when she was in good health. Earlier, I had met Thoufeek Zakariya from Kochi, a chef by profession, who is also known for Hebrew calligraphy, which he learnt, as he often visited Sara Cohen, because, he lived in Jew Street at Fort Kochi, near the Pardesi Synagogue. Thoufeek had shown me the recipe of ‘pastel,’ shot on his cell-phone in Sara Cohen’s kitchen as he had grown up near her house. It is said; she also relished Kerala dishes, dhosa, idli, the Jewish chalalh bread and other dishes made by Cochin Jews.

Sara’s endeavour in the area of ceremonial Jewish embroidery began in 1984, when she started making kippas in satin and embroidering them, along with other textiles used for Jewish festivals. She also made runners for dining tables, handkerchiefs, asked some crafts-people to make coconut shell goblets, cups, hannukah candle stands, menorah-stands, mini-wood-toys of animals, as her multi-coloured kippas in shimmering satin or velvet, were displayed beautifully on a tree-shaped-stand. The kippas were known as “Souvenirs of the Past.” It was a favourite shopping destination for most tourists. She was inclusive of everybody she met; and this is seen in her embroidery of the map of India.   

Sara preferred hand embroidered textiles. I noticed her craftsperson Celine embroidering these textiles, as Sara sat nearby; looking out of the window. In this room, there was a bedstead with a portrait of Sara wearing her late husband’s bright pink kippa, along with a poster of Prophet Moses with the plaque of the Ten Commandements.

As I think of Sara, I feel, it is the end of an era, which was a part of the history of India.

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An open letter to Mahatma Gandhi – Esther David

Respected Gandhiji, I am writing this letter to you with great sorrow, as the other day, I was passing by Gandhi Bridge, where your statue has been standing since 1969. It was made by famed sculptor late Kanti Patel, who is known for his expertise at making your statues. His studio in Ahmedabad hidden in a chikoo-wadi with flocks of Peacocks, has innumerable plaster casts and moulds in all sizes. There is one particular sculpture was done; with a live sitting given by  Mahatma Gandhi to Kantibhai. 

And, as I said, when I was on Ashram road, I could not see your statue, immediately. Of course, I have been reading in the newspapers about the dilemma of the civic authorities, as they do not know which would be the perfect place to relocate you. Anyway, as my auto-rickshaw stopped to turn towards Gujarat Vidyapeeth, I saw your statue. I could see that the Ashram Road flyover was flying over you. Actually, very close to your head. Maybe, it could hurt you. Till the time, a decision is taken, as you stand there, your thoughts about peace, will be disturbed by the incessant rumble of vehicles. 

I started wondering; are people aware that this particular statue is yours? Or do they assume, you are one of those many unnamed national leaders, who have been standing there, for ages or do they know who you are – The Father of the nation or The Father of the freedom movement.

Today, we have so much freedom that we may have forgotten you and do not know what to do with you.

I am writing this, as I have doubts, if people recognize Indulal Yagnik’s statue, standing on a rock on the eastern side of Nehru Bridge is also sculpted by Kanti Patel.

Public art has always been a major issue in Ahmedabad. At, most crossroads of the city, we have either national leaders or sculptures, which are sponsored by well known companies or there are forms, like a kettle or a kumbh or a flame.  These are not works of great art; the sponsors grow a lot of green around the traffic circle, even if the sculpted-form are not visually appealing.

I feel, in the case of national leaders, some artists need to study anatomy, before making statues for public places. And, there should be a committee of aesthetic consultants, to decide about form, subject, size, material and colour. If not, these forms give a wrong message about art to the general public.

At the end, I feel, if this how, they are going to leave you or shift you to Vadaj crossroads or no-where, I have come to the conclusion that, we have forgotten you. With my heartfelt respects, yours truly…

(P.S. Maybe, you will be happier, if they give you a place, where you belong – Gandhi Ashram) 

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Art and Culture – Esther David

Come winter and Ahmedabad comes alive with myriad cultural activities. Interestingly, come sun or rain, the city is quite abuzz with art fairs and exhibitions, film festivals, and more. Author and artist Esther David says, “Till the ’80s, Ahmedabad had a very small cultural scene limited to old-timers and a few families, but today, there is a new Ahmedabad, along with new arrivals to the city, who have made it their home. These groups are often conditioned to the arts, folk arts, crafts, and fashion. Additionally, women are at the forefront of many cultural activities, as they travel and collect information. Often, they are students of our well-known design or management educational institutes, have studied abroad, or have returned to live in the city, giving form to their knowledge. They are well-dressed, professional, articulate, and clear about their aims for future events. This new vision and desire to give a new platform to the arts has overtaken the cultural fabric of the city and created a magnificent tapestry, which shows the path towards a rich cultural heritage for future generations. Ahmedabad has become a ‘Sanskar Nagari’ of sorts; earlier, Vadodara was known as the center of art and culture in the state. Ahmedabadis have also become globe-trotters, affecting the city’s cultural scene positively.”

How has this turned out for stakeholders?

David replies, “It is very helpful to artists of all disciplines as they are in demand and can make a living as freelancers. Earlier it was impossible to get an audience for an exhibition or event, to even invite a corporate buyer, or to convince someone to sponsor an art event. But today, at some institutes, studios are available for artists or there is space for budding poets and young writers to exchange notes about their latest work. A number of galleries and auditoriums have emerged in the city, where large audiences spend pleasant evenings discovering new idioms of artistic expression. And most are paid shows; earlier, people asked each other for free passes!”

With the opportunities for artists to reach out to a greater audience, many of whom might not be fully conditioned to the arts, David feels, “Over-exposure can give way to mediocrity, which is why art pieces should be chosen with care and full understanding of the subjects projected for audiences.” She adds, “In the desire to usher in a new wave in art and culture, often there is a confusion and mix-up of genres for the discerning viewer. As such, it is important for artists and curators to be open to critical appreciation or discussion if a knowledgeable person points out some aspects about the creative process and the final creation. Yes, finding a market is definitely important, but so is the creative language of the artist, so that a particular work of art survives time.”

(This article appeared in Femina Gujarat for their Anniversary Issue – Big Story- April 2019)

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Ahmedabad – A city with a rich cultural heritage – Esther David

Culture is Power.

It empowers cities and the people who live there.

In the fifties, Ahmedabad was known as a city of textile mills.

It also had a rich legacy of Gandhi Ashram, ancient Islamic Architecture, Temples, Step-Wells, Bird-Feeders known as ‘Chabutras,’ ‘Pols’ and ‘Havelis;’ made with intricate wood carvings.

It was then; that the world’s best known architects came to Ahmedabad on invitation and gave a new flavour to the city with their architectural marvels.

One of Le Corbusier’s first buildings was a cultural center known as Sanskar Kendra, where the people of Ahmedabad saw the famed photo-exhibition, ‘The Family of Man.’

Today, there are many more cultural centers, auditoriums and art galleries, which showcase visual arts, performing arts, music concerts, dance festivals, theatre and various other activities, which are making the city into a cultural center of Gujarat.

Ahmedabad is a magical city.

It has Shaking Minarets, a Walking Mosque; ‘Chate-Pir-ki- Dargah,’ the niche of a Laughing Lady; who made weepy children smile ‘Hasti Bibi no Gokhlo.’  

It is a city without walls, but is still known as the Walled City. Here, there are bazaars with jingling bangles, the smell of new brooms, raw mangos, fresh vegetables, green mint, pink candy floss, the forbidden cart with the coloured bottles of sherbet and pickles, which lend certain richness to our life. This feeling still holds true in some parts of the old city. Maybe, it is quickly changing its character and identity, yet, it has retained its 604 year old heritage and efforts are being made to declare it as a UNESCO, World Heritage City.

Each and every part of the old city has a story or fable attached to it. The streets and Pols of the old city are known in context to these and most areas of the walled city are marked with an image, which become symbolic of these spaces, where it is not unusual to see people sitting around a tree and retelling stories of the ‘…good old days…’

A well known story is about Manecknath; a sage who wove mats and had a dispute with Sultan Ahmedshah, who was building a fortress around the city. Much to the Sultan’s bewilderment, the walls, which were built during the day, turned to rubble at night.

The Sultan was mystified by the occurrence, till he discovered that, when Manecknath removed the threads from his mat, the fortress fell.

Later the dispute was resolved and the badshah built the fortress. This is how Maneck Chowk, the open bazaar in the old city gets its name, as it is the venue of Manecknath’s memorial.

Manek Chowk also houses the main vegetable market, which has as much inside, as outside; on the pavements. Here, during summer, mango, the king of fruit, reigns supreme, with as many poetic names as possible from hafooz, kesar, badam, gulab, totapuri, neelam to sundari with mounds of raw green mangoes rajapuri, vanraj, desi, sold along with green figs.

They have everything from chikoo, corn, papaya, gooseberries, guava, apples, plums, berries, bananas, water melon, pineapple and sweet-lime.

Ahmedabad also owes its existence to the Sufi Saint Sheikh Ahmed Khattu.

The city was conceived in the Saint’s magical mind.

Sultan Ahmedshah was his follower and seeked his advice for the foundation of the city. Khattu told him to find four religious men to lay the foundation stone of the city.

Another well known story is that, it is believed that Goddess Laxmi lives in Ahmedabad.

According to folklore, late one night, when the Goddess stood at the main entrance to the city at Teen Darwaza; she knocked on the massive gates. The guard opened the gate against rules, as in those days; all gates of the walled city were opened at seven in the morning and closed at seven in the evening to the beat of drums.

The guard refused entry to the Goddess and asked her to wait. He left her standing there, as he went to take permission from the Sultan.

When the Sultan heard about the guard’s folly of stopping the Goddess from entering the city, he beheaded the guard. Actually, there are many versions to this story.

Later, the emperor rushed to welcome the Goddess; but she had disappeared into the city.

Since then, it is believed that Goddess Laxmi resides in the walled city and brings prosperity to the people of Ahmedabad.

An eternal lamp is kept burning in an alcove of the central arch of Teen Darwaza; in memory of Goddess Laxmi’s presence in Ahmedabad.

These stories are the soul of the city.

Ahmedabad is also known as a city of dust – ‘Gardabad.’

It is a city of contrasts, where there is Moghul architecture and the best of modern architecture, from Sultan Ahmed Shah to Le Corbusier to Louise Kahn. 

Newcomers often dislike the city for more reasons than one, but, if you meet them in a couple of years, you will learn that they have settled down in Ahmedabad. 

The city has a tendency to grow on newcomers to the city, creeping into their sensibilities, as slowly; they start admiring its pace and history

Ahmedabad is now a highly developed city, but look closely and you will see that it still retains the quality of an overgrown village. Between the malls and high rise apartments, you will see glimpses of various communities in  traditional dresses, along with their cattle and other animals. For a change, one can also see them on motorbikes wearing jeans instead of ‘dhotis,’ sport shoes with a tell-tale turban and ear-studs. Our traffic moves along with camels, cows, dogs and elephants, as kites and vultures patrol the skies. Lines of langurs sit on walls, as bee-eaters, sunbirds, peafowl and a variety of smaller birds can be spotted in the green patches of the city, which also attracts a variety of migratory water- birds during winter, like Rosy Pastors, Flamingos and Pelicans. It is also during winter that the city creates quiet another atmosphere during ‘Uttrayan,’ the festival of Kite-Flying. Earth and sky, fill with kites and the air resound with cries of ‘Kaipo-Che,’ in true Ahmedabadi spirit. The village-feeling is further accentuated when you see vendors selling earthenware at almost all street corners. Like our haute couture and nouveau cuisine, these co-exist with the biggest boutiques of the city.

Yet, between shopping complexes and towering housing societies with their aquarium apartments, you could be surprised to see an ancient ‘Chabutro,’ as it rises majestically between hoardings and buildings.

This is Ahmedabad, which has a combination of Islamic architecture, modern buildings and old ‘Havelis’. The newly landscaped Sarkhej Roza from1458 A.D., a Spanish hacienda type bungalow, a house with glass walls, the parrots and peacocks in the brass chain of a swing, Kankaria lake, Naginawadi; the summer palace of Sultan Qutbuddin, the zoo, the glass façade of a commercial complex; shining in the neon lights, a tiled roof of an old house, the last chimney of a long forgotten textile mill, the fragrance of Arabia wafting from ‘Bhatiyar Gully’- a street of master chefs known for Moglai cuisine, the folk paintings on the  huts of migrant labourers, the sand-stone surfaces of mosques, the fragrance of sandal wood emitting from the cool interior of temples with marble floorings and the kaleidoscopic colours of textiles in Ratan Pol, as shop keepers call out in Gujarati, “you do not have to pay to see…;” which is in contrast to the policed-off-the-rack-shopping in malls.

Ahmedabad is an ancient city with a rich heritage. Yet, it still retains its living culture through its architecture, performing arts, visual arts, textiles, food, folk arts and life styles. It is a vibrant colourful city, which is a mixture of old Moghul monuments and modern architecture. Although, it is an industrial city, it has still retained a certain old-world character. Ahmedabad is also known for its tea-stalls, which can be seen all over the city.  Most people enjoy sharing a cup of tea with friends, known as ‘cutting chai.’

Food, also forms an integral part of Ahmedabadi life. The Gujarati thali is well known, as it is based on the Indian aesthetics of ‘Navras,’ the nine flavours and colours of life. Similarly, during Navratri, the nine nights of dancing, the city becomes truly Gujarati, when Ahmedabadis perform raas-garba dances in their sparkling Navratri dresses and jewelery.

Even as Western Ahmedabad is fast becoming a city of malls and high-rise housing complexes, the old city continues to preserve some rites and rituals, like the playing of drums at Sultan Ahmed Shah’s mosque, reminding us, that once upon a time, the Walled City was a Fort, which protected us and was linked to the ‘Darwazas’ or gates.

But today, the walls have disappeared, the gates stand alone and the city has grown with many arteries, which cut across the river and beyond.

It is said, in ancient times, Saint Dadhichi had hidden in his spine, the weapons of the Gods and lived here; in this; our city, in an Ashram, where the lion and the lamb lay down together at his feet. This is also the land of Mahatma Gandhi and one can feel peaceful, while sitting on the ghats there, on the banks of River Sabarmati.

Since 1451, Ahmedabad already had a rich heritage of the arts, known as the Western Indian style of painting on palm-leaf in bright colours.

One of the early works on the city was by the Dutch painter Philip Baldeus, who made a print in 1672, titled ‘The City of Ahmedabath.’ Later, in 1850 Captain Biggs of the East India Company documented the architectural monuments of Ahmedabad.

By then, painter Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) had already entered the hearts and homes of the people of Ahmedabad with his prints of Indian gods and other mythological characters. He paintedIndian subjects with Western techniques and inspired many artists, when he came to Ahmedabad for a brief period.

The turning point came in 1878; when Nobel Laureate; poet Rabindranath Tagore came to Ahmedabad to stay with his elder brother, thereafter, he often visited the city.

With this, as a background, art activities gained momentum through the efforts of painter Ravishanker Raval (1892-1977). As a young boy, growing up in Bhavnagar, he was so desperate to paint that he made a brush with the hair of his top-knot. When, he came to Ahmedabad and started an art school.

It is a fairly unknown fact that Mahatma Gandhi also played a pivotal role in the creation of a cultural ethos in Ahmedabad. When he organized the Haripura Congress; he asked famed painter Nandlal Bose of Rabindranath Tagore’s art school, Santiniketan and Ravishanker Raval to paint together. Itwas the beginning of a new era of the arts. 

Later, when young aspiring painter Chaganlal Jadav befriended N.S.Bendre who headed the painting department of Vadodara’s Faculty of Fine Arts, he was exposed to various art forms and painted in the French impressionistic stye. His work impressed the young Ahmedabad based mill-owner Amit Ambalal, who started painting under Jadav’s guidance. Later, he was to leave his family business and take to painting, creating his own language in terms of form, theme and humour.

While, Haku Shah created quiet another genre of painting, by merging tribal forms with modern idioms.

During this period, Piraji Sagara was also experimenting with mix media techniques using old wood carvings and merging them with human figures.

Soon, younger artists were experimenting with mix media techniques and abstractions, giving another dimension to the arts.

Today, the art scene has a global appeal, with more and more artists turning towards Installation art and other multi-media techniques.

So, while exploring the cultural background of the city, we understand that all arts have existed together in Ahmedabad.

 

In this context, it is important to understand that Indian mythology gives great importance to the five elements of the universe; that is earth, sky, air, water and fire. So, any object made with clay, immediately conjures images of these elements. Clay is the symbol of our earth-and-craft-based-culture and our inheritance of clay objects, which have come down to us from the Indus Valley Civilization, the remains of which can be seen at Lothal in Gujarat, which have similiarities to many clay or terracotta forms made by certain communities of Gujarat.

In fact, in earlier times, our homes were also built; in tune with the natural rhythms of the sun, moon, wind and rain.

Yet, since the last many years, clay plays a minimal role in our lives. This has resulted in the slow disappearance of potters’ from the ‘gaams’ and ‘puras’ – the village-like settlements situated in and around Ahmedabad. Maybe, because of the arrival of filtered water plants, which have taken over the water-pot or ‘matka’-culture from the city. Since, the last few years, most potters have left for their villages or have stopped working, so, most consignments of terracotta objects come to the city through middle-men.

For the aesthetically inclined, it was a fascinating sight to see our potters’ working on their wheels. They made pots, while sitting on the floor, making bowl after bowl from one single ball of clay. Their hands were sensitive to clay, which was kneaded, thrown on the wheel, centered, raised, given a form, dried; eventually fired in a pit, removed, cleaned, as the women appllied a red-ochre-slip and dried them in the sun. Later, the potter would knock the surface of each pot with his knuckles; to hear the perfectly-fired-sound-of-the-pot. This entire process had a magical quality.

Nevertheless, clay has re-appeared in our lives, as it is often used by designers. In a similar manner, ‘Warli Art,’ ‘Pithora Painting, ‘Kutch-Clay-Relief-Work’ are extensively used in interiors with expertise taken from crafts-people. Besides clay, wood carvers, stone carvers, bamboo artists, textile artists and others who work with their hands; understand their material and form a link between all arts.

Today, Ahmedabad is known to be a city with a living culture, which has a history of more than six hundred years, where all arts have existed together, making Ahmedabad into a city with a rich cultural heritage.

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Cathedral Notre Dame of Paris – Before and After – by Esther David

I read about the fire at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris with a feeling of personal loss. Long back, in the early nineties, I had seen it for the first time, almost every day, as the bus I took, went past a bridge on the River Seine. I always chose a seat from where I could see the Notre Dame. Its architecture is such that, it appears to stand on a triangular island, with its spire, the flying buttresses and the stained glass windows. From a distance, it feels familiar, like the images described in the English translations of the novel by Alexander Dumas – ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ In my teens, the film based on the book scared me; with its images of Chimeras, Strix and Gargoyles looking down from the parapets, corridors and water-sprouts; sculpted on the upper sections of the cathedral, seemed to come alive.

So, when I saw the fires of Notre Dame, reducing it to mere armature, I was aghast, thinking of the transient nature of life. It takes years to build a cathedral like Notre Dame and a just a few hours to reduce it to dust.

 

A large plaza faces the cathedral, as devotees enter, holding candles with piety; amidst the crowds of tourists.

When, I entered the arched doorway, which has relief sculptures of “The Last Judgment,” along with the story of the Genesis, with tall elongated figures of the apostles, fully draped, over-looking the river and in complete harmony with the cathedral. These figures are sculpted taller than the normal length of a human body, as according to sculptural techniques, human figures appear to have a normal size, when seen from a distance. To add, the cathedral has very few nude figures, except for Adam and Eve, which are covered with creepers, like Adam has a fig-leaf and Eve is draped in her own long hair.

 

Having seen the Notre Dame, at day or night; was an over-powering experience with its impressive architecture. It looked different from the outside; while inside the cathedral, there was a different atmosphere, which was charged with beauty and spirituality.

 

It was fascinating that the outside did not give away; the inner beauty, which was in total contrast to the façade and other sides, with their flying buttresses and ribbed vaults, which gave height to the cathedral. This was to become the signature style of Gothic architecture, along with; its elongated sculptures and stained glass windows. All these elements along with the spire appeared to touch the sky and infinity.

Today, after the fire, it somehow; gives hope; that one day, Notre Dame will stand all over again.

At Notre Dame, both worshippers and tourists enter another world as they feel enveloped in an ethereal light. For those, who have experienced this light, it never leaves their aesthetic sensibilities, as light fills the entire space of the cathedral.

And, about light…I saw the Notre Dame in the early nineties. Till then, I had been teaching History of Art at design schools of Ahmedabad; India, and often showed slides of stained glass windows of Notre Dame. But, while teaching art in India, the stained glass windows looked like bright circles of colour in slides and art-films.

Everything changed, when I entered the Notre Dame de Paris, I was engulfed in its spiritual glow.

Rose windows are very much part of Christian art, which started as a small rose, which first appeared in Romanesque art, embedded with  coloured glass and then became an enormous rose, which filled the walls of Gothic cathedrals with colour and light. Stained glass is a typical artistic genre of Gothic cathedrals of France and other European countries, as coloured glass pieces are held in place with metal armatures. The colour, compositions and figures are decided in advance, through a series of working drawings and sketches, which I had seen in a workshop near the cathedral of Chartres, near Paris.

After which, they are affixed on the inner walls of the cathedral and since these survived the fire, they are sturdy and will survive – Time.

The rose petals have innumerable figurative narratives, like the apostles and the center, almost always depicts an important incident from the life of Jesus Christ, like the nativity, relevant happenings and miracles.

The central rectangular space, facing the altar is made in painted wood in muted colours, embellished with gold, which resemble Russian Iconic art, as it unfolds the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Near the altar, there is a sculpture of Mother Mary wearing a crown of jewels. And, at the altar, there is a Cross is set against the background of a rose window and another magnificent sculpture by Nicholas Coustou. It shows Mother Mary looking down upon Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns and has just been brought down from the cross and placed on her lap, as great sorrow is writ large upon her delicate features. This marble sculpture has a certain resemblance to Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta,’ as it looks more delicate and fragile.

The anterooms of the cathedral have exhibition areas, where one can see the magnificent robes worn by priests, bishops, kings, displayed along with glass cases of gems, jeweled crowns, the crown of thorns and the Bible in various sizes from small to big, embellished with jewels and intricate artistic calligraphy. These illuminated Manuscripts of the Bible were decorated by the greatest artisans of the 12th Century; when Notre Dame was constructed. On the sides there are elevators, which take visitors to the top parapets to have a grand-stand view of the city of Paris.

The light within the Notre Dame had fascinated me; with its unforgettable aura, Besides, that, the inner spaces of the cathedral are enveloped in a meditative silence, which were sometimes broken; when the bells toll or you hear the midnight mass at the end of the year.

Otherwise, worshippers are seen in the inner sanctum-sanctorum, whispering prayes, lighting tall candles, as slowly the clouds disperse and a ray of sunlight changes direction. A thousand candles glow inside the cathedral, as the ray of light enters from one of the petals of the rose-shaped stained glass windows and the sun, softly enters the cathedral of Notre Dame, flooding it with light, that there are no words to describe its beauty, as it transformed it; with a heavenly divine glow.

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Imphal -2 : Mother Market

It was in Imphal, Manipur that I discovered Mother-Market or Ema-Market, which is run by women. There are two main markets opposite each other in huge sprawling buildings, which also have places of worship, like a clay-plastered temples of Radha-Krishna and some other gods of the Hindu pantheon. Here, the women-vendors sit in rows with their ware, like food, bamboo and textiles. Everywhere, there were flower sellers, selling mounds of exotic flowers of all colours; along with orchids and purple lotus flowers. While banana-leaves cut into squares or rectangles, were placed next to all types of fruit, vegetables, mostly leafy or with roots, along with eggs, next to a fish market.

Hindu traders were seen with caste-marks, like thin lines in black or vermillion colours, which were painted from the tip of their nose to their forehead. Most women were dressed in their traditional dresses of the sarong-like mekhla worn with a blouse and a shawl or in saris, often with embroidered borders, similar to those worn by Manipuri dancers. They also keep cash or valuables in small embroidered hand bags shaped like a Manipuri dancers dome shaped skirt. They were also seen in transparent pastel coloured saris, embellished with subtle woven flowers, typical of Manipur. The men were dressed in trousers, shirts or dhotis worn with kurtas, while most men were seen in trousers, jeans, T-shirts, sports caps and wearing sport-shoes. Some women were also seen in jeans, kurtis and scarves and riding scooters, complete with helmet. The textile market, also run by women, was very popular; with its variety of colourful fabrics.

Besides cars, buses, taxis, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws are also used as a popular form of transport in Imphal.

The food markets of Ema-Market are very popular, arranged with benches, where; both men and women were seen eating food in steel plates or banana leaves. The food was cooked right there; in vessels simmering over coal stoves, as their plates were filled with rice, dal or fish-curry with pakode or fritters, fermented fish, dried strips of meat, cooked soya-soup served in paper-cups, along with black-rice kheer. While packaged food like shrimp-paste and pickled apple jam were also available in the market.

Some stalls had fabric dolls dressed in the Manipuri dance attire with male drum-players dressed in dhotis and turbans. Some corners of the bazaar were stacked with bamboo artifacts, knives, spears. Then, there were ritualistic objects made with puffed rice cooked in jaggery; shaped like pyramids or roasted rice flour; ground with sugar, shaped like boxes or made into laddoos.

Most Manipuris love paan, which are available everywhere, so paan, beetle-leaf and chopped beetle nut are supposed to be the perfect ending to all meals. These markets were efficiently run and a perfect example of Women-Power.

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Imphal -1 : The Floating Island

Some invitations come unannounced. And, this was one such reason to take-off to Manipur. This years, my trips to Assam and Mizoram, made me aware about North-East India. I was to participate in an event in Imphal, Manipur. It was a short trip; but exhilarating. Before, the aircraft landed on Imphal’s table-top runway, I saw that the airport was small, homely and had a Pagoda-style roof. Before, we touched the runway; I had a grand-stand view of Loktak Lake. This sweet water lake is also used as a source of potable water, irrigation and livelihood for fishermen and their families living in the surrounding areas, in huts, shacks or homes built on the lake’s floating islands, where rain-water harvesting is also done. It is an amazing expanse of water, divided into artificially created circles, squares and rectangles for fish-farming, which is done by co-operatives. These islands are created by soil, organic matter, overgrown mass of vegetation, wild rice, floating plants, which almost reach the base of the lake. Innumerable islands are spread over Loktak Wetlands, as they remain stationary or float over the water. These islands are homes to families, who live on the islands in shacks or stilt-huts. They make a living by rowing canoes in the lake, catching fish or fermenting fish on home-made coal or wood-fire stoves and sell, both fresh and fermented fish to vendors of Imphal, while keeping some for their own kitchen, as their homes rock, lightly on the lake. Fishermen row their canoes over the lake; to reach the banks of the river, if they have errands in neighbouring villages or Imphal. Loktak lake has floating villages, with fishing nets and canoes tied to the hut, along with defined circles for fishing. In fact, they appear to be sailing like magical islands on the lake, which also has the only floating wild life sanctuary of the world, known as Keibul Lamjo National Park. As the vegetation in Loktak lake is dense and holds everything together, the park looks like a dense forest, which rests on the lake and is home to the endangered Eld’s or Brow-Antelered-Deer or Sangai Deer, which is also known as the Dancing Deer and is a protected species in Manipur.  A motif of the Sangai Deer also appears on Manipuri shawls. This deer is a little smaller than the Sambar, as the male has a brown coat, while the doe is smaller. Herds of Sangai Deer live on Loktak Lake along with Sambar, Barking Deer, Wild Boar, Gibbons, Macaque, Civets, Marbled Cats, reptiles like Pythons, water birds, migratory birds; like ducks, Teals, Cranes, Ibis and Geese. While some birds fly over the lake or up above in the sky, often swooping down to capture a fish from the lake and take wing.

The entire panorama of Loktak lake looks like a magical world. One often assumes the floating world is up and above in the skies, somewhere above the clouds, here. Hut, here it sales on the surface of Loktak lake. Everything moves here, as the wild life sanctuary appears to be anchored almost at the base of the lake, which is not so, and lends a fascinating dream-like quality. It is an Utopian world, where nothing needs to be anchored, yet lives and survives during various seasons; the various seasons, like a beautiful mobile landscape, which appears to be rooted, but is not, yet it roots the people, animals and birds living on the lake…forever moving, floating; as the waves carry them forward; into a dream world…which has all the elements of a fairytale….

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Stories of Love and Loss in a Transit Flat

When Juliet Abraham, who is Jewish, has a runaway marriage with Rahul Abhiram, a Hindu, their families are initially furious but soon relent. They buy the couple an apartment in Shalom India Housing Society, Ahmedabad. However, once the couple leaves for Israel, they rent out the apartment to a series of tenants from the Bene Israel community, for each of whom it becomes the venue of an unfolding love story.

Myra comes to India from America to teach the Torah to Indian Jews. Wooed assiduously by Ezra, she instead escapes into a new life with a Hindu guru. Ruby rekindles an old flame, only to find out too late that men betray. Ilana, a strict and uptight police officer, is forced to meet potential grooms by her parents and realizes that it’s good to let loose sometimes. And Bollywood-crazy Sangita has many adventures in India as she tries to trace her grandmother’s grave. The mischievous Prophet Elijah, benevolently presiding over the small community, occasionally creates havoc but finally makes sure that peace prevails.

Bombay Brides is about home, heritage, rites, rituals and roots. It offers the delights of SahityaAkademi Award-winner Esther David’s exquisite light observations on what it means to be the last surviving members of a diminishing community, accompanied by her marvellous, evocative illustrations.

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In search of a homeland – by Esther David

March 24th 2018

Jewish New Year – this year is 5778

In a few days, Jews all over the world will be celebrating the festival of Passover – literally meaning Pass-over from the Red Sea, when the Jewish patriarch Moses led the Jews to freedom from slavery when they were in Egypt, as graphically seen in the film The Ten Commandemnets and other films. After that, Moses received the Ten Commandements, which is celebrated with the festival known as Shavouth. But, after a series of events, God banished them to the deserts in the Middle East, where they were in search of their Homeland, which they eventually found in a land, close to today’s Israel.

This is how, the concept of the wandering Jew is connected to Jews and was like a thin streak within me. It was a feeling I never understood for a long time, till I was almost in my mid-forties and became conscious of my Jewish traditions.

During, my first avatar as an artist, art critic, I was already writing as a columnist, first about art, then the old city of Ahmedabad, because, I grew up there and am attached to it.

I am a Bene Israel Jew. There are five Jewish communities in India. As, most communities have immigrated to Israel, the largest group is the Bene Israel Jews, who live in western India, Mumbai, Alibaug, Ahmedabad and Pune. Cochin Jews came from Spain and  live in Kochi and Kerala, Baghdadi Jews came from Iraq and live Kolkatta, Bene Ephraim Jews are from Andhra Pradesh, Bene Menashe Jews belong to Mizoram. There is also a small Synagogue in Delhi, for a few Indian Jews and Jews from other countries who work in the embassies.

Bene Israel Jews are known to have come to India, some two thousand years back, as they were fleeing from Greek persecution and after a shipwreck, landed on the coastal region of Alibaug in India, where they worked as farmers and oil pressers and also added the name of the village they belonged to, so that their names had an Indian ring, like those from Navgao had a name like Joseph, Samuel, Benjamin Navgaokar.

Being a columnist for a long time, helped me develop my skills at writing and led me towards my first novel THE WALLED CITY. It was an abstract search about being a Jew, with a name like Esther, which is often pronounced in different ways. I titled it as the walled city, as that is a place I know best.

Another similarity is that, when we came to India, so many years back, after the fall of King Solomon’s second temple. I have read, it was like a walled city.

Jews still worship at the last wall there, known as the Western Wall, which is also known as the Wailing Wall. Jews from all over the world pray at this wall. Between the rocks of this wall, Jews insert slips of paper or letters to the Lord asking him to fulfill secret wishes.

Later, I wrote BY THE SABARMATI, a collection of short stories, which were based around the lives of women, while working on the theme of Intuitive art or Outsider Art with uneducated artists living in underprivileged areas.

The city is almost like my grandmother, I lost long back. She taught me many lessons about life and heritage, not only about cities, city stories, family stories, but also food, she forced us to help her, when she made various foods for Jewish festivals. When my grandmother died, our joint family in the old city disintegrated and was divided into nuclear homes. Our family was no longer religious, but once in a while, we all did go to the Synagogue, that is when I was at a loss, as I could not understand the prayers which were in Hebrew. Actually, they were beautifully sung and somewhere stayed within me. But, I still have difficulties in following Hebrew prayers. I prefer my English prayers books.

During various periods of my life, I often attended prayers at the Synagogue, but when I started writing BOOK OF ESTHER, I often went there to research and study, tradtions and rituals from Joseph Pingle, whom I call Johny bhai and understood the Kosher dietary law from his wife Julie. With her, we set up a stall of Jewish food at IIM’s Satvik food fair for three years and it was a success.

We do not have a Rabbi, but we have a cantor, known as a Hazzan, as any elder in our community, who has had a Bar-Mitzvah, can lead the prayers.

Book of Esther is about five generations of a Jewish family living in India. To research for this novel, I went to Alibaug, my native place to understand the landscape and meet some Jewish families, who still live there. As, soon as I landed there, I felt at home. I have the same feeling, when I am in the walled city of Ahmedabad. This was the beginning of trying to understand the concept of Homeland, as since a young age, grandmother, would hold us in her arms and whisper in our ears,

“Next year in Jerualem.”

Later, even, if we were not religious, there was a certain pressure, that we live Jewish lives and leave for Israel.

I never understood, How? It unsettled me.

Even today, Indian Jews always say, India is their Motherland and Israel is their Fatherland or Homeland. In this context, the Mother-Tongue of Bene Israel Jews is Marathi and in Israel they have a newsletter in Marathi known as Mai-Boli.

Today, there are 145 Jews in Ahmedabad. Maybe 2000 in Maharashtra. So, there are 4000 Jews in India and 80, 000 Indian Jews in Israel. Indian born Israeli Jews know Hebrew, but older people have difficulty with the language.

Yet, Bollywood is a bonding factor amongst all Indian Jews and also Indophhile Israelis and have a large scale Bollywood festival known as Hodu-Yada, as according to the Bible, India was known as Hodu and shows both countries had connections since ancient times.

Long back, when I showed the manuscript of The Walled City to the poet Nissim Ezekiel, he explained to me, that as Jews living in India, we do go through moments of a certain cross-culture conflict. Suddenly, everything fell into place. Yes, I am very Indian, and very Gujarati, yet there are moments, when I am invited to various religious events held by different Indian communities and am not always comfortable. But, then, it is the same, when I am amongst Jews at the Synagogues in India and abroad. The reason being, that these Temples, as Jews also refer to their Synagogues as Temples are orthodox, while in some western countries, there are liberal Synagogues, where I am comfortable.  Yet, in India and elsewhere I discovered that Jews have a right to question about some laws or traditions and that we are a Matriachal society, where the women have a certain power about making decisions, are respected and important in preserving Jewish rituals in family and community.

 

My journey as an author began with The Walled City, when it was launched, it reached out to readers in India, abroad and the Jewish Diaspora. Then, the French translation was launched in Paris and when people came to see and meet an Indian Jew, I became known as an Indian-Jewish-Author. I suddenly felt comfortable and in a way, ‘At Home.’

With this novel, the concept of homeland was getting clear.

By then, I was educating myself and studying the Jewish way of life, rituals, traditions, artefacts and food. I also realized that, I belong to a community, which is on the verge of extinction. So, I became part of a team when a small section of Jewish objects were to be displayed at Sanskar Kendra’s City Museum and also made sure that the Synagogue was listed as a heritage monument in Ahmedabad. Then, I was also part of a citizen’s initiative with the FRIENDS OF ISRAEL and Times of India, so that we could save an old Jewish cemetery in Vadodara’s Nizampura area; from real estate agents who wanted to make a mall there. But, we were not successful in saving the Surat cemetery. These are some of the ways, I participate in the community, as form of a “Mitzvah,’ which is the Hebrew word foor doing a good turn and am always present for any other difficulties, which the Jewish community maybe facing.

 

With the launch of BOOK OF ESTHER, I received emails and letters from a Pakistani journalist about a certain Aunty Rachel, who lived in Karachi and protected the cemetery there, as the Synagogue had been destroyed.

She was a Bene Israel Jew, a school teacher and spoke fluent English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. When, she was very old, with help from the American embassy, she was flown to Israel, where she died and the cemetery in Pakistan was taken over by others. With the Vadodara story, Aunt Rachel and some unused Synagogues I had seen in Alibaug, these became the seed of my novel BOOK OF RACHEL. In Alibaug, I had been invited to many Jewish homes, where I discovered food, which was similar to the food my grandmother used to make. Somehow, these fragrances came back to me; and I included them in BOOK OF RACHEL, starting each chapter with an old Jewish recipe, which we rarely make today. This is how Rachel became a realty for me, as she preserves the heritage of Synagogues and food.

In continuation, another publisher suggested, I write Jewish short stories, I agreed, but, while working on this collection, I set the characters in a housing society, confronting the various social problems and cross cultural conflicts faced by a mini-micrcroscopic community living in India, surrounded by so many attractions and yet trying to preserve the Jewish heritage. This is how SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY was created, where the protagonist is Prophet Elijah, whom I discovered in Alibaug.

Bene Israel Jews believe in the Prophet and it is said, on his way to heaven, Prophet Elijah passed through India, Alibaug on the Konkan coast and left a mark of the hoof marks of his horses and chariot wheels on a rock. So, Bene Israel Jews start all events as a thanksgiving to the Prophet and ask him to fulfill secret wishes and once these are realized, that particular person or family, holds a Malida ceremony and feeds the entire community. So, in my novel SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY, the Prophet visits Jewish homes, during the festival of Passover, all over the world. During a certain prayer, a chair is kept aside for him, and he is offered a goblet of wine. I loved this concept and belief and enjoyed writing about it. In Gujarat, he is offered black currant sherbet, as Gujarat is a Dry-State.    

Indian Jewish life has many Indian influences, like the offering of a Malida is made with flaked rice or poha mixed with sugar and grated coconut, dates, petals of red roses, apples and bananas. A Mehendi or Henna ceremony is also held and garbas have been recently included, but during a wedding bride and groom wear western clothes.

A word about the Jewish dietary law or Kosher – the Law says, “Thou shalt not cook the lamb in its mothers milk.” And, so in the absence of Kosher meat, which is available only during festivals, Jews prefer to remain vegetarians almost the whole year around. The same with wine, in the absence of kosher wine, we make a sherbet with black currants, which looks similar to wine.

And, to keep the law, Indian Jews use coconut milk instead of dairy, so there is a Maharstrian and Konkani influence in our food habits. We also love Gujarati snacks.  

We have a lunar calendar, so our festivals arrive during Indian festivals, like Purim is on Holi and our New Year Rosh Ha Shana is celebrated during Navratri.

After writing Shalom India Housing Society, I could work on the documentation of the Jews of Gujarat and now I am studying Jewish cuisine. And, as I have a collection of old photographs of my family, I also studied these photographs, interviewed Jewish women of Gujarat and Mumbai and wrote a chapter, SARI-SUTRA for a friend’s book on Indian Jews.

This is how my journey continues, but, before I end, I would like to say the old city of Ahmedabad is equally important to me. I use Ahmedabad as a stage on which, I set almost all my novels. Eventually, I wrote AHMEDABAD:A CITY WITH A PAST.

If you saw me in the street, you would not believe that I am a Jew, but once at the Synaagogue, we cover our head, men wear prayer shawls, with skull-caps or kippas and we say our prayers in Hebrew, so, I refer to our Jewish life, as a secret life…

This is how created my Homeland, as now, I just have to open my books and I know, I have reached my homeland….