WATCH a traditional Purim 'kirtan' straight from Mumbai

Jewish Indian women elders spearhead revival of Purim musical tradition

COVID-19 restrictions prevent holiday synagogue performance in Mumbai, but members of India’s largest Jewish community Bene Israel are still passing on the Hindu-inspired art form

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Bene Israel women perform kirtans at AJDC program in Mumbai, 2016 (Surabhi Sharma)
Bene Israel women perform kirtans at AJDC program in Mumbai, 2016 (Surabhi Sharma)

This year, COVID-19 competes with Haman as the villain of the Jewish holiday of Purim for India’s Bene Israel “kirtankars.” The kirtankars, a group of elderly women from the Mumbai Jewish community who sing kirtan, or traditional devotional songs, had planned to perform a kirtan about Queen Esther in the synagogue for the holiday. But with places of worship mostly closed due to the pandemic, the women’s performance has been canceled.

Kirtans are traditional storytelling songs inspired by Hindu devotional music. The ones sung by the Bene Israel are in the local Marathi language and include Hebrew words. They extol great figures of the Hebrew Bible, such as Joseph, Moses, David and Elijah. The one the women had hoped to perform this week is called “Esther Ranichi Katha” or the tale of Queen Esther who saved the Jews.

“There’s been a spike in Covid cases, so religious worship has been restricted. We will probably have five to ten people — not even a minyan [prayer quorum] — at the synagogue. And it isn’t safe for the women, who are mostly in their 70s and 80s, to leave their homes to travel,” said Elijah Jacob, former Joint Distribution Committee director in India.

“It’s a shame because they were so excited to do their recital,” he said of the kirtankars, or kirtan singers.

Jacob has been active in recent years in working with the women to preserve and perform the kirtans of the Bene Israel community, which were popular from the 1880s until the 1940s. Local interest in them waned considerably after the majority of Bene Israel Jews emigrated to Israel or Commonwealth countries after Israel and India gained independence.

“The last time I remember hearing a kirtan performed was at the Elly Kadoorie School here in Mumbai in the mid-1990s,” Jacob said.

The Bene Israel, the largest Indian Jewish community, is said to have had its founding with a shipwreck of Jews from the Kingdom of Israel off India’s Konkan coast circa 175 BCE. These Jews lived among the local Hindu community, and because everything was lost to them, they did not have Torah and Talmud texts to guide their lives. They didn’t have rabbis, nor did they remember all of the festivals.

“Most traditions were passed on orally after the shipwreck. The Bene Israel practiced the basics of Judaism, such as not working on the Sabbath, circumcision, the kosher laws, and the recitation of the Shema prayer,” Jacob said.

According to Hebrew University anthropologist and Indian Jewry specialist Dr. Shalva Weil, the first recorded evidence of the Bene Israel community is from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when they — like many others — migrated to Bombay (as Mumbai was formerly known) under British rule.

“The first synagogue in Bombay, called the Gate of Mercy Synagogue, was established in 1796,” Weil told The Times of Israel.

Hebrew University anthropologist Shalva Weil (Courtesy)

The Bene Israel’s exposure in the late 19th century to the Bible in written form by Scottish and American Christian missionaries spurred the composition and performance of the kirtans focusing on heroes of the Hebrew Bible.

According to a recent article in The Times of India, Samuel Mazgaonkar David Haeem Divekar, Benjamin Ashtamkar, Isaac Abraham Talegaonkar and several other Bene Israel community members began writing and performing kirtans in the 1880s. Initially frowned upon by some, these kirtans became a hit at local celebrations like weddings, circumcision ceremonies and housewarming parties. Within a few years, a repertoire of 42 kirtans was created.

Some of the kirtans were published in printed books, while others were jotted down in notebooks.

Bene Israel kirtans are undoubtedly inspired by Hindu musical traditions, and are often accompanied by Indian musical instruments. However, they are also adopted from Sephardic Jewish tunes for Sabbath eve prayer-type songs known as zemirot.

These Sephardic melodies were introduced to the Bene Israel Jews by Cochin Jewish leaders who came up to Bombay from southern India to help establish the community and bring it in line with mainstream Judaism beginning in the late18th century. Sephardic Jews arrived in Cochin following their expulsion from the Iberian peninsula in the late 15th century.

Enjoy this Bene-Israel Kirtan from 1867.

Posted by Wbwo Daniels on Friday, June 12, 2020

“Having these tunes in the kirtans helps people follow and sing along, because they are familiar with them,” Jacob said.

While the kirtans had mostly fallen by the wayside in Mumbai, they were kept alive within the Bene Israel community in Israel.

“When I carried out fieldwork among the Bene Israel in Lod many years ago, we had kirtan evenings,” Weil recalled.

“They were led by a woman named Flora Samuel, who was the former headmistress of the Sir Elly Kadoorie School. She even published a journal article about the kirtans,” she said.

Former AJDC director Elijah Jacob (right) with kirtan performers at Indian Jewish heritage conference in Delhi, 2017 (Elijah Jacob)

Whereas the kirtans — which include narration and in pageant-like style — were produced and performed by men at their inception, they have become the domain of women since the 20th century. Therefore, it was the older female members of the Bene Israel community in Mumbai to whom Jacob turned in the effort to revive the educational art form.

In 2015, American ethnomusicologist Anna Schultz heard Weil lecture about the Jewish kirtans at a conference at Stanford University. Schultz subsequently traveled to India to research the cultural translation of the devotional songs from the Hindu context to the Jewish one. She introduced  Jacob to a Hindu kirtankar who had composed a kirtan comparing the biblical Noah to Manu, the first man according to Hindu tradition.

Book of collected Bene Israel kirtans, published 2016 (Courtesy of Elijah Jacob)

This spurred Jacob to approach the women of the local Jewish community’s Orot HaTorah group to work with him on collecting and recording the kirtans (in writing and in audio formats) that they  remembered from their youth. Fortunately, a member of the JDC board also had a stash of some two dozen kirtans written down by his great-grandfather, which he happily handed over to the project. Jacob  also asked the women to write their own kirtans.

A book of the collected kirtans was printed in 2016. It is in Marathi, and therefore accessible only to speakers and readers of the language. Jacob said he hopes to raise funds to translate the kirtans into English and to produce a second edition.

So far, Bene Israel kirtankars have performed twice in Mumbai and once in Delhi — always to packed houses.

In speaking with The Times of Israel by Zoom, kirtankars Ruby Moses (Rivka Moshe), Diana Korlekar, and sisters Shoshanna and Hannah Kolet said they would love to be invited to perform in Israel.

Based on the interest of the younger generation of Indian Israelis in their heritage as expressed in social media groups, it seems the women would be well-received.

The kirtans keep Jewish identity alive

Moses, 68,  said she isn’t afraid the kirtan tradition won’t be passed down, even in India where there are only about 1,000 Jews between the ages of 13 and 30 left in Mumbai, according to Jacob.

“These are about what our great leaders did for us. The kirtans keep Jewish identity alive,” she said.

Unlike Moses, who was unfamiliar with the kirtans as a girl, Shoshanna Kolet, 75 remembered her uncle teaching her one about Moses.

“This is our traditional culture. We are passing it on to new generations. That’s why we are writing kirtans,” she said.

Korlekar, 76, wasn’t going to let the coronavirus pandemic completely stop her from performing the Queen Esther kirtan. Before signing off from the video chat interview, she pulled out the lyrics and began singing a bit of the song. Moses kept time on a tambourine, and the Kolet sisters joined in.

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