Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

(v) India (Bene Israel, Cochini and Iraqi)

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(v) India (Bene Israel, Cochini and Iraqi).

By the 20th century the Jewish population in India comprised a variety of extremely diverse communities of different (and sometimes obscure) origins and with distinct musical traditions. The basic groups are the Jews of Cochin (Kerala), the Bene Israel (‘Sons of Israel’) and the Iraqi (Babylonian) Jews. Although the musical traditions of these communities have been studied in recent years, much still remains to be done.

The religious music of the Jews of Cochin reflects the complex history of this community, which is internally subdivided into the Paradesi, or ‘white’ Jews (Portuguese, Syrian and Ashkenazi Jews who settled in Cochin from the 16th century onwards) and the Malabari, or ‘black’ Jews (descendants of the original Jewish population of the area). Several influences may be detected in their religious music and poetry, especially notable is a Yemenite layer. However, there is no noticeable influence of Indian music from the surrounding culture, although a possible relationship with the music of the Syriac Church in Kerala still needs to be explored. The Cochini liturgy also includes folk melodies known as ‘Shingli’ tunes (after the Jewish name for Cranganur, where the original Jewish settlement of Kerala was located until the 16th century).

The traveller Moses Pereyra de Paiva visited the Cochini community in the mid-17th century while on a mission on behalf of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam, and later described its musical life, stressing the use of instruments to accompany the singing of the liturgy (Notisias dos judíos de Cochin, Amsterdam, c1687; Portuguese trans. by M.B. Amzalak, Lisbon, 1923); unfortunately the nature of these instruments is not known. The prayerbooks and manuscripts brought by Pereyra de Paiva from Amsterdam as a gift to support their eroding religious life had a permanent influence on the religious repertory of the Cochini Jews. However, no Portuguese Jewish musical influence may be detected in the present-day oral tradition. Of particular interest are the piyyutim in the Sephardi style brought to India from the 16th century by Jewish emigrants from Yemen and later from the Ottoman Empire (particularly Syria). Local Cochini Jewish poets also began to compose new songs following the Sephardi models. These religious songs were collected in manuscripts and printed anthologies that are still used today. An exceptional feature is the participation of Cochini women who are versed in Hebrew in the singing of this religious poetry in the synagogue. Almost all the Jews from Cochin emigrated to Israel in the 1950s, settling in agricultural communities where their religious musical traditions are tenaciously perpetuated.

The Bene Israel trace their mythical origins to Jews who settled in India either in the time of King Solomon or after the persecutions of the Jews by Greek King Antiochus from 175 to 163 bce. They settled in Bombay and its environs after the British conquest of this city in 1661. Before the 18th century the Bene Israel had extremely tenuous links with normative Judaism, but they returned to more traditional religious observance under the influence and coaching of immigrant Cochini Jews. Most of the Bene Israel moved to Israel in 1948 settling in several cities, especially Lod, where their central synagogue is now located. Their liturgical music is based on a set of modes, each of which is reserved for a specific occasion (Krut-Moscovich, 1986). Two main styles of performance are employed in the synagogue – ‘straight singing’ (phrases in syllabic style made up of simple motifs of three to four notes) and ‘singing with melody’ (elaborated versions of the same motifs and phrases in melismatic style); both styles employ a flowing rhythm. Religious poems in Hebrew and Marāthī are performed outside the synagogue, sometimes to the accompaniment of the portable harmonium and the bulbultarang that were adopted from Indian music. A special genre of religious songs is the kīrtan, poetic paraphrases of biblical stories, both in Hebrew and Marāthī, performed by a singer called kīrtankār.

Iraqi Jews settled in Bombay and Calcutta from the early 19th century, especially after the religious persecutions of 1825–35 in Baghdad, and reached a peak population of 5000 in the 1940s. Despite the birth of several generations of Indian-born Iraqi Jews, this community maintained a fierce attachment to its original Baghdadi ancestry. Thus, their religious music, especially the singing of religious poetry (pizmonim) is in fact a branch of the Iraqi tradition (see above, §III, 6). Since the independence of India from British rule, Jews of Bombay and Calcutta have emigrated to Great Britain and the USA.

Jewish music, §III, 8: Liturgical and paraliturgical: Central and East Asia

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