Pratidwandi (1970)

Pratidwandi (1970)
Jayshree Ray fixes her gaze on Central Calcutta in Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Jews: From Aleppo to Calcutta

[This piece was originally published in on 13 January 2015. Here is the link to the original post. This is a repost]

Kolkata Jew

By Mohsin Maqbool Elahi
With the opening of the telegraph in 1853 and a railway network in India, Calcutta soon became a trading centre. It started attracting traders from all over, including Jewish ones. A Syrian from Aleppo called Shalom Aharon Obaidah Cohen arrived in Surat in 1762 and within a short span of time established himself as a trader. He moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1798 where he developed a profitable trade in jewels and precious stones. In 1816, he became the court jeweler of the Nawab of Oudh and his son at Lucknow.
Besides Syria, Jews also started arriving from Baghdad (Iraq), Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran. They were popularly known as Baghdadi Jews. Soon they were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from Romania who were being persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.
The first generation of Jewish settlers in Kolkata spoke Judeo-Arabic at home and adhered to their Arabic style of costumes. The next generation of Jews adopted European dress and lifestyle and English as their language of communication. The Jewish population had grown to 5,000 in Kolkata by the 1940s. Now only 27 remain; most of whom are in their 60s or above. With the creation of Israel in 1948, Jews started moving out. However, the majority of these left for Singapore, Australia, Canada, and England. Ironically, I recalled reading a news report more than a decade back about the lone Jew left in Kabul, who was taking care of the synagogue there.
There used to be five synagogues in Kolkata. Now only two are left: Beth El Synagogue and Maghen David Synagogue. During my childhood in Kolkata, I often used to catch a glimpse of the Beth El Synagogue, while headed for my grandfather’s house on Pollock Street and the Neveh Shalom Synagogue on the way to my father’s fireworks shop on Canning Street. The latter was built by Ezekiel Judah Jacob in 1825. It was reconstructed in 1911. A road running parallel to Pollock Street was called Ezra Street. Ezra Street was named in memory of David Joseph Ezra. However, little did I know then that both Ezra and Pollock were Jewish names. Even though I did not know the names of any of the synagogues, I was definitely interested in the architecture of Neveh Shalom Synagogue, which kept me mesmerized. Interestingly, the caretakers of both the Beth El Synagogue and Maghen David Synagogue are Muslims.
Several years back, while reading about their history on the Internet, I came to know that the Beth El Synagogue was built in 1856 by David Joseph Ezra and Ezekiel Judah. It was rebuilt and extended in 1886 by Elias Shalom Gubbay. It has stupendous stained glass windows just above the main entrance. The Maghen David Synagogue was built in 1884 by Elias David Joseph Ezra in memory of his father, real estate magnate David Joseph Ezra. It has a fine collection of Torah scrolls. Tourists are fascinated by its checkered marble flooring, intricate stained glass windows and ornate Corinthian columns. Both have been declared protected monuments by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Manasseh Meyer was a Jewish philanthropist and businessman, born and educated in Kolkata but better known as a benefactor to the Jews of Singapore. After spending some time in Singapore, he returned to Kolkata to complete his Hebrew studies. He built the Manasseh Meyer building and it is now used by the city’s police department.
If you have lived in Kolkata, you are bound to have been addicted to the plum cakes or pastries or buns or breads of confectioners, Nahoum and Sons. The confectionery was set up in 1902 at the labyrinthine New Market by Nahoum Israel, who was one of the first Jews to arrive in Kolkata. Within a few years, it had won itself a rich British clientele. When the British left after India won independence in 1947, it started attracting locals by the hordes. Later, Nahoum’s son, Elias started running it and then his grandson David, now succeeded by his brother Isaac. Whenever my siblings or my birthday was celebrated, our father always got us a large birthday cake from Nahoum’s along with lovely candles of various colours. The cakes were always absolutely scrumptious, leaving us licking our fingers. Those days birthday cakes were actually eaten, not scrubbed on faces!
The confectionery is still highly popular among locals and tourists alike. Anybody who talks about or writes about Kolkata is most certain to mention the 112-year-old landmark Jewish bakery.
The community set up two schools: The Jewish Girls School and the Elias Meyer Free School Talmud Tohrah. Both schools are thriving and well endowed, although Jewish studies no longer study there. They are English-medium schools open to all, irrespective of their religion. In fact, 90% of the students in the girls’ school are Muslims.
Many reputed Jewish families have made Kolkata their own, raising edifices like Chowringhee Mansion, Esplanade Mansion, and Ezra Hospital. Besides, they built business empires, mansions, and synagogues.
There are two Jewish cemeteries in Kolkata, a private one at U.C. Banerjee Road and another one at Narkeldanga, which is cared for by Shalom Israel, the youngest of the Jews in the city. It houses thousands of graves, including the tomb of Shalom Aharon Obaidah Cohen, Kolkata’s first Jew. It also contains graves of Russian and Polish Jews.
Mohsin Maqbool Elahi is a journalist who works for Dawn (newspaper) in Karachi. He has also worked for The News (newspaper) and several magazines. He completed his MA in International Relations. He loves writing limericks and haiku, along with other forms of poetry, book reviews, and articles on culture, education, environment, film, and music. He occasionally writes for The Shillong Times and has also written forCitrus (e-magazine). Email:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Jewish Calcutta

Calcutta has had a Jewish diaspora since the late-eighteenth century. The first immigrants came from Baghdad, some of whose kin had already moved to cities like Surat and Cochin on the western littoral of South Asia at an earlier date. Eventually more came; from different other parts of Eurasia, including Syria, Afghanistan, Russia and Poland. During the nineteenth century, their numbers soared, as the Jews of Central Calcutta emerged as a prosperous business community. After the creation of Israel in 1948, numbers started dwindling, and over the years, younger members of the community migrated for greener pastures to different parts of the first world. With its numbers reduced to around two dozens at present, the rich Jewish past of the city is now survived by a cemetery, three beautiful synagogues, two schools, the fond nostalgia of the much-lived bakery Nahoum & Sons. and toponymy of the likes of Ezra Mansion, Ezra Street, Belilios Street and Synagogue Street.

Jael Silliman, who herself emerged from this community, has put together a truly wonderful digital archive that documents the lives of the Calcutta Jews. It features numerous photographs, interviews of senior Jewish residents of the city, documentaries, pictures of material objects, posters and so on. Below is a selection of Jewish family photographs from this digital archive, intended on the one hand to help us look back at the diasporic world of the Jews of Calcutta, while on the other they show us a snippet of the extremely rich archival material collected and digitised by Jael Silliman. Here is the link to her website:

PS: Here are the links to two recent features on the Jewish community of the city:

Of Matzoh and Mothballs: The Disappearing Jews of Kolkata

Only 27 Remain, but Jews Love Kolkata

Ashkenazy family

Isaac Jonah with grandsons Sassoon, Alec (seated) and Meyer

Nissim Luddy & Seemah Arakie

Emma Arakie, Seemah Arakie Luddy (with unknown person)

Jacob Jonah family portrait

Noah family

Rachel Luddy, Sam, Ramoo, Sally

Jonah Isaac with wife Tova and son Ephraim

Mingail family

Sales family

Joe Curlender at home in Park Street with Robin & Ilana

Moshe (Moses) Mizrahi and sister Flora in 1946, Dalhousie Square

Isaac Jonah with Alec (right), Eric (left)

Floris Moses

Moshe (Moses) Mizrahi in June, 1950, Botanical Gardens

Calcutta That Was: Paintings from 1792-1837

In the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, British painters vigorously painted the new Oriental colonial possessions of their country. Thomas Daniel and others traversed the length and breadth of the land to put down on paper what they saw before their eyes. Calcutta, the headquarters of the nascent colonial empire in the east, attracted particular attention of these painters. These paintings, in their vivid details, not only lets us take a glimpse at a bygone Calcutta through their eyes, but through way certain places, people and objects that found their way into these paintings, one can also note a thing or two about how these painters thought about and looked at the cityscape.

The collection of R. Jacob Esquire features several paintings from this period. The link to the collection is here

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Calcutta, c. 1945: Photographs taken by a G.I.

In the mid-1940s, Calcutta swarmed with American G.I.s, on duty on the eastern front against a possible Japanese invasion. For most of these soldiers, the city -- with its imperious colonial architecture, the simultaneity of splendour and poverty, and seemingly strange lifestyle and practices of the 'natives' -- was a exotic wonder. Many of them found it worthwhile to take back visual memories of their stay and went around the city taking pictures of whatever they found curious. One such collection of sixty black-and-white photographs, taken by one Clyde Waddell, has come down to us in good condition and is preserved presently in several American libraries. Each photograph comes with a caption, put down by Waddell himself. Apart from giving us a glimpse of the bygone city through the lens of a military photographer, these accompanying captions also tell us something about how the American soldiers perceived and thought about the city and its people.

Aerial view of Calcutta downtown.  In upper left background is Hindustan building, U.S. Army HQ.  The oldest
part of the city starts at the esplanade and extends upwards.  The city was founded in the early 1700's.
Chowringhee Square.  The Mohammddan mosque, Juma Masjid, is shown at left.  This is actually one of the
quiet moments when GI trucks, taxis, bicycles and other modes of transport can move with comparative freedom.

Probably the largest market in the East is the New Market.  Convering several blocks in the downtown area,
the 2,000 stalls offer most anything you could ask for, wartime shortages excepted.  In addition to all the
items appealing to the local and tourist trade, the market contains giant food departments.
Indicative of the resumption of an age-old struggle for decent conditions is this immediate post-war
picture of tram-workers on strike.  The strike lasted nine days but employees won par of their demands.

These Sikh lads have chosen an auspicious stand for their business of selling 'precious' stone to GI's.
No more than 12 years old, these boys are shrewd and 'malum' English well enough to trim a sucker every time.

Of Calcutta's assortment of colorful and intriguing characters, the sikh taxi-driver and his co-pilot
rank high. The co-pilot was added in 1944 following an affray in which a soldier knifed a driver.  The two
GI's shown here are doing their best to convey their destination to the driver of the ancient jalopy.

This cocoanut market on Cornwallis street is a sample of the haphazard way in which many basars are operated.
The popular pauses for refreshment is indulged by Indian in central foreground drinking cocoanut milk.

Calcutta's poor from a line to buy kerosene at 6 a.m. Each little cubicle may contain a shop and living
quarters for a family ranging possibly from 6 to 12. Sanitary facilities consist of an open street drain.
A little snooping in Chinatown will turn up the little opium dens stuck down an alley (not recommended without police escort). Actually the smokers shown in this picture do it legally. Each den is licensed for so many pipes. Each pipe costs a rupee, a phial of opium five rupees. Average smoker consumes a phial a day and there are about 186 pipes licensed in Calcutta.

The indifference of the passerby on this downtown Calcutta street to the plight of the dying woman in 
the foreground is considered commonplace.  During the famine of 1943, cases like this were to be seen in most
every block, and though less frequent now, the hardened public reaction seems to have endured.

Indian movie actresses.  Dressed in Sarees, 19-year old Binota Bose, left, and Mrs. Rekha Mullick, right,
are right at home before the camera and lights.  Miss Bose earns $360.00 per month and Mrs. Mullick $210.00.
Both are well educated and prefer American books, pictures.

In a different post, we have already seen how the American military establishment decided to equip their soldiers who were to be posted  in Calcutta with some sort of a guide book to launch them in the foreign land. These photographs, taken by one such soldier once he landed up in Calcutta, completes this circle. It tells us how, equipped with this guide book, he explored his way across the length and breadth of the city.  In the process, he ended up creating a wonderful visual and textual archive for posterity.

Here is the link to the complete album, which has all the sixty photographs:

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

In Pictures: Mass Protests at Jadavpur University, by Ronny Sen

[The following photo-essay of the ongoing Jadavpur University student movement by Ronny Sen was originally published in This is a repost. For the original, see]
Students at Calcutta's Jadavpur University have been protesting for the past fortnight at the sexual assault of a female student. A government-appointed panel has begun an inquiry, but the students, upset over the universities' decision to call in police against the protesters last week, say that is not enough.
Photographer Ronny Sen went to find out why they are so angry.
Parnab Das
Parnab Das a 1st Year student of Masters in Comparative literature
What began as anger over last month's assault has snowballed into fury over the authorities' response. Protests have also spilled outside the university campus, and at the weekend up to 25,000 people marched through Calcutta's streets. Parnab Das is doing a masters course in comparative literature. "I am also teaching in a school and I plan to leave my job so that I can give my full time to this movement," he says.
Supratik Sur Roy
Supratik Sur Roy is studying a Masters course in Film Studies
Last Tuesday night, the situation came to a head when university vice-chancellor Abhijit Chakraborty called in police to quell a protest on the campus. Mr Chakraborty says he called in the police because he was under siege and had to be rescued. Dozens of students were injured and admitted to hospital. Supratik Sur Roy, a student of film studies, says it was "completely unacceptable" to send "commandos and police to beat up students who were protesting peacefully".
Upasana Chakraborty
Upasana Chakraborty is is an undergraduate 3rd year student of English at Jadavpur University
Ms Chakraborty, an undergraduate student of English, says she was present on the night and that police came inside the campus and beat up the students. She has alleged that her boyfriend was severely beaten up and suffered multiple injuries. The students are now demanding that the vice-chancellor resign and Ms Chakraborty says she will not give up protesting until he quits.
Prabuddha Ghosh
Prabuddha Ghosh is a MPhill 1st Year student of Comparative Literature
Mr Ghosh, an MPhil student of comparative literature, says: "I am proud to be a part of this movement. I was not present on the night when police came, but I wish I was there with my friends who were beaten up." The poster behind him, with the war cry Halla bol (Raise your voice), aptly sums up the mood of the protesting students.
Sanmit Chaterjee
Sanmit Chaterjee is a Mphill student of second year studying Woman Studies.
"We are not only fighting against the vice-chancellor, we are addressing other issues as well. We are fighting against many things like moral policing on campus, which is being forcefully imposed on us", Sanmit Chaterjee says.
Rupsa Sarkar
Rupsa Sarkar is a Mass communication and journalism student in a post graduation course
Ms Sarkar, a mass communication and journalism student, says: "I don't think our demand to the vice-chancellor for a proper investigation into the molestation was wrong. What was the reason to bring the police inside the campus? The students were peacefully protesting. We will fight against police brutality and until the vice-chancellor resigns."
Devi is an ex student, she passed out in 2012.
Devi is an ex-student who graduated in 2012. But the protests have seen many former students like her return to the university. Along with some other students, she has been painting and making posters which are being put up across the campus.
Prantick Das
Prantick Das is an ex student of Comparative Literature and Mass Communication in Jadavpur University

An ex-student of comparative literature and mass communication, Mr Das says he is here because he feels "very strongly" about the incident. "This could have happened to any one of us. Former students who are in different parts of the world are sending messages with their support and solidarity," he says.

#hokkolorob: A Photostory of the Ongoing Movement in Jadavpur University

[September 2014 saw the dramatic escalation of a localised student movement in Jadavpur University in South Calcutta demanding a fair investigation into an incident of molestation of a girl in campus to a huge movement of students, intellectuals and citizens of Calcutta that strongly condemned the authoritarianism and callousness the university administration displayed in handling the situation. This photo-essay was originally published in This is a repost. For details regarding the initial student movement demanding a fair investigation and the punishment of the molesters, see
'Students, tired after a long day of protest, unwind with music, and much-needed sleep as the posters scream in the darkness. A photostory in (mostly) multiple exposure, documenting the ongoing protests in Jadavpur University at night, on the 11th of September, taken between 2am and 4am.'