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Jewish songs in Malayalam

A New York anthropologist and a Malayalam professor are on a mission to salvage the Malayalam songs sung by Jews.

Sarah Cohen

THE EFFORTS of a New York anthropologist and a Malayalam professor have helped save the musical heritage of the Jewish women of Kerala. For nearly 50 years, handwritten notebooks containing the songs had been tucked away in drawers, next to the folded saris and other prized possessions. Their pages have turned yellow with age.

Kochi was home to a small Jewish community for nearly 2,000 years. Here, unlike other orthodox communities, the Jews did not follow the Talmudic injunction against women singing in public.Most of the songs are Biblical narratives that incorporate classical Midrash, some with a delightful Indian twist and even with strong folk overtones.

Kochi is one of the very few places in the world where the Jews can claim centuries of peaceful coexistence with the local population. But today only a handful of them live here. The songs are now being revived by Barbara C. Johnson, professor of anthropology at Ithaca College in New York, who has been studying the Cochini Jews in Israel since the early 1970s and Dr. Scaria Zachariah, professor of Malayalam, at the Sree Sankara University of Sanskrit, Kalady.

Dr. Zachariah is collaborating with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Ben Zvi Institute to publish a book of the songs in Malayalam, with translations into English. Also on the anvil is an album of the songs to be produced with the assistance of Edwin Seroussi of the Jewish Music Research Centre.

When the Jews migrated to Israel, they carried the songbooks with them. But there these songs were rarely performed. Though the Jews of Cochin preserved many aspects of their unique culture, the Malayalam songs were almost lost owing to the declining use of this language and the little time they got for traditional celebrations. In the late 70's and 80's, these songs were recorded for research, but they did not reach the wider community.

A video recording of their kalipattu was widely circulated among the community and this remains an invaluable record of the dance steps and clapping during the performance.

Dr. Zachariah's visit to Israel in 2000 set off the revival.

A Malayalam-language presentation at a Moshav Nevatim programme and his meeting with the members of the community stoked the embers of this dying fire.

He spoke to the gathering in Malayalam and this was enough to break the ice. It was as though the listeners were transported to their childhood that was filled with sounds of Malayalam, scent of spices from the bazaars and the kaleidoscope of brightly coloured saris.

"No one really taught these songs. There was an old lady who used to come every Saturday and take me to the synagogue. She used to force me into singing the hymns and also initiated me into the songs. There were a few seniors who used to lead the song sessions in which I joined. Once they left, I was the only one who knew how to sing them. Now, after the death of my husband, I have stopped singing and there is hardly anyone who knows to sing anymore, at least, in Kochi," says Sarah Cohen whose voice has been recorded and who, along with her husband Jacob E. Cohen, have been very important sources in the efforts to collect and translate the songs.

Most of the songs are associated with weddings. There were songs for the making of the silver betrothal ring, the tying of the thali, the boiling of raisin wine, the bride emerging from the ritual bath and the procession of the bridegroom to the synagogue. There are others that advice the bride or the groom on how to lead a good Jewish life.

It was Dr. Zachariah's zeal to pass on this heritage to the world that made this an international project. Dr. Zachariah and Albrecht Frenz have published a book with German translations of 28 Malayalam Jewish songs. He has presented a paper on `Understanding Jewish Malayalam Songs' at a seminar on Indian Studies and Jews at Oxford and now the a bilingual publication of the songs is ready for release.

"These songs in Malayalam and Hebrew are titled `Karkuzhali'. They will, we hope, be accessible to the members of the community, the few in Kerala and those in Israel. Ophira Gamliel has done the Hebrew translation and commentary," says Dr Zachariah.


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