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Building the Archive


When I started to think about developing this archive, I had a few books with some images of the Calcutta Jewish community and some family photographs. I had written about the community so was familiar with published works. Thanks to Professor Susan Scriebman, I connected with Dr. Amlan Das Gupta at the School of Cultural Texts and Records (SCTR) at Jadavpur University. He and his School were working on Colonial Calcutta and were keen to obtain information on the Jewish community that played a crucial role in the City’s mercantile development. With the assistance of his talented students, we started to film and photograph the remaining buildings, institutions, and community members in Calcutta. The enormous skills, enthusiasm and commitment of the students at the Center, together with Dr. Das Gupta’s generosity with allowing them to use the technical resources there, made up for the fact that I had no funds for the project.

Seeing that few materials remained here in Calcutta, and that I was not able to access haphazardly stored and uncatalogued community documents, I knew I had to reach beyond the City to get the information, images and documents I needed for this venture. I first reached out to Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah who has done foundational research and writing on the community. He took the time to set aside some of the materials he thought would be required for the archive from his personal library. I met with Ken Robbins, who among his collections has a collection of Indian Judaica, to obtain the images he owned for the archive. They were most generous and shared the information, documents as well as images they had with them.

I then networked with family and extended family around the world asking them to send me whatever images they had that could be used in the archive, I had no idea that I would get as many images as I did and the project kept growing in size. I came across the fabulous collection of Ilana Sondak who shared her collection with me. Edmund Jonah was also a “find” and had a treasure trove of family photos to share. Anita Blackman also shared a significant collection.

To build on these collections I continued emailing and contacting Jewish community members across the world requesting them to share their photos and memories with me. They were generous in sending me whatever they had and these images came, a few at a time, over two years. Each image took many calls and emails to gather. This was the same in terms of writing and follow up with those who shared their memories. Edmund Jonah wrote an essay on his mother and her time in silent movies in Tollywood, replete with photos. I emailed back and forth with elders in the community to get information on particular aspects of the collections – for e.g., a partial list of GI brides or a list on European Jewish businesses, more information on the Judean Club as well as memories of Jewish social life in the mid twentieth century.

Community members kept me posted on information they were aware of, for example, a booklet on a refugee from Vienna, Elise Braun-Barnett and her memories of Calcutta. Sano Twena has a wonderful collection of books on Calcutta Jews that he gave me for further research. He also shared the album belonging to Ronnie Jacob of Calcutta illustrations in the colonial period. Maurice Gubbay shared a video he had filmed of matzah making in Calcutta in the 1990s. Sano Twena also sent me information on the artist Gerry Judah and his monumental works. I contacted Gerry and Manny Elias in the UK, and they were happy to participate in the project and sent images that have enriched the archive.

I traveled to Delhi and Bombay to meet with Kamal Chenoy and Esther Victoria Abraham’s (Pramila) children to collect photos and their memories of Hannah, Shanta and Esther. I returned to Calcutta with a few wonderful photos of Hannah and Shanta Sen with Gandhi and Nehru and other Congress stalwarts, as well as a very large package of photos from Esther’s children. They also shared their knowledge with me and I was able to write a fairly detailed note on each of them and their legacy. Back at Jadavpur, like the other photos, the photos were scanned and added to the collection. Most of these photos have never been in the public domain and they have greatly enriched the archive.

I sought permission to obtain images that were copyrighted in the book Turning Back the Pages. Mavis Hyman also gave me permission to use her recipes in her book Indian Jewish Cooking. Rivers of Babylon allowed me to download their entire CD which I used in the music collection and Rahel Musleah allowed me to use a couple of tracks from her CD, Hodu: Jewish Rhythms from Bagdad to India. Rabbi Musleah also gave me tapes of his chants that he has documented in Kol Zimrei , and both the chants and his transcriptions are available in the archive.

As word of the archive spread, the press in India, UK and the USA were all very interested in the project and wrote articles on what we were trying to do. This exposure was excellent as people in India and abroad learned about the archive and started contacting me and sending new materials for it that have enriched the archive further. It also brought new volunteers, students and photographers, to participate in and contribute to the project.

In addition to the resources on the online library, the physical archive at the School of Cultural Texts and Records contains materials that could not be uploaded—copyrighted CDs, as well as images, documents and books. Before this project, very little of this information was available in Calcutta. Most of the books on the Calcutta Jewish community are not even available here in library collections.

Over the course of one and a half years, the School of Cultural Texts and Records, of Jadavpur University created the various short films and audio tapes for the website and archive. Through the taking of photos and making of their films several of the students and those working at the Center told me they were delighted to learn about a community they knew so little about! They were so interested in their discovery that they held a seminar at Jadavpur about the archive and the Jewish community that was very well attended. What was most exciting for me is that it was a student run seminar and they gave many of the presentations on the Jewish community. They even performed excerpts from Calcutta Kosher, a play that I had placed in the archive!

Once we had all the information and images archived it was sent to Vinayak Das Gupta who developed the website for the archive. The development of the site took place over a three- month period. There were many challenges along the way, but the website is now ready. To maximize the collection and to make its content widely available, a set of posters are being designed and developed.

Our next task was to developing the posters from images in the archives so the story of the Calcutta Jewish community can be told succinctly to the public. Creating the posters has its own challenges as many of the photos that were sent to us were amateur photos taken in the first part of the twentieth century and a few from a still earlier period. The images are not in high resolution making it challenging to present them in their most compelling form. However, with the help of Devika Dave, the poster designer, we are overcoming these hurdles the best we can to create a set of about 35 attractive posters to be displayed in the ladies gallery of the Beth El synagogue as a permanent exhibit so those who visit the synagogues will learn about the community and the role that they played in the social, cultural and economic history of Calcutta and the nation. While I have borne the expenses for the design of the posters, the Calcutta Jewish community has voted to pay for the printing of the posters as well as the costs of mounting the exhibit. I hope the posters, like the website, are a fitting tribute to the Calcutta Jewish community.

Now that the archive and posters are ready to be publicly viewed, my intent is to gather a complete collection of books written about the community, and other materials, that can become a part of this permanent collection. I want the necessary published and unpublished documents here so those wanting to do research on the community have the necessary resources to do so. If anyone is able and willing to contribute materials to this collection, please be in touch with me. The Anglo Indian community has already done this making a very sizable collection of books and other print material available at Calcutta University as a special collection. Ideally we could have such a collection at both the Jadavpur University library as well as the Jewish Girls School. Community members are in the process of trying to get the community records, then organizing them so that they are available for historical record and for research purposes.

Unfortunately, as the materials of the community are in disarray, incomplete and not accessible, I have not been able to draw on them for the archive as yet. When the documents are with the Jewish community and in order, these will provide another rich source of information.

A Nehru Fulbright Senior fellow grant received in August 2014 has enabled me to conduct further research about how the Jewish community and its members were perceived in Calcutta. This piece of research, “From the Outside In,” will consist of interviews with those who knew the Jewish community and its members – their business acquaintances, friends, employers, employees, neighbors, teachers – and an attempt will be made to solicit this information from a cross- section of communities in Calcutta. The findings from this research will be made available in the archive and on the website. I will continue to update the site on a periodic basis so welcome contributions to it.

I am so glad I was able to collect the information for the archive and poster exhibit - many of those who contributed items are senior citizens and we would not have been able to access their photos and their memories if we waited much longer.

This project has given me an entirely new perspective on the life and contributions of the Jewish community to the City. I had no idea that they had contributed so much to the City, nation and world in such a variety of fields. It was particularly exciting for me to find magicians, sculptors, artists and performers as well as political actors from a spectrum of Indian political formations about whom little has been written. Gathering information on those who left Calcutta but continue to excel has also been richly rewarding. I do feel very proud to be a member of this small but colorful and very intrepid community.