For centuries Jewish women along India’s Malabar Coast filled songbooks with Jewish-themed music sung in Malayam at weddings, community celebrations and rituals. The subsequent influx of Jews from other nations splintered the Jews of Cochin (the present day port city of Kochi, India) and caused many to emigrate, principally to Israel. With them went a rich musical heritage that might have been lost to posterity but for the recent efforts of a team of researchers.
In a program titled “The Women Who Kept the Songs from India to Israel: The Musical Heritage of Cochin,” efforts to preserve the music of the Cochin region will be discussed by anthropologists Barbara C. Johnson and Smita Jassal, and linguist and literary scholar Scaria Zacharia. Sponsored jointly by the Asian Division and the Hebrew Language Table in cooperation with the Embassies of India and Israel, the program is free and open to the public at noon on Monday, April 7
in the Mumford Room, located on the sixth floor of the James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C.
Aided by Indian, Israeli and American researchers, a group of Cochini Israelis gathered monthly in Israel over a five-year period to re-learn their musical traditions. From recovered songbooks they strung together what has been deemed a “palmful of pearls.” They have brought to modern ears the voices of their aunts and grandmothers by forming the Nirit Singers, who will give a short performance at the April 7 program.
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the day of the program, a special exhibit of books about the Jewish community of Cochin will be on display in the Asian Reading Room, located in room 150 of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, located at 10 First Street S.E., Washington, D.C.
Barbara C. Johnson has aided the Nirit Singers with her extensive research and field work in India and Israel on the Kerala Jews and as a pioneer in recording and collecting their song. She is an expert on the importance of Cochini women’s songs in understanding Jewish cultural diversity and on the role of women in traditional Kerala culture. Johnson was an associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of Jewish Studies at Ithaca College. She edited “Oh, Lovely Parrot: Jewish Women’s Songs from Kerala” (2004) and co-authored “Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers” (1995) with the late Cochini song expert Ruby Daniel.
Scaria Zacharia, a key partner to the Nirit Singers, is an expert in the content and importance of Malayalam Jewish songs in the context of Kerala folk literature and culture. He was a professor and chair of Malayalam language and literature at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit in Kalady, Kerala. He is co-author of “Karkulali-Yefifiah-Gorgeous!: Jewish Women’s Songs in Malayalam with Hebrew Translations” (2005) and organized an international conference on “The Jewish Heritage of Kerala” held in India in 2006.
Smita Jassal teaches gender and development at Columbia University and cross-cultural communications at American University. She is the author of “Daughters of the Earth: Women and Land” (2001).