Sound waves

Iraq and roll: The Jewish sounds of Bollywood

In the 1930s, Mumbai actually supported a Hebrew record label.

The dulcet ring of the oud is impossible to miss on the soundtrack of Yahudi, Bimal Roy’s unlikely Bollywood historical made in 1958 about the persecution of Jews in ancient Rome. The background score, composed by Shankar and Jaikishan, has a vaguely Middle Eastern feel to it and as the plot twists and turns, it often falls to the versatile Arabian stringed instrument to signal the swirling emotions. As massacres are ordered, betrayals ensue and Dilip Kumar falls in love with Meena Kumari, the oud sobs, sighs and sings to enhance the mood on screen. It could easily have descended into kitsch. Perhaps the reason it didn’t was the fact that the man plucking the strings, Isaac David, was well acquainted with Middle Eastern music.

David was Jewish himself and in the early years of the last century, he had polished his art by playing with an ensemble in Mumbai that recorded four discs of Iraqi Jewish tunes for the Hebrew Record label.

Play

Some of those tunes can be heard on a collection called Shir Hodu: Jewish Song from Bombay of the ’30s, which offers a fascinating reminder of the city’s cosmopolitan heritage. Released in 2009, the 15 archival tracks on the album have been painstakingly put together by Sara Manasseh, a Mumbai-born Iraqi Jewish ethnomusicologist who now lives in London. During the 1930s, Mumbai was “a musical kaleidoscope”, Manasseh says in her liner notes, and the pieces included music and Jewish prayer chants in Hebrew.

In 2012, Manasseh explained the historical and theoretical context of this music in a book titled Shbahoth – Songs of Praise in the Babylonian Jewish Tradition: From Baghdad to Bombay to London.

Mumbai has long been home to three distinct Jewish groups. The largest is the Bene Israel, who believe that their ancestors were shipwrecked off the Alibaug coast in 175 BCE. From the nineteenth century, Iraqi Jewish traders – Manasseh’s ancestors – fleeing religious persecution began to settle in the commercial capital. This group came to be known as the Baghdadis. In the 1930s, a small number of Jews from Kochi, whose ancestors had arrived in Kerala in the 10th century BCE, also lived in Mumbai.

Both the Bene Israel and the Baghdadis had vibrant musical traditions in the 1930s. The Bene Israeli repertoire was in Marathi, drawing its themes from the Psalms and other Biblical sources. Among the prominent community musicians was Nathan Solomon Satamkar, a dashing silent movie actor whose family established two musical schools to provide instruction in such instruments as the sitar and the dilruba, Manasseh said.

To Mumbai’s ears, the music of the Baghdadis must have seemed far more exotic. Shir Hodu includes tracks by Silman Museri, whose group included “dancing girls who would balance candelabras on their heads”, Manasseh said in an email interview. Also popular was Mnashi Abu Moshe, a blind singer who sometimes entertained at parties thrown by Manasseh’s grandparents. “He would sing popular Arabic songs from Baghdad, and also improvise songs…about people who were at the party,” Manasseh said. “My grandmother would sit by him and tell him who was there.”

Crossover sounds

Soon, some of these Jewish tunes made their way to wider audences. Among these was Habibi, which became Jata Kahaan Hai Diwaane in the 1956 film CID. (Listen here). “It was introduced by the Maimon brothers, who came to India from Palestine and taught it to friends in Bombay,” Manasseh said. “One of the sisters in the Ma’atuk family, a Jewish family in Byculla, sang it to the music director, OP Nayyar, who adapted it.” The tune is part of the repertoire of the Rivers of Babylon, the group Manasseh has put together in London to perform Baghdadi Jewish music.

Mumbai’s Jews also made themselves heard on movie soundtracks. Isaac David, whose oud enlivened Yahudi, also played the qanun (a Middle Eastern zither), mandolin and guitar in the film studios. David had been taught by Faizulla Taghioff, a dealer in precious stones who came to Mumbai from Samarkand. Taghioff can be heard on many tracks on Shir Hodu. He also played the mandolin in many films, including Awaara and Mera Naam Joker, performing under the stage name Abdul Rahim Taghioff.

To Manasseh, the songs on Shir Hodu carry a melodious message about the character of the Baghdadis – and about Mumbai. “This illustrates the great love for music, their inherent joie de vivre,” Manasseh said. “The Baghdadians were very much part of the surrounding society. Bombay (and Mumbai today) being such a cosmopolitan city, Baghdadians were soon very much at home with all, whoever they met.” Manasseh added: “That is the wonderful thing about Bombay/Mumbai – everyone is different, and so everyone is the same. There was no artificial ‘tolerance’ of the ‘other’. We were all the ‘other’ and therefore all the same.”

Here’s a performance by Manasseh’s group, Rivers of Babylon.

Play

This article was first published on Taj Mahal Foxtrot.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

It’s the new year and it’s already time to plan your next holiday

Here are some great destinations for you to consider.

Vacation planning can get serious and strategic. Some people swear by the save and splurge approach that allows for one mini getaway and one dream holiday in a year. Others use the solo to family tactic and distribute their budget across solo trips, couple getaways and family holidays. Regardless of what strategy you implement to plan your trip, the holiday list is a handy tool for eager travellers. After having extensively studied the 2018 holiday list, here’s what we recommend:

March: 10 days of literature, art and culture in Toronto

For those you have pledged to read more or have more artistic experiences in 2018, Toronto offers the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomising vending machine for old books. You can find the Biblio-Mat, paper artefacts, rare books and more at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian bookseller. If you can tear yourself away from this eclectic bookstore, head over to The Public Library in Toronto for the Merril Collection of over 72000 items of science fiction, fantasy magic realism and graphic novels. With your bag full of books, grab a coffee at Room 2046 – a café cum store cum studio that celebrates all things whimsical and creative. Next, experience art while cycling across the 80km Pan Am Path. Built for walking, running, cycling and wheeling, the Pan Am Path is a recreational pathway that offers a green, scenic and river views along with art projects sprinkled throughout the route. You can opt for a guided tour of the path or wander aimlessly for serendipitous discoveries.

Nothing beats camping to ruminate over all those new ideas collected over the past few days. Make way to Killarney Provincial Park for 2-3 days for some quiet time amongst lakes and hills. You can grab a canoe, go hiking or get back to nature, but don’t forget to bring a tent.

If you use the long-weekend of 2nd March to extend your trip, you get to experience the Toronto Light Festival as a dazzling bonus.

June: 10 days of culinary treats, happy feet and a million laughs in Chicago

Famous for creating the deep-dish pizza and improv comedy, Chicago promises to banish that mid-year lull. Get tickets for The Second City’s Legendary Laughs at The UP-Comedy Club - the company that gave us the legendary Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Key & Peele. All that laughter can sure work up an appetite, one that can be satiated with Lou Malnati’s classic deep-dish pizza. For dessert, head over to the Ferrara Original Bakery for mouth-watering treats.

Chicago in June is pleasant and warm enough to explore the outdoors and what better way to soak in the sunshine, than by having a picnic at the Maggie Daley Park. Picnic groves, wall climbing, mini golf, roller blading – the park offers a plethora of activities for individuals as well as families.

If you use the long weekend of 15th June, you can extend your trip to go for Country LakeShake – Chicago’s country music festival featuring Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.

August: 7 days in London for Europe’s biggest street festival

Since 1964, the Notting Hill Carnival has been celebrating London’s Caribbean communities with dancing, masquerade and music ranging from reggae to salsa. Watch London burst into colours and sparkle at the Notting Hill Carnival. Home to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens Museum, London is best experienced by wandering through its tiny streets. Chance encounters with bookstores such as Foyles and Housemans, soaking in historic sights while enjoying breakfast at Arthur’s Café or Blackbird Bakery, rummaging the stalls at Broadway market or Camden Market – you can do so much in London while doing nothing at all.

The Museum of Brand, Packaging and Advertising can send you reminiscing about those old ads, while the Clowns Gallery Museum can give you an insight in clown-culture. If you’d rather not roam aimlessly, book a street-art tour run by Alternative London or a Jack the Ripper Tour.

October: 10 days of an out-of-body experience in Vegas

About 16 km south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, lies a visual spectacle. Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation by Ugo Rondinone, stands far away from the wild vibe that people expect in Las Vegas and instead offers a sense of wonder. Imagine seven pillars of huge, neon boulders, stacked up against one another stretched towards the sky. There’s a lot more where that came from, in Las Vegas. Captivating colour at the permanent James Turrell exhibit in Louis Vuitton, outdoor adventures at the Bootleg Canyon and vintage shopping at Patina Décor offer experiences that are not usually associated with Vegas. For that quintessential Vegas show, go for Shannon McBeath: Absinthe for some circus-style entertainment. If you put the holiday list to use, you can make it for the risefestival – think thousands of lanterns floating in the sky, right above you.

It’s time to get on with the vacation planning for the new year. So, pin up the holiday list, look up deals on hotels and flights and start booking. Save money by taking advantage of the British Airways Holiday Sale. With up to 25% off on flight, the offer is available to book until 31st January 2018 for travel up to 31st December in economy and premium economy and up to 31st August for business class. For great fares to great destinations, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.