Need yet another reminder of just how welcoming India has been to immigrants, and how this open-mindedness can transform a city and a culture?
Shubha Das Mollick’s documentary Dwelling in Travelling traces the experience of the Jewish community in Kolkata. Through archival footage and interviews with surviving members of the city’s Jewish population, Das Mollick pursues the idea of “diversity struggling to stay afloat”, she told Scroll.in. The documentary will be screened in the Indian Competition section at the Mumbai International Film Festival (January 28-February 3).
The story of Kolkata’s Jews is one of “a diaspora of hope”, the filmmaker says in her directorial note. Drawing from the website Jewish Calcutta and Das Mollick’s own research, Dwelling in Travelling provides portraits of the earliest Jewish settlers in Kolkata, starting with Shalom Cohen, who arrived in the city from Aleppo in Syria in 1798 to trade in gems and perfumes. Cohen prospered in what was then the capital of British-ruled India and over the years, the film informs us, family members and friends joined him in Kolkata. Cohen spoke in Arabic, wrote Hebrew in the Arabic script, and kept a kosher kitchen.
The film shows how the Jews settled into Kolkata over the decades and pursued their faith unhindered – synagogues and schools were established, and newspapers merged to cater to the community’s need for news and information. Among the prominent Jews who built Kolkata in literal ways was David Ezra, a real estate tycoon described as being the largest property owner in the city at one point. Among the Kolkata landmarks that Ezra built or owned is Aurobindo Bhavan, Chowringhee Mansion and Esplanade Mansion.
A significant Jewish middle class also emerged, comprising musicians and magicians, teachers and actors, table tennis players and bankers. During World War II in the 1930s and ’40s, another wave of immigrants arrived, this time from Baghdad, the Far East and Europe. Many of the newer entrants from Europe were fleeing the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. The stories of Kolkata’s Jewish communigy “Their stories are so different from the European Jews – they didn’t encounter the same kind of anti-Semitism,” Das Mollick said.
Kolkata was hospitable but not especially lucrative, and over the years, several families started another journey, this time out of India and towards Israel, America, Canada and Australia. “The main reason [for the departure] was economic – they found that other places offered more opportunities for prosperity,” observed Das Mollick, whose films include Calcutta Sonata, about the importance of the piano in Bengali cultural life.
The community has since dwindled down to just about 20 residents, which is one of the reasons Das Mollick felt compelled to make the documentary. “Soon, there won’t be anyone to go to the synagogue,” she observed. “This culture needs visual documentation so that subsequent generations know what the community was like.”
One of the best- known landmarks that has survived the flight is the Nahoum and Sons bakery in the New Market neighbourhood. Locals and tourists continue to patronise Nahoum’s, which was established in 1902, for sweets and savouries, and its popularity is among the few visible traces of a community that briefly came to call Kolkata home.
“No one makes a better lemon sponge cake than Nahoum,” a visitor declares.
The making of the self-funded Dwelling in Travelling, which began in 2017, introduced the 61-year-old filmmaker to a history of Kolkata she had not previously known. “I now have a more complex view of the city,” she said. “I had no idea about so many things – I knew there was a synagogue, for instance, but I had never been inside. These buildings that we pass by every day, I didn’t know that they had been built by Jews. I can now see the diversity, and the various influences that went into the shaping of the city.”
The filmmaker was also introduced to aspects of the Jewish faith and the community’s unique practices. She met several interesting people, including community historian Jael Silliman. Among the people interviewed for the documentary are those who have left Kolkata but have returned over the years to relive memories of an affectionate and rewarding childhood.
Awareness about Kolkata’s Jewish heritage has been increasing over the past few years, but the question of why the city lost its appeal for the community points to a larger decline, Das Mollick said.
“All these opportunities were here, all these people were here, everything was going for Calcutta, but what happened then? It is a pity that it all went downhill from there and the diversity started fading,” she said.