Kirtans with the Bene Israelis –

Posted By on September 6, 2022

How did a Jewish sect start singing local devotional songs? Drop by for a lecture-performance to learn about the revival of the syncretic tradition

The clink of hand cymbals, beats of dholak and singers caught in a trance come to mind when we think of kirtans, be it to invoke the blessings of Sherawali Mata or Sai Baba. But in the 1880s, long after the ship-wrecked Bene Israelis had put down roots in the Konkan soil, kirtans were giving voice to the stories of creation, Noah, Abraham and Moses. Composed by a new breed of kirtankars, who were Bene Israelis, the devotional songs - primarily in Marathi then - were being sung to not just invoke the almighty, but to also preserve the history of the community. "Our ancestors had lost everything in the shipwreck. In the villages where they resided, kirtans were a major form of religious discourse among Maharashtrians. To keep the Biblical traditions of Judaism and what happened to our forefathers alive, they adopted kirtans, using drama, narration and music to impart knowledge," shares Elijah Samson Jacob, a member of the Orot Ha Tanakh kirtan group. Jacob, along with the group, will open up about the history of this syncretic tradition at a lecture-performance hosted by the Mumbai Research Centre of The Asiatic Society of Mumbai.

Benjamin Shimshon Ashtamkar, the first Bene Israeli kirtankar

Jacob, former executive director of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, India, recalls growing up listening to the catchy tunes of Bene Israeli kirtans, thanks to his grandfather. A former cantor at the Sha*ar Harahamim or The Gate of Mercy Synagogue near Masjid Bunder, his grandfather would often hum kirtans. "Kirtans started becoming popular in the community in the 1880s. He must have heard them and would often sing or hum the songs, while dropping us to school or sitting at the Victoria Gardens," Jacob reminisces.

Shimshon Akhyan (1934), a book of kirtans

Despite some early resistance, the community warmed up to the songs that became a regular feature at naming ceremonies, weddings and housewarming parties. Between 1880 and 1960, 42 kirtans became part of the repertoire. Although Bene Israeli kirtans started fading away after India and Israel*s independence, they were briefly revived by Flora Samuel in Israel and Rachel Gadkar in India. Sustained revival efforts started in 2015, when Jacob, and many others like him, started discovering that they had musical memories of these didactic songs, thanks to their grand, or great-grandparents. "I thought, why not compile these kirtans. Fortunately, Dr Nathan Aston, a community member from Pune, had a bundle of 22 kirtans that his great-grandfather, the first kirtankar, Benjamin Shimshon Ashtamkar, had left him." Their efforts were boosted by Anna Schultz, an ethnomusicologist, who sponsored the first kirtan recital in Matunga.

The early kirtans were centred on Biblical stories, Jacob notes. "It started with the concept of creation of the world, Adam and Eve, Noah, the forefathers, and continued with prophet Moses. Most kirtans in the early days were based on The Torah. Some of the later prophets were also included, along with other writings and events in Jewish history."

Elijah Samson Jacob

On Wednesday, Jacob and the kirtan group will delve into the different influences that shaped the tradition - from Bollywood songs such as Ae malik tere bande hum to the Shabbat liturgy. Viewers can expect to hear kirtans in Marathi, Hindi, English and Hebrew, accompanied by the quintessential sounds of cymbals, dholak and harmonium, rendered through a synthesiser and a mouth organ. "We*re also going to have a sale of our compiled publication, Bene Israeli Kirtans. The proceeds will go to an old age home for the community in Panvel," Jacob adds.

On: September 7; 5 pmAt: Durbar Hall, The Asiatic Society of Mumbai, Fort

Originally posted here:

Kirtans with the Bene Israelis -

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