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Musical heritage

K. PRADEEP

For centuries, Jewish women in Kochi sang Jewish songs in Malayalam. Now a project tries to revive and perpetuate this unique tradition.



WOMEN'S LITURGICAL MUSIC: Bringing back the old times.

GALIA HACCO, the organiser and leader of the Kochini women's group at Modi'in, Israel, spent her childhood and the best part of her life at Chendamangalam, Ernakulam district, Kerala. In memory of her 15-year-old daughter Nirit, who was killed in a road accident, she decided to revive the heritage of the Kerala Jewish women's songs.

There was a specific reason for this decision. Before her death, Nirit had visited two locations founded by Kerala Jews. She realised that she knew little about the community to which she actually belonged. Galia Hacco understood that she had not transmitted her Kochi heritage to her children.

Rich tradition

Before their mass immigration to Israel, which began in the early 1950s, Jews lived quite comfortably for well over 1,000 years in Kerala. Here, unlike other orthodox communities, the Jews did not follow the Talmudic injunction against women singing in public. For centuries, the Cochin Jewish women have been singing Jewish songs in Malayalam. There was a rich tradition of women's liturgical music sung on public occasions — weddings, circumcisions and holidays. The songs were handed down in special hand-copied notebooks.

After the mass immigration or aliyah, they were so busy building new lives in Israel that they stopped making these books. They even stopped speaking Malayalam. For most, including elders in the community, the songs were just old tunes in a language that hardly anyone understood anymore.

In November 2000, Galia Hacco started a group for women, the Nirit Singers, interested in learning and singing traditional songs. They met once a month for a few hours at an Indian synagogue, where the older women who remembered the songs taught the young. The social life of the Jewish community in Kerala had centred on rituals in the synagogue and festive meals at home. The women sang during these celebrations. There are songs about wedding processions, gold-clad brides with colourful flowers in their hair, an illustrious ancestor arriving by sea from Jerusalem in a wooden ship and "parrot songs" addressed to the lovely, tropical birds. Many songs are based on Biblical narratives. As with many oral traditions, it is not clear who wrote all the songs. The melodies vary in style and origin and from community to community. Some are based on regional folk tunes, popular film and drama songs, while others are borrowed from Hebrew liturgy and some original music.

The Malayalam Jewish songs were unknown outside the community till the 1970s. Anthropologist Barbara Johnson of Ithaca College, New York, first began recording the women's songs of Kerala's Jewish community. Together with her colleague, late Shirley Berry Isenberg, Johnson began recording and collecting written texts. Prof. P. M. Jussay translated numerous songs from Malayalam to English, published several articles about them and made valuable contributions to this project.

Expanding project

In 1999, the project expanded to include an international and multidisciplinary team of scholars. Crucial was the role of Dr. Scaria Zacharia of the Sree Sankara University of Sanskrit, Kalady. An expert in 16th Century Malayalam language and literature, he was instrumental in deciphering the songs.

In 2004, the women from the Nirit Singing Group, dressed in the colourful, traditional dress, gathered at the Hebrew University campus and sang the traditional Malayalam Jewish songs. This was part of a special ceremony to mark the release of the 42-song CD "Oh, Lovely Parrot", produced by the Jewish Music Research Centre, Hebrew University and the publication of a book Kaarkuzhali in Malayalam, published by the Ben-Zvi Institute. The book also has Hebrew translations of the songs by Ophira Gamliel of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Many lost melodies

The 42 songs represent just a fraction of the traditional repertoire of the Malayalam Jewish songs, preserved in more than 300 written texts, though the melodies of most have been forgotten. Of the singers, the largest number is from Kochi, with Parur, Chendamangalam and Ernakulam also being represented. Four singers are dead. The only one who still lives in Kerala is Sarah Cohen of Kochi. As the quality of the early field recordings were poor, five contemporary Kochini women living in different parts of Israel, were assigned to learn or re-learn selected songs to supplement the CD. They studied the melodies from old recordings and texts from photocopied manuscripts and notebooks.

"Speaking in Malayalam has become a privilege among this community in Israel today. Our project acquires significance because it has not ended as a museum piece but ignited an interest in reviving the language. We have now got new notebooks. Textualising these books is on and soon we will have an enlarged version, with a new Indian-Hebrew dimension to it," says Dr. Zacharia.

As a follow-up to the project, a conference is to be held in February next year on the Jewish Heritage of Kerala under the joint auspices of the Association For Comparative Studies, and the universities in Kerala.

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