India is a remarkably large country – the seventh largest in the world in terms of area, to be precise, and the second most populous. Fascinatingly diverse, it plays host to a great variety of peoples with distinct cultures, languages, cuisines, heritage and religion.
The relationship between religion and identity is a complex one, negotiated on various levels – that of the cultural, the social and the political. In India, most of the world’s largest religions are represented. Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism are the predominant religions of the land – religions born here. The central Asian invaders brought Islam. The colonial powers brought Christianity. The keepers of these various faiths have all been assimilated gradually – in varying ways, to altering degrees, occupying differing states of visibility – within the mainstream social fabric of the country. Today, the Indian political state is home to over two thousand ethnic communities, one such minority being the Jewish community.
Indian Jews are a small community, rapidly diminishing further in numbers. Believed to have come to India as long as two thousand years ago, they are now divided into different small categories and usually grouped by region – each apparently unaware of another’s existence until two or three centuries ago.
Being a microscopic endogamous community with strict religious and social traditions, most Jews who settled in India desired to maintain their unique culture. Generations of life in the subcontinent however, produced a distinct cultural identity for these Indian Jews – who embraced socio-cultural ‘Indian’ traditions, even as they retained the specificity of their own practices. Young Jews learn occasionally to recite prayers in Hebrew, but rarely speak, read or write in it. The language of communication, both everyday and ritualistic, is a regional one – Malayalam, Marathi or Gujarati depending on where they live.
The most interesting facet of the Jewish experience in India, within a collective global Jewish experience, is the complete absence of any anti-Semitic persecution. It is perhaps paradoxically this tolerance that cost the country its Jews – who fearing the loss of their specific identity and yearning for a place within the larger Jewish narrative began migrating to Israel in the 1950s. Today, there are barely four thousand Jews, in an Indian population of approximately one billion in all.
Yet this diasporic population, as in the case of those that remain behind, are characterised by a singular transcultural identity that juxtaposes Onam celebrations and mehendi rituals, with Sabbath and synagogue weddings – an Indian Jewish Identity.
Exploring this, Rahul S Ravi takes his lens into the homes of these people, documenting the spaces they inhabit – where everyday objects: chairs, tables, television sets and umbrellas, foreground the interstitial and yet normative existence of Jewish symbols and images in these rooms, on these walls – the menorah, the Star of David and wedding photographs with traditional attire.
The lack of human figures in these images, points us to a certain invisibility of Jews in India who are so well assimilated into its socio-cultural map, even as they try to maintain a distinctive identity in the observing of their unique customs.
Rahul S Ravi completed his Master’s in Photography Design from National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. His photographic projects try to bring in focus socio-cultural issues that have been at times overlooked by the mass media. These very qualities in his work “Indian Jewish identity” won him the prestigious Tierney fellowship, for the year 2009. He is one amongst thirteen photographers from all over the world to have won this prestigious grant.