Blue Like Her

What identity means to Siona Benjamin

Lilith’ from Finding Home, a series of paintings by Siona Benjamin. {{name}}
01 October, 2013

A MOTHER SMILES INTO THE CAMERA while standing with her arms around her seated daughter. From the fold of flesh on the mother’s arms to the translucent chunni draped over the daughter’s chest, they look like a thousand other Indian mothers and daughters. The grand domed building painted behind them looks like a bas-relief and suggests a studio visit, an over-eager photographer framing this ordinary pair against an extraordinary backdrop. Painted tongues of fire lick at the photograph from all sides, even as waves of water seem to hold the mother and daughter within.

This 35” x 35” photo collage is one of 29 works on display at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum in Mumbai as part of the multimedia artist Siona Benjamin’s exhibition Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives, which will run through 20 October. Benjamin, whose first show was held at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in 1984, has now returned to the city with a series that explores the lives of men and women from the Bene Israel community in which she grew up.

In 2010 and 2011, with the help of a Fulbright fellowship, Benjamin, who now lives in New Jersey, USA, travelled around India interviewing and taking photographs of 60 Bene Israel members. The photographs were then embedded in paintings that often incorporate memorabilia from the subject’s life to create visual narratives. The project is the latest in a career devoted to investigating Benjamin’s multiple identities (Jewish, American, Indian, woman) through work with multiple media (painting, photography, video and installation).

In the work mentioned above, ‘Mozel and Monica Moses (Pugaonkar) Mother and daughter’, the building in the background is the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, where part of the 26 November 2008 terrorist attacks took place; the young woman is Monica Moses, daughter of a member of the fire-fighting team—the only Jew who was part of the rescue operations that day. One effect of the attacks, which seriously damaged the Taj Hotel and Chabad House, a Jewish outreach centre and synagogue run by Western Jews, was to thrust the tiny and largely invisible Jewish minority in India into the media spotlight. It also brought to light divides within the global Jewish community. Benjamin found herself answering curious questions about the Jews of India, such as what they looked like and where they came from.

“Jews were in Pakistan and Baghdad long before they were in Russia and other parts of Europe,” Benjamin told me. “Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation was from Baghdad. Because of the Holocaust, we know much more about Jewish communities from Europe. But the Jewish diaspora comes from everywhere, from Yemen, Iran, Iraq. My own grandmother was born in Pakistan.”

A work from the series Faces: General (Retired) Jack Jacob and his assistant Pal Singh Gill. {{name}}

There are many different accounts of how the Bene Israel came to India. According to one legend, they are descendants of one of the ten lost tribes of Israel which were exiled in 722 BCE when the Assyrians conquered northern Palestine. Another legend has it that they fled from Israel in 175 BC to escape religious oppression at the hands of Hellenistic Syrians.

But all the legends agree on this: a band of Jews were shipwrecked near the Konkan coast, leaving seven male and seven female survivors. They settled in the coastal villages, adopted Hindu names, made a living as oil-pressers—a vocation they may have also practiced in Galilee—and became known as Shaniwar Telis, because they did not press oil on Saturday, the day of the Sabbath. Over the following generations, Marathi became their mother tongue. Even today, most of the Bene Israelis carry surnames with the suffix -kar attached to the name of the village in which they originally settled—Nawgaonkar or Penkar, for instance. It was one of the many ways in which they blended into Marathi society. The legends are also unequivocal on the Bene Israel having been welcomed by the villages in which they settled.

Subsequent waves of Jewish migration to India brought the Bene Israel into renewed contact with other Jewish communities, and its members thereby reacquainted themselves with Hebrew prayers and customs. In the 19th century, British rule offered the Bene Israel opportunities for advancement within the East India Company and in the army, making it a period of prosperity for the community. Their population grew and they settled in many urban centres in western India. From the original handful of oil-pressers, there developed a close-knit community of civil servants, teachers, doctors and lawyers.

By 1948, however, when Israel was established, the Bene Israel had become anxious about their place in newly independent India. At the time, they numbered 20,000, but by 1961, 16,000 of them remained. In 2012, after decades of migration to North America and Israel, there were only 4,000 or so Bene Israel left in India. “My mother’s mother is buried in Ohio and my father’s mother is buried in Eershia, Israel,” Benjamin told me.

In a sense, then, Faces is also a search for Benjamin’s own roots. “I was not one of those Indians who visited India every year,” she said. She was returning to the country after a long absence and, in the intervening time, her community had dwindled. She felt the urgency of capturing the faces of the Indian Jewish people before they completely melted away, dying out or migrating to Israel.

AS IN FACES, identity forms the core of Benjamin’s practice. Born in 1960 into a wealthy Bene Israel family in Mumbai, Benjamin attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. Growing up Jewish in India, Benjamin was often asked where exactly she belonged, who exactly she was. Few people outside the community had even heard of Judaism then, and the tiny Jewish community of the city kept to itself. “Are you some kind of Muslim—or Parsi?” she remembered being asked.

After studying fine art and metal work at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, Benjamin started showing her work in her early twenties, beginning with a solo exhibition of enamel paintings on copper at Jehangir Art Gallery. Her early work, Benjamin told me, leaned towards the abstract. In a statement accompanying an online exhibition of her paintings on the South Asian diaspora website Another Subcontinent, in July 2007, she wrote about growing up surrounded by Hindu iconography, which in Judaism is taboo: “I eyed these figures from a distance, captivated with their radiance and richness.” But her initial reaction was to run away from the figurative and focus on the abstract; monotheism had its own aesthetic.

At 26, Benjamin moved to the United States to continue her studies, and, in 1989, she received her first MFA, in painting, from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. She then went on to get a second MFA, this time in theatre-set design, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Studying stage design, Benjamin told me, made her realise how much she enjoyed telling visual stories. Often she would read the play as she designed a set, and having to convey the mood of the play through visual elements educated her in the narrative power of painting. It finally gave her the courage to reject the dogmas of art professors who thought contemporary high art had to be minimalist and abstract.

“If I did venture to depict the forbidden fruit, my figures were shrouded with darkened faces,” Benjamin wrote of her earlier, abstract phase. “Suddenly it became clear during my years studying and designing sets for theatre that I liked the narrative, the theatrical, the decorative lyrical line.” Working with gouache, gold leaf, and mylar sheets, she came up with a new vocabulary for herself that was rich in colour and story.

Benjamin’s art soon became more self-reflexive. An early series of paintings, titled Blue Like Me, featured winged beings inspired by various mythologies. “To me, the blue-skinned Krishna was the perfect symbol for a Jewish woman of colour,” Benjamin told me during a phone conversation. Women with deep, indigo-hued skin—goddesses, superwomen, matriarchs, Kali and Lilith—fighting evil became a recurring motif in her work, standing out against the bright backgrounds in her paintings. At the same time, as Benjamin points out in a forthcoming documentary about her work (by the American producer Hal Rifken, and also titled Blue Like Me), blue, like the sky and the sea, is universal. It is at home everywhere and belongs nowhere.

In one of my favourite paintings by Benjamin, ‘Tikkun Ha-Olam’, the six arms of a goddess become a menorah, the seven-branched lamp that commemorates the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Written into the painting, in Hindi and in Hebrew, on either side of the figure of the goddess, is the phrase “Tikkun Ha-Olam”, which means “repair the world”. It’s an imperative from Kabbalah that suggests that healing is a collective human responsibility. The goddess here could be Saraswati, trampling on the lotus flower that she is usually depicted seated on; or she could be Kali, wielding death and destruction with her multiple hands—but by pairing the Jewish phrase with the image of a Hindu goddess in a pop art style, Benjamin (like her contemporary, Chitra Ganesh) forces you to invent a new goddess, one who is at home in many different temples.

At times, however, I have found that the layering of multiple metaphors makes Benjamin’s paintings utterly inscrutable. Why was the winged woman flying upside down above the lotus in ‘Fereshtini’? What was the blue elephant trapped inside the military tank in ‘Amistad’ trying to say? Even as the paintings propel themselves into narratives in your head, the symbolism can be excessive—as if multiple paintings were stuffed into the same canvas.

RECENTLY, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, quoting a character in Patricia Engel’s novel It’s Not Love, It’s Paris, said that all immigrants are artists. Starting a new life in a strange land, she said, is an artistic feat of the highest order, one that requires “risk-taking, hope, a great deal of imagination, all the qualities that are the building blocks of art”. Perhaps that is why so many of America’s prominent artists have been immigrants, drawn to art and writing and theatre and other forms of reinvention. Benjamin, too, is trying to make sense of her own history through art.

But Benjamin also belongs to another tradition—what the art historian Matthew Baigell calls the golden age of American Jewish art. Writing for the Forward newspaper’s blog, Baigell said:

Since around 1975, there has been an incredible but largely ignored outpouring of art based on the Bible, the Talmud, Kabbalah, the prayer books, and midrash by artists all over the country … Rather than illustrate texts they challenge their subject matter, as well as invent explanations of their own. Their work has little precedent in past Jewish American art, and the artists have leap-frogged back over generations to find their source material directly in the ancient texts.

Artists such as Ruth Weisberg (who created a 94-foot scroll that celebrates the cycles of life from a Jewish feminist point of view) and David Wander (who made comic book art interpretations of the books of the Bible) have brought a bold contemporary perspective to Jewish themes in their art.

The United States is home to the largest Jewish population in the world outside Israel. Most of these Jews are the descendants of European Ashkenazis who fled persecution in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries. Often, to be Jewish in America is to carry the weight of that history, regardless of where you or your ancestors came from. There is much less awareness of the history of American Jews who are of Indian, African or Latino descent. The Jewish Multiracial Network, an American organisation that works to advance Jewish diversity, has even created a “privilege checklist” to identify the different ways in which Jews of colour are discriminated against in the larger Jewish community. The list includes statements such as “I do not worry about being seen or treated as a member of the janitorial staff at a synagogue or when attending a Jewish event” and “I can easily find Jewish books and toys for my children with images of Jews that look like them.”

From Faces: Daniel Elijah Benjamin (Gadkar) from Pune. In the background is the city’s Succath Shelomo synagogue. {{name}}

For Benjamin, there is a direct connection between her Jewish identity and the way she uses iconography. Stories and symbols, she believes, exist to be retold, to be resymbolised, in the service of new ideas. She ties this to the Jewish storytelling tradition of midrash, which uses supplemental narratives to interpret the Torah Tanakh. Benjamin has been studying midrash with Rabbi Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and it has made her confident about subverting various myths. She has also consulted with a rabbi about using icons in her paintings. “I am not worshipping these icons,” she said. “They are characters or actors in a story.”

Other works by Benjamin seem to challenge contemporary political narratives. Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East have frequently surfaced in her art, and some of her paintings feature images of suicide bombers and missiles—but the pieces transcend the predictable and didactic. In an art installation titled ‘My Magic Carpet’, for example, which was exhibited in a few galleries in America in 2011 and 2012, visitors were encouraged to enter and lounge in an opulent tent outfitted with cushions, a specially woven carpet, and a painting of two intertwined camels on its silk ceiling. The reference was to a story that many people may be familiar with from schoolbooks—the clever camel that, inch by inch, took over a tent, crowding out its master. Although it could be a metaphor for colonialism and migration, for Jerusalem and America, for nomads and settlers, the installation never quite asserts this. Instead, ‘My Magic Carpet’ is an invitation—provocative and a bit mischievous—to reflect on inherently complicated, overlapping histories.

Benjamin’s desire to re-appropriate and subvert isn’t limited to the religious and the political, however; it also extends to her own work. In recent years, she has started employing collage and digital media to turn representations of previous works into the bases for new pieces, thereby cannibalising older images in service of the new. In the Faces exhibit, for example, the goddess with menorah hands from ‘Tikkun Ha-Olam’ resurfaces in the form of a portrait of Munmun, the community chef of the Bene Israel in Mumbai. Munmun, maker of spicy kosher coconut curries, is pictured stirring a vat while holding plates of flames in her various hands. Together, the different elements in the portrait (gas cylinders, a halo-like plate around the chef’s head, a bright yellow background which is saffron-coloured paint mixed with real turmeric) give us a glimpse into the micro-universe that Munmun (and, by extension, the painting) constitute.

Thus, although Benjamin’s heritage has been a wellspring of inspiration, what she is creating with it is, as the art critic Eleanor Hartney called it in an essay she wrote for the catalogue of a recent show by Benjamin, “a promiscuous interbreeding of ethnic and religious traditions”. When I asked Benjamin about the influences on her work, she sighed and gave me a long, breathless list that included Islamic calligraphy, Buddhist thangkas, calendar art, Amar Chitra Katha, Andy Warhol, Persian miniatures, Bollywood posters, and feminism. “I like ornate. I like storytelling,” Benjamin said. “I am not a white male artist. I am an Indian Jewish feminist artist.”

“Some Indian Jews in America cannot help being paranoid about all this,” Benjamin added, apparently referring to both her ethnicity and her art. “Here are all these Ashkenazi Jews asking, ‘oh, you are brown-skinned. Are you properly circumcised? Are you really Jewish?’ And there I come along, flaunting my Hindu icons. Of course they are embarrassed.” A family friend once wrote to the editor of Jewish Week, criticising them for featuring Benjamin’s art in an article. “I am ashamed of what she is doing,” he wrote. Benjamin recalled this to me almost fondly.

ONE OF INDIA’S GREATEST POETS, Nissim Ezekiel, was also from the Bene Israel community. He wrote, with charm and wit, but also with a simmering sadness, about what it took to belong:

It’s not the mythology

or the marriage customs

that you need to know,

It’s the will to pass

through the eye of a needle

to self-forgetfulness.

Unlike Ezekiel, Benjamin does not pass through the eye of that needle. Her art is a departure from centuries in which Bene Israelis blended in.

Faces, the latest exhibition, is itself an act of resistance to disappearing without a trace. During her travels for the series, Benjamin visited a small village called Pen, about an hour outside Mumbai, where a few Bene Israel families live. One old man looked after the local Jewish temple. “We’d love to go to Israel but who will look after the synagogue when I am gone?” he asked Benjamin.

“These are people who have been Jewish for 2,000 years,” Benjamin later said to me. “It shows.”

Faces also pays homage to a very Indian kind of pluralism—a secularism in which your gods and my gods can coexist in the same public sphere (as opposed to Western secularism, which often seems to mean an absence of religious imagery in public spaces). Hal Rifken, who is making the documentary on Benjamin’s work, told me by email that he found India a fascinating backdrop to her art. “We often only hear about the conflict in India between Muslims and Hindus, rarely see or hear about an ethnic group that has lived peacefully in India for over 2,000 years,” he said.

A triptych from Faces: ‘Daughter, Mother, Granddaughter’. (Left to right) Siona Benjamin, her mother Sophie Judah Benjamin (Kasookar) and daughter Rachel Kruge. {{name}}

Indeed, Benjamin belongs to a generation that left India before religious fundamentalism became an everyday reality in its politics. The Bombay that she grew up in had not yet seen the ugly communal riots of the 1990s and the city’s transmogrification into Mumbai. Nor had it seen the terrorist violence of November 2008. Benajmin told me that, growing up, the synagogue she attended was in front of a hotel that used to be rented every weekend for Muslim weddings. In fact, the eight synagogues of Mumbai are located mostly in the Muslim neighbourhoods of Byculla, Mazgaon and Dongri, where the Bene Israel continues to feel they belong. “What the militants targeted was the Chabad house, run by Western Jews,” Benjamin said. “The Bene Israel know that.”

Perhaps the loss of the period of relative innocence that Benjamin knew in Bombay as a child is one reason why her vision of the Bene Israel in this show seems so nostalgic. The mood in her earlier series of paintings, such as ‘Finding Home’, was fierce and provocative. That fierceness is missing in this show, and without it, the ornateness of her work loses a lot of its irony. What it gains is a kind of tenderness. The men and women portrayed in Faces are often smiling lovingly, welcomingly. The photographs feel as if they could not have been taken by an outsider.

Indeed, families and the way spiritual traditions pass through the different generations come up again and again in the portraits on display at Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum. In one piece, a triptych, Benjamin portrays three generations of women. The grandmother is in the centre, the mother and the granddaughter on either side. Strands of their hair intertwine with the branches of a tree and end in Sabbath candles. Miniature family photographs border the triptych on all four sides, showing the daughter and the granddaughter in the hugs of their mothers, as well as older women from previous generations. The woman in the middle is Benjamin’s mother, who died in 2012. The woman on the right is Benjamin’s daughter. The woman on the left is Benjamin. Like the rest of the show, the triptych is a portrait of community and clan—and it is also a self-portrait.