Jews and Dalits in India

Tuesday, 14:00-16:00, 501





Rabindranath Tagore and Jews

In the spring of 2011 the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) will be celebrated. For the forthcoming 10th Annual Conference of Asian Studies in Israel, to be held in May, 2011, it is but natural to offer a paper on the topic "Rabindranath Tagore and Jews". As far as I know, Indian Jews do not occupy a prominent place (if any) in the corpus of Tagore writings. But it would be worth while to undertake special research in this direction. For instance, it is quite possible that Tagore family had contacts with some Baghdadi Jews in Calcutta. But in my paper I will concentrate on Rabindranath's contacts with two distinguished European Jews, Indologists Moritz Winternitz (1863–1937) and Sylvain Lévi (1863–1935). Both scholars were almost coevals of the poet. Both taught for some time at the Vishvabharati, the university at Shantiniketan founded by Tagore. Both must have influenced the poet's mind and, particularly, his perception of Jews and Jewish problems in general. Tagore wrote very informal obituaries for both Winternitz and Lévi.

The topic of the panel being "Jews and Dalits in India", it would not be out of place to add a few words about Tagore's attitudes towards Dalits (called "untouchables" in his life time). It is difficult to say whether or not Jews (Indian or otherwise) and untouchables were associated in any way in the poet's mind. But further research may yield new information and new insights.


Old memories, new histories: (re)discovering the past of Jewish Dalits

The paper explores processes of self-identification and constructions of historical memory among the Bene Ephraim of Andhra Pradesh, a community of former Madiga untouchables who came to practicing Judaism in the late 1980s. Our discussion is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2009–2010, in-depth interviews, and an analysis of written sources on the history of Bene Ephraim (which sources have been produced by the leaders of the community). We consider the case study of Bene Ephraim in the context of broader academic discussions about the universalist and particularist dimensions of the Jewish tradition and suggest that this movement illuminates both the exclusive/genealogical and the inclusive aspects of Judaism. We argue that, though the perceived 'ethnocentricity' of Judaism may have been the basic logic for the emergence of the Bene Ephraim movement, the movement itself resulted in the development of groups which demonstrate syncretic practices and diverse modes of engagement with the Jewish tradition.


Twice Cursed: Being Dalit and Female (On Kausalya Baisantri's Autobiography)

While Subaltern studies have become an important part of South Asian studies in general, comparatively little attention has been paid to contemporary Dalit literature. The corpus of Dalit literature in Hindi has been quickly growing in recent years, following the standards established by Marathi Dalit literature in earlier decades. In my paper I will analyze the autobiography written by one of the few female authors in contemporary Hindi Dalit literature. Kausalya Baisantri's "Dohra Abhishap" ("Twice Cursed"; lit. "A Double Curse") is the first and so far the only Dalit autobiography in Hindi written by a woman. The title refers to the author's double predicament as both a Dalit and a woman. This double identity determines the ways she perceives and describes social reality and her own experience on the margins of society. Being Dalit and female, Baisantri, unlike most other Dalit authors, does not gloss over facts of Dalit life in a stereotyped manner. Putting aside the usual ideological restraint of "Dalit consciousness", she straightforwardly addresses the social reality and the problems that arise not only between Dalits and non-Dalits, but also among Dalits themselves, and particularly between Dalit men and women.

Kausalya Baisantri's mother tongue is Marathi, and she is well aware of Marathi Dalit literature written in the 1970s and 1980s. She left Maharashtra only after her love marriage to a North Indian. Parts of her autobiography resemble a diary that tells about troubles with maintaining self-esteem during her studies and in her rather frustrating married life. She has chosen Hindi as the language of literary expression for a specific and rather didactic purpose, i. e. – as she says in the preface to her book – in order to compensate for the lack of Dalit women's autobiographies in India's most important regional language.


Narrating religion, deconstructing identity: on Sheila Rohekar's novel "Tāvīz" and Jewish authorship in India

Sheila Rohekar's novel "Tāvīz" (2005) is an outstanding example of Hindi writing on issues of religious communalism and violence in contemporary Indian society. I will try to interpret the fictionalised construction and deconstruction of identities in this Hindi novel (hitherto untranslated) with the use of religious metaphors taken from the poetry of Nizzim Ezekiel (1924–2004) and the autobiographical reflectivity of Esther David (b. 1945) in Indian English. Rohekar has a Bene Israel background in the Gujarati-speaking Ahmedabad, but since she has been living in North India for decades, she has shifted over from Gujarati to Hindi. The plot of her novel narrates the love marriage between a Hindu woman (Revā) and a Muslim man (Anvar) and the tragic social, psychological and political consequences of this conscious break of religious boundaries. Revā's very existence turns into a challenge for any fixed stereotypical ascription of religious identity. But the person who incorporates and maintains this existential understanding of religion beyond traditional and institutionalised religion, Revā, is killed and her body remains unidentified. Nobody cries for her, neither for her son Annu. And a Hindu communalist "leader" suggests that their ashes should be thrown into a dustbin.