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Dwelling in Travelling: Chronicle of the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta

February 15, 2020 | By

Subha Das Mollick’s documentary Dwelling in Travelling explores the story of the Jewish community in Kolkata. A Silhouette review by Nirabari Bandopadhyay.

Dwelling in Travelling

Dwelling in Travelling – a film by Subha Das Mollick

“Freed from the boundaries of time and space, I co-ordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be. My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you.”
― Dziga Vertov

Cinematic Language of a documentary film depends on fusion of the cinematic journey along with the individual or collective experience. The real stories of real characters connect with the audience and address a changed society or change our perception about the society. The research goal is based on the conversation of past and present. Recently, Subha Das Mollick’s documentary Dwelling in Travelling tried to unfold the story of Jewish community in Kolkata. The film deals with the history of the community in the first half, backed by different kind of historical and cultural sources including the scriptures, painting and footages. To build a proper linearity, graphical representation has added visual appeal to the film.

Dwelling in Travelling talks about how the Jewish merchants used to travel to different parts of the world for trading of gems, perfume and spices. During the flight they migrated to different parts of Asia and started new chapters. Shalom Cohem came to Calcutta in 1700 and settled here. Interestingly, the film points out how Calcutta became the centre of a different linguistic practice: Judeo-Arabic, classical Arabic written in Hebrew script.

Jewish Girls School Kolkata

A clock on the wall of Jewish Girls School

The film travels further from historical discourses to the personal memories tracing the scattered imprints in the city. From its different architectures to the personal albums, from the Jewish shops to the religion. It talks about Joseph Ezra, one of the biggest real estate tycoons in the city, who changed the cityscape with famous architecture like Aurobindo Bhavan, Chowringhee Mansion and Ezra hospitals.

The Ezra family had its influence not only in the social and cultural sphere but also in economic sphere. A new settlement grew up centered around Agarpara Jute Mill owned by the Ezra family. During the Second World War, Jewish people used to live mainly in Park Street and Bowbazar area of Kolkata, and around 20 Jewish families used to live in Agarpara.

Jews in Kolkata

The director has interviewed many Jewish people from different backgrounds and professions. The elements from their personal collection give us a vivid account of the period and about the community, which we do not usually get to know easily. The photographs speak about the fashion and the living condition of the community. Many patterns, fabric and sequences have their contribution in the Indian culture.

The film also talks about the business and retail hubs and Jewish food, that were there not only for the community but also as a delicacy for the whole city. From Halla Bread to Baklava, Jewish food was always talk of the town and till date the saga goes on. Nahoum & Sons, a popular Jewish bakery is still carrying its legacy of pleasing Kolkata taste-buds for over hundred years.

A congregation at Magen David synagogue

A congregation at Magen David synagogue

Dwelling in Travelling depicts how religion and synagogues became mediums for the community to stay together. Jewish people from all over the world used to travel to Calcutta to be part of the Jewish festivals. They prayed, sang and celebrated life as well as their existence, hand in hand, in the synagogues.

Calcutta as a city was always a welcoming space which embraced their art and culture which left its mark in the cultural meadows through music, art and literature. This leads to the significant emergence of the Jewish middle class, from famous sport personalities to musicians, bankers and teachers. They established the Jewish printing press and schools in the city. Probably these schools were one of a few which offered free education for the students.

Inside Jewish Girls School Kolkata

Inside Jewish Girls School

Just like other communities of Bengal, the Jewish community too was witness to the important events in Calcutta such as the Indian freedom struggle, the Japanese air raids during World War 2, riots and famines. The socio-cultural integration of the community into this space wrote a narrative different from the history of the Jewish people living in Europe. During and after the Second World War, immigrants arrived here from different parts of Europe and even from Baghdad, bearing the trauma of the war and Holocaust. Their pain scripted in the tattoos on the hands returning from the concentration camp of Nazi Germany.

Inside the Beth El Synagogue

Inside the Beth El Synagogue

The Calcutta Jewish community protested against such heinous acts. They broadcast the musical programme titled ‘Music the Nazis Hate!’ May be this painful history was the reason for the community to stand for each other and believe in social harmony. It is not surprising that currently, 97 percent of the students of the Jewish school are from the Muslim community who are mentored by Hindu teachers.

The director of the film has taken us into the world of Middle Eastern folktales, tracing the footstep from the past to the conundrum of the present. The journey continues sometimes with the observant camera capturing the emotion and mundane activities, sometimes through the rhythms of the prayer and sometimes through the lyrical articulation of the facts. Essentially the film is a documentary of personal and collective memory of a community losing the battle to the urban space. Thanks to Subha Das Mollick for the reality check. We can surely say that “I feel ghosts around me”.

Subha Das Mollick’s documentary Dwelling in Travelling was screened at Victoria Memorial and was official selection in Mumbai International Film Festival and Kolkata International Film Festival.

Dwelling in Travelling Trailer

More to read

For the Love of Cinema – the Story Behind the Calcutta Film Society

Calcutta Sonata – The City’s Sustained Love Affair with the Piano

Space and Time in Films

 

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Nirabari Bandyopadhyay has done MA from Dept of Film Studies, Jadavpur University with experience in digital media, films and media, public relation and communication. She had her specialisation on Cultural Politics of Male Body in Hindi Cinema. She is presently working as a Faculty for Film Studies in iLEAD. She has directed a docu-feature named ‘Iti’(Regards) which was screened under the Competitive Indian Documentary Section at the 25th Kolkata International Film Festival 2019. She had participated as speaker in many workshops on digital art.
All Posts of Nirabari Bandyopadhyay

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