Siona Benjamin’s Interviews on Canvas: Faces of the Bene Israel

Portrait of a young Bene Israel

by Erica Lyons

When artist Siona Benjamin, an American, set out on her trip back to the India of her childhood in 2010, she arrived with an intense sense of purposefulness heavily laden with nostalgia. She was intent on rescuing the stories and narratives of these people, her people, the Jews of India. Benjamin was awarded the Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship 2010-11, which enabled her to embark on this four month intensive research study in India that allowed her to photograph, interview, and record the Bene Israel’s stories lest they fall into oblivion. She concentrated her work on the Jews living in higher concentrations in Mumbai, Thane and Pune (though once three distinct groups of Indian Jews, the Bene Israel, the Cochini Jews, and the Iraqi Jews, also lived in concentrated numbers in Cochin, Calcutta, Delhi and in small towns along the coast near Mumbai).

The story of the Jews in India goes back 2,000 years and is one of peaceful coexistence in a colorful world that embraced them yet one of isolation from global Jewry. With the establishment of Israel, many of the Bene Israel began to understand that they had a hunger to connect with world Jewry. Benjamin explains that today the community, mainly as a result of migration to both Israel and the United States, has dwindled and estimates that a mere 4,000 remain in India. Many people, amidst growing concerns over the safety of India’s tiny Jewish minority, the reality of economic tensions, the ease of travel in a global world and the decreasing number of Jewish educational and social opportunities within the Jewish community in India, expect these numbers will continue to dwindle. For Benjamin, the tragedy would be for this community to become a mere footnote in Jewish history. “I have concerns of what would become of the Bene Israel Jews and my Jewish past for my daughter’s generation. I fear there would just be memories.”

Siona Benjamin with Cantor Satkiel Bhastekar

As a Bene Israel herself, she explains how she is often asked about the community: what did they look like, what did they sound like. Her “Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives” is a chance to immortalize these stories on canvas, virtually unknown to what is thought of as ‘mainstream’ global Jewry, in other words, the predominantly European-centered Jewry. Benjamin identifies herself as a multi-cultural artist, glossing her work with her now very American outlook while painting with a palette that is very much out of India, foreign, mysterious and exotic. All the while, the voices of these images leap from the canvas with words that are deeply spiritual and clearly Jewish. The images are most defiantly strong and feminine. To say, though, that she is only one of these things, a woman artist, a Jewish artist, an American artist or an Indian artist would be an injustice. Each stroke is all of these identities woven together. She relies heavily on narrative, myth and history in her work and draws on her own identities as well as the identities of the cultures around her. Having roots that have never been firmly planted, she paints rather from a “spiritual borderland”.

Queenie and Ralph Moses Best (Bhastekar)

In addition to this, Benjamin’s expressed desire is to document the faces, heritage and stories of the Bene Israel, “before their existence becomes a cultural relic of India”. Benjamin also aims to raise awareness of this 2,000 year history of Jews in India. She wants people to understand, through her art, both the impact India had on them and the impact they have had on India and to open viewers up to a very different face of Judaism. Lastly, and highly personal, Benjamin, in returning to her ancestral home and the home of her childhood, wishes to further explore the theme of home that runs through her earlier works. As she explains, “the desire to find ‘home’, spiritually and literally, has always preoccupied me.”

Understandably, with this type of sensitivity, a common theme running through all of Benjamin’s works is the idea of finding home. She has lived as a minority in India, surrounded by a predominantly Muslim and Hindu population. And as a foreign born Indian Jew in America, she finds herself within a small minority in the Jewish world. Her art is a roadmap to her home. “Visualizing the Bene Israel Jewish faces and the painted ornamentation around them, they could be the ghost images from my past, my childhood in Jewish India, weaving new and old stories. Are these faces from dreams and memories or are they just other faces on passports or immigration cards or perhaps from my family’s photo albums? These faces would be like maps, leading me to link the past, weave narratives, trace paths and blur boundaries,” Benjamin muses.

Samson Solomon (Korlekar)

In order to achieve her goals, Benjamin is relying on a number of mediums and techniques. While she has returned from her research-focused phase in India, which took her back to places like Magen Hassidim Synagogue and the Tifereth Israel Synagogue, where she worshiped with her family as a child, she has a tremendous task at hand. Now armed with a series of photographs, video tapes and highly personal interviews. that have captured the intense interplay between myth, legend, tradition, history and modernity that these people carry, she has to interpret this ‘data’ and convert it to graphic art. Between ten to fifteen faces that she has captured through her photographs will be printed and converted to cutout portraits on 3′ x 3′ canvases. Benjamin will then paint their individual and collective stories in a narrative form around memorializing their unique perspective, history and traditions.

Benjamin will utilize her signature mastery of the Indian/ Persian miniature painting technique with gouache and 22-karat gold leaf, which is prominent in her earlier works, to weave in their stories and iconography. As Benjamin expresses, this miniaturist technique “would best represent the cultural aesthetics of India, while the large cut out portraits would be inspired by the oversized portrait paintings of the contemporary artist, Chuck Close.”

Benjamin says ultimately it was the terror attack in Mumbai’s Chabad House that actually prompted her to begin this celebration of diversity in an effort to bring, to the West, an understanding of who the Jews of India are and to help people understand that the Jewish presence in India predated, by millennia, Chabad’s current presence there. Benjamin is determined to use her art and these faces to offer a much broader view of the Indian Jewish world. 

Erica Lyons is Editor-in-Chief of Asian Jewish Life.
Copyright Asian Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.

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