Songs as life Narratives:translation of a few Jewish Women’s Songs in Malayalam

Abstract: Oral narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, preserving culture and instilling moral values. Such oral traditions which are transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to other, may take the form of folktales, sayings, ballads, songs or chants. In this way, it is possible for a society to transmit oral history, oral literature, oral law and other knowledge across generations without a system of writing.

Keywords: Jewish, community, Malayalam Jewish women, Jews of Kerala, synagogue, collective memory, song of evarayi

The Jewish community of Kerala, or the Cochin Jews as they are generally known, preserved their oral tradition in the form of songs called “Jewish Malayalam Women’s Songs.” These songs which provide us a glimpse into their history, hopes, tribulations and customs, were handed down from one generation to other orally, and later preserved in hand-written notebooks. These songs were sung and performed by Jewish women during public occasions, and the songs were composed in Judeo-Malayalam, the only known Dravidian Jewish Language and hence the name “Jewish Malayalam Women’s Songs.”

The Jews of Kerala are the oldest group of Jews in India, with possible roots claimed to the time of King Solomon. They lived in the Malabar Coast for over a thousand years in peace and security. In fact, they formed by far the smallest community of migrants to Kerala from the Middle East, sharing a relatively high status as merchants along with large Christian and Muslim minorities, living together among a tolerant Hindu majority. In Kerala, the Jews organised themselves into separate communities, each with its own synagogue and sense of cultural identity. By the early 20th century, there were eight Jewish communities in the area, with a total population of about 2500. In 1948, after the establishment of Israel as a nation, the clarion call of Zion rang loud and clear throughout the length and breadth of the diaspora, and the Jews of Kerala responded eagerly to the call. In batches, small and big, they hastened to the Promised Land, leaving behind only a handful of Jews in Cochin.

Thanks to the effort of scholars like P. M. Jussay and Barbara Johnson, a good share of the songs have been compiled and preserved. These songs provide us valuable information regarding the history, tradition, and customs of the community. These songs are to be perceived as the repository of their collective memory; they narrate the life and ethos of the Kerala Jews. Free translation of a few of the ‘Jewish Malayalam Women’s Songs’ are as follows:

The Song of the Parrot

Milk with plantain fruit I shall give, aiyaiah

To you my darling bird, aiyaiah

Kovil* fruit I shall, aiyaiah

Pluck for you darling parrot, aiyaiah

As you tell me a good news, aiyaiah

I shall pluck it for you darling parrot, aiyaiah

Thus one upon a time, aiyaiah

Didn’t a bird set out? aiyaiah

As he saw it coming, aiyaiah

The hunter hampered it, aiyaiah

Struck by the hunter’s sling-shot, aiyaiah

The bird lost all its splendour, aiyaiah

It fell writhing in pain, aiyaiah

Listen to the agony the bird had, aiyaiah

For the sake of kovil fruit, aiyaiah

Struck by the hunter’s sling-shot, aiyaiah

The bird lost all its splendour, aiyaiah

By the coast of Paloor’ sea, aiyaiah

It saw the palukkutti* trees, aiyaiah

Beside the Paloor sea, aiyaiah

Alighted the bird and bathed, aiyaiah

To sit meditating, aiyaiah

It found not a spot, aiyaiah

To a green mansion, aiyaiah

Under a pearl-studded umbrella, aiyaiah

Upon a hillock, aiyaiah

It flew and perched tranquilly, aiyaiah.

GLOSSARY

Kovil – guava

Palukutti – a tree of the Alstonia genus

NOTES

1 Paloor is a place which appears frequently in many songs of the Kerala Jews. It was one of the most ancient Jewish settlements in India, with a flourishing market the name of which persists even to this day as “Jootha Bazaar.” It is also known as Palayur, and is situated on the outskirts of the town Chavakkad.

The Song of Evarayi

Hailed he from Jerusalem, the learned Evarayi

From his dear vava* still living

Seeking leave Evarayi moliaru* said

vava* to see Malnad* let me go

Remember to be at shalom’ above all.’

By way of Misri* at far away Nemoni*

He boarded a majestic ship

And unruffled set sail to Malnad

We should indeed fit out a big ship

Came the best carpenter in the land

Stacked and stored and started the work

And by His grace the construction was done

Gifts were bestowed in silk and bracelet

Who all want to board my ship?

Rabbi Avaroh stepped in from the shore

The learned man himself stepped in

As the ship headed with drawn sails

They saw the hostile Porothi* land

Thence they fled affrighted And reached the Paloor2 sea

Sold out all the goods they brought

Thence too frightened they fled

And reached the land of the shibushu.3

Hearing that a greatly learned man has come

The nikkamar and valavar4 all assembled

Holding the hand, he disembarked

“We must raise a synagogue,” he said

Indeed, a grand synagogue must be raised

The ground was cleared and foundation laid

Came the best carpenter in the land

Stored and stacked and began the work

And with His grace the synagogue was built

While Rabbi Avaroh chanted the prayers

The learned Evarayi read the Derash*

And delighted were they all the listeners

An offering we shall have to make

A grand offering indeed must be made

A deer has to be caught for making the offering

Who all will go to catch it?

The Nair and boys and the two others

The deer was caught and a silver rode thrust through its mouth

The deer was slaughtered and the offering made

Hail! Hail! forever hail!

The lord who reigns supreme.

GLOSSARY

Vava – father

Moliaru – a variant form of Mudaliar, a title conferred on the leader of Cochin Jews by the rajah in the sixteenth century

Malnad – Kerala

Misri – Egypt

Nemoni – Yemen

Porothi – Persia

Derash – commentary on Holy Scripture

NOTES

1 Shalom literally means ‘peace.’ It is a Hebrew loan word in Judea-Malayalam, the only known Dravidian Jewish language, which is the traditional language of the Cochin Jews. There were many loan expressions in Jude-Malayalam like “Shalom aayi,” which is a euphemistic expression for death.

2 Refer to note 1 of ‘The Song of the Parrot’

3 Scholars have failed to identify the land of Shibushu. It is guessed that Shibushu was the name given to Chennamangalam—which, in olden days was called Chenot- by ancient Jewish traders.

4 The meaning of these words is not clear.

The Noble Bridegroom

The gentleman is the royal kumkuma* groom with the flowing hair

If so, sing

He has many damsels singing of his splendid valour

I can see him; he is the one heading first in the busy street

This and that mouth blabs of the pranks he did

The love-humming cuckoo is at the quarter

Where the marakkars* come from

Love comes running

Love comes into the synagogue

Even if the way is forgotten

At two roads diverging to either side sing

Tell the Portuguese who wander the world

Of the story in the synagogue

These two shall shine

Like the two marvellous pearls of cloud

A fondling flute of all aspirations you shall have

A sky pearl, a cloud pearl, a good green emerald

Walk my girl down the roads hither and thither

That lead to the synagogue

Strike thunder! Smash the mountains!

Darkness shall fade away from the sky

Tie the tali* in the synagogue

Small flutes blood-red tubes and bangles

Shall rattle

Tubes and bangles of coral and blood

And the pipe of kumkuma shall blow.

GLOSSARY

Kumkumam – a saffron powder prepared from the flower of Crocus Sativus

Marakkar – Muslim sea farers

Tali – a wedding string or chain tied by the bridegroom round the neck of the bride

The Song of Paradesi* Synagogue

Topmost God pre-existing all

Grant me the grace to meditate you above all

By the merit of the joyful people

Help us at the right occasion

And gracefully unite us all –

Unite us to build a synagogue

For the omnipotent father to abide In the beauteous paradesi synagogue

Seeing the people are few to perform the drumming

The king of the land sat there worshipping in the afternoon

Help us at the right occasion

Pleasingly have we all gathered

And fashioned the whole synagogue

To the blessed mansion of gems

The blissful folk came worshipping

Stood some to scroll the praiseworthy Torah

Oh splendid parrot! Receive glory and majesty!

The blessed prophet and the joyful messiah

Gracefully behold us and join us

Gather us and settle in our land tranquilly

Gather us in good Jerusalem my god!

NOTES

1 Paradesi synagogue is the synagogue of the Paradesi Jewish community of Cochin. The Paradesi Jews made their way to Cochin in 16th century, following their expulsion from Iberia. Paradesi in Malayalam means foreigner.

Retaining the rhythm and tone of the songs in the translation is a wild goose chase since most of these songs are performance – oriented compositions, and the meanings of a handful of words are lost in the mist of time; they are unintelligible even to the Cochin Jews themselves. Still, the process has succeeded in retaining the core of these narratives. The above songs are representatives of the categories of Jewish Malayalam Women’s Songs such as ‘Historical,’ ‘Mythical; Songs,’ and ‘Wedding Songs’ respectively. These songs are invaluable in that they provide us a glance into the past life and customs of the Kerala Jews. They are rich with the traces of their historical details and the crystals of their collective memory.

“The Song of the Parrot” is allegorical, and abounds in the fragments of Jewish racial memory. The song is illustrious of the bicultural tradition of the Jewish community; ‘it is modelled on the ‘Kilippattu’ tradition in Malayalam literature. The song is addressed to a bird which represents the Jews. The flight of the bird to “the green mansion” stands for the exodus of the community to the Malabar coasts’ (Scaria 135). The hunter stands for the prosecutors. The cause for the bird’s mischance, as narrated in the song, is its craving for “the kovil fruit.” P.M. Jussay observes that “the kovil fruit” stands for worldly pleasures, and the tragedy of the Jews owing to hankering after worldly pleasures, instead of spiritual treasures, is a recurring theme in the Bible. The bird is said to have flown away from Palur in unrest. The explanation for this lies in one of the observations of Prof. Jussay. It goes that ‘the chieftain of Palur was not favourably inclined to the Jews because a Jewish girl of stunning beauty had turned down his amorous advances’ (Jussay 25). The “green mansion” where the bird finds asylum is said to be Chennamangalam. Thus, the whole story of Jewish plights and sufferings, their exodus to the Malabar coast, and their peaceful settlement in the land is condensed in the song. “The Song of Evarayi” is a mythical song in which the a few fragments of the collective memory of the Jewish community find expression. One such is the description of Evarayi fleeing away from “the hostile Porothiland” (Persia). This represents a pertinent episode in the Jewish history, of the enmity between them and the Muslim traders. Evarayi is considered the land hostile since it was under the control of Muslim traders who were traditionally inimical to the Jewish merchants. The hospitality of the natives of Kerala and the warm reception given by them to the Jews also finds expression in the song. “The Noble Bridegroom” is one of the many wedding songs of the community that depicts the festive spirit and celebrations associated with the Jewish weddings. Many a vestige of their bicultural life, such as the tying of tali, glitters throughout the song. “The Song of Paraclesi Synagogue” narrates the life of the Cochin Jews which spun around their place of worship and religious customs. In fact, the pertinence they gave to their synagogues and customs are the only factors that helped them retain their identity in the face of a rigorous assimilation into the culture of Kerala. The song ends with the age-old hope and prayer of the diaspora to gather them in “good Jerusalem.” Perhaps, this explains why the Jewish community relinquished the soothing land of Kerala for their promised land.

REFERENCES

Jussay, P. M. The Jews of Kerala. Calicut: Calicut University, 2005. Print.

Zacharia, Scaria. Karkulali: Jewish Women’s Songs in Malayalam. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2005. Print.

Contributor:

PHILIP JOSE. Is M.Phil student at the Sanskrit University, Kalady.

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PHILIP JOSE
Is M.Phil student at the Sanskrit University, Kalady.

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