Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives During My Fulbright

Siona Benjamin, Artist
2010-2011 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to India

I am a painter originally from Mumbai, now living in the United States. My work reflects my background of being brought up Jewish in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim India. In my art, I combine the imagery of my past with the role I play in America today, making a mosaic inspired by both Indian/Persian miniature paintings and illuminated manuscripts.

The terrorist attack that occurred in Mumbai on November 26 – 29, 2008 was a massacre of both resident Indians and visiting foreigners. The Chabad house in Mumbai, a Jewish outreach center with an educational site, a synagogue and a hostel, was under attack and six of its occupants, including the Rabbi and his wife, were killed. These attacks brought notice to the world (or in some cases, served as a reminder) of the existence of a small but ancient group of Indian Jewish people that have inhabited the Indian subcontinent for approximately 2000 years.

Brought up as a Bene Israel Jew in a predominately Hindu and Muslim community in the heart of Mumbai, I was immensely disheartened by the lack of media and news coverage. To some of my American friends, there was confusion, asking many questions. “Did Jews first inhabit India upon the establishment of the Chabad house?” “If not, then what did the local Jewish population look like? Sound like?” This dialogue with my friends birthed the impetus for my Fulbright proposal.

With the help of the Fulbright Program, I conducted a four-month project to explore and reveal the various Indian Jewish faces of India in a visual art exhibition. The goals of this project were to raise awareness about the long-standing history of the Indian Jewish communities in India and to document, using photography and painting, the individual faces and stories of this ancient group and their heritage before their existence becomes a cultural relic of India.

The photos of Bene Israel Jewish faces 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, immigration cards or perhaps from my family’s photo albums? It is with these faces and their stories that the rest of the world, I hope, would come to know more about the Indian Jews in a very multi-cultural India.

My goal has always been to promote cultural awareness, tolerance, and understanding in my art. Understanding the true diversity of people in India was achieved, and I left with an armload of photos and videos that proved this multiculturalism in India. I believe that my project will help people understand the meaning of racial diversity and the need therefore to stop compartmentalizing "the other". I believe in the power of art to be able to make socio-political change in this world. I will strive to accomplish these goals. This process has given me more power under my wings to be able to achieve this.

Since returning to the United States, I have exhibited “Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives” in numerous museums and venues, including the Flomenhaft Gallery in New York and the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. Director Hal Rifken also produced a documentary about my Fulbright project entitled “Blue Like Me: The Art of Siona Benjamin.” The film opened at the Indo American Art Council Film Festival in May 2015 and has been screened at film festivals around the country. As a 2016-2017 Fulbright Scholar to Israel, I look forward to delving deeper by exploring the topic of transcultural Indian Jews in Israel.