I once read that a Storyteller is influenced primarily by his or her travels and readings. Hundreds of journeys and a lifetime of reading sometimes help tell one story. As a documentary filmmaker, stories matter, experiences matter, the surroundings matter, change matters, and most importantly, people matter.
I must confess that this is not my first rendezvous with Cochin, particularly the Fort Cochin and Mattancherry areas. A year ago I had the pleasure of interacting with the famed and now nearly extinct Jewish community in Jew Town, Mattancherry. I visited and spoke to the last remaining members of the community and interviewed their descendants now settled in Israel. It was a journey of great historic importance to our country and the world. It spoke about prosperity and acceptance. It spoke about conflict, struggle, preservation and equality.
Legend has it that the Jews first arrived in Kerala a little later in 68AD. Yet, this date doesn’t stand up to historical scrutiny. The first recorded evidence of Jews in Kerala can be reasonably fixed to about the 8th century. In his book, “Who are the Jews of India”, Nathan Katz suggests that the earliest Jews came to India around the time. Copper plates, which date back to the 8th century attest to this fact, in which Bhaskara Ravi Varman, the King of Cochin gave the title of Mudaliar (or local head-man) to Joseph Rabban. Bhaskara Ravi Varman also granted the Jewish community 72 privileges, including the right to use a day lamp and a decorative cloth to walk on; the privilege of blowing a trumpet and erecting a palanquin; and the right to obtain exemption and collect particular taxes. These privileges were bestowed upon the Cochin Jewish leader Joseph Rabban for "as long as the world, sun and moon endure".
Despite the community being relatively microscopic in size compared to other minorities in India, its socio-economic contribution to the nation has been very high. One of the stories I tell in the film is that of Jewish Social reformer and lawyer Abraham Barak Salem who was, among many things, an Indian Nationalist, was instrumental in helping Jews make the Aliyah in the 1950s but couldn't bring himself to leave his beloved Cochin. In 1948, after the establishment of the state of Israel, a few Cochinni Jews left but it was not until 1954 that one saw a mass migration of almost all the members of the community.
In retrospect, one can see how the Jews thrived in Kerala. It’s a state where cultures prevailed and communities thrived, a state that’s abundant in natural resources, flora and fauna. It’s an intellectual state that has the highest literacy rate in the country. There are more college and university graduates in Kerala than anywhere else in India and perhaps the world. People are civic-minded and considerate, agriculture thrives, capitalists are humane and community well being is of utmost importance.
I have had a keen interest in the Jews of India, including other communities in Mumbai and the North East, for a decade now and the making of this film was possible only due to the efforts of Mr. Mathew Antony, the grandson of Abraham Barak Salem, who introduced me to the last remaining members of the community. I then traveled to Israel, which is now home to majority of the Cochinni Jews, where I had the pleasure of visiting and staying with members of the community. The film was completed in October 2012, but I have been holding off the release because I would like the film to have it’s World Premiere in Cochin and I am thankful to the CGH Earth Group, particularly CEO, Mr. Jose Dominic and VP, Mridula Jose, for offering David Hall to me to have my film screened. I could have not wished for a more relevant centre to host the event.
Rohan Sabharwal is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. He is well known in the short film arena both in India and the UK with his films having been screened at the Festival de Cannes, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, The Regency Fairfax Cinema, Hollywood and the Kalaghoda Arts Festival, Mumbai. His work has been picked up for distribution by Journeyman Pictures, Europe’s largest distributor for factual entertainment.
His documentary on the Jews of Cochin, “Where the Heart is”, will screen at David Hall Art Gallery and Café on November 22nd, 2013, at 7pm