South Asia

Organized Panel Session

1 - Portuguese Catholic Dance Drama Influences in Kerala Jewish Purim Songs

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Coolidge, Mezzanine Level

Kerala Jews’ relationship with colonialism was different from that of the Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews.  Living in the independent kingdoms of Kochi and Travancore, they never experienced direct British rule, and kept some distance from Christian missionaries. Remembering their ancestors’ persecution during 16th-17th century Portuguese colonial rule, they praised the Hindu rulers who had protected them, and maintained a cordial relationship with Hindu, Muslim and Christian neighbors.  This paper focuses on three Malayalam language Jewish songs displaying significant influence from Caviṭṭunāṭakam, a Kerala Catholic dramatic genre introduced long ago by Portuguese missionaries and “domesticated” into a Kerala art form incorporating elements from Hindu martial arts and Kathakaḷi dance.

Part of a collection of more than 300 Jewish Malayalam women’s songs, these three were associated with the playful Jewish springtime holiday of Purim, which usually coincides with the Hindu celebration of Holi.  While their musical narrative is grounded in Biblical and other Hebrew sources, several melodies are directly borrowed from Caviṭṭunāṭakam.  The Jewish songs also have similar thematic and stylistic elements: a powerful king with a lavish durbar scene; a melodramatic triumph of Queen Esther over the villain Haman; humorous dialogue; repetitious choruses; pronounced rhythmic emphasis; and commentary to the audience by a comic narrator.  The shared melodies were pointed out by Jewish singers in Kochi who recorded Malayalam songs for me in 1977, recalling Christian Caviṭṭunāṭakam performances held in their neighborhood 30-40 years earlier. The paper presentation will include audio excerpts from those 1977 recordings.


Barbara Johnson

Ithaca College, Vermont


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1 - Portuguese Catholic Dance Drama Influences in Kerala Jewish Purim Songs

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