South Asia

Organized Panel Session

3 - Call and Response: Iraqi Jewish Musical Responses to the British Raj in Twentieth-Century Bombay

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

The Iraqi Jewish community in Bombay maintained the Babylonian Jewish religious tradition. The three Sassoon synagogues, in Bombay and sister city, Poona, were a communal focus, and included Central Asian settlers, who also followed the Babylonian tradition, and Cochin Jews in Bombay. Cosmopolitan Bombay sported British and Euro-American lifestyles ‒ fashion, cinema, music, dance, language.


Diasporic religious life at home and synagogue, retained Babylonian melodies and Hebrew pronunciation. Musicians continued playing and singing Iraqi and popular Arabic song, and Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic song at life-cycle celebrations. At the Magen David Synagogue, a unison male voice choir, was established, mid-1930s; dressed in gowns and mortar boards – a nod to the British establishment – it existed until the mid-1950s comprising Iraq, Cochin and Bene Israel members. At the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, a mixed voice choir, established late-1940s, performed at weddings, sometimes singing in harmony.


The main colonial influence, musically, was communal and social. The youth group, Habonim, established 1935 as a religious organisation, expanded to Calcutta, Cochin and Poona. Based on South African and British models, Habonim introduced songs from British Mandate Palestine in modern Hebrew. Euro-American classical and popular music influenced secular life. Jewish children at Christian missionary schools sang hymns, British folk-songs and choral works. Professional Jewish musicians performed in hotel bands. Indian cinema music, a mirror of Euro-American popular music was enjoyed. 


A powerpoint presentation includes 1930s audio excerpts.

Sara Manasseh

Independent Scholar, England, United Kingdom

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