Visu­al Arts

Jews and the Indi­an Nation­al Art Project

Ken­neth X. Rob­bins, Mar­vin Tokay­er, eds.
  • Review
By – September 16, 2015

The vol­ume is intend­ed as a cor­rec­tive to the dis­missal, com­mon in the 1950s, of the new­ly inde­pen­dent coun­try of India as unable to pro­duce orig­i­nal and impor­tant works of art that could stand along­side West­ern ones. It is also meant to demon­strate that India was and had been made up of peo­ples from oth­er places — specif­i­cal­ly Jews — who lived along­side the native population.

The essays explore var­i­ous ques­tions of iden­ti­ty in gen­res of art that inevitably touch upon the pol­i­tics of the art world. Dur­ing British colo­nial rule, indi­vid­u­als such as the Jew­ish art his­to­ri­an Stel­la Kram­risch brought West­ern art to the atten­tion of Indi­ans and vice ver­sa. The essay on the Bar­o­da Muse­um traces the influ­ence of the promi­nent edi­tor of The Mag­a­zine of Art, Mar­i­on Hen­ry Spiel­mann, as well as that of the Ger­man refugee Ernst Cohn-Wiener, on the museum’s col­lec­tion; their tastes reflect­ed the Euro­pean point of view even as they were strong­ly sup­port­ed by the local mahara­ja. Refugees from Nazi Ger­many and oth­er coun­tries it con­trolled who came to India played a sig­nif­i­cant part in the cul­tur­al life both before and after Indi­an independence. 

Rob­bins empha­sizes how much the nation­al­is­tic forces lead­ing to the end of the colo­nial peri­od were active in the devel­op­ment of a nation­al” art. It is impor­tant to note that the Jews who are dis­cussed for their roles in Indi­an art were most­ly Jews with only the most ten­u­ous con­nec­tions to their Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties. The authors imply that it was not the Indi­an mys­ti­cal or spir­i­tu­al her­itage that attract­ed them, but rather the fact that they sim­ply did not iden­ti­fy with the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Exam­ples include the suc­cess­ful and revered artist Fryzee Rachamin who con­vert­ed to Islam at a young age but nev­er­the­less main­tained a con­nec­tion to the com­mu­ni­ty in which he was raised; artist/​photographer Man Ray (born Emmanuel Rad­nitzky) whose rela­tion­ship with the dash­ing and west­ern­ized Mahara­jah of Indore is ana­lyzed in terms of the re-inven­tion of self”; and Mag­da Nah­man, the Russ­ian-born artist mar­ried to the polit­i­cal activist M.P.T Acharya.

Mov­ing to a lat­er peri­od in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Rob­bins high­lights Carmel Berk­son, a Jew­ish Amer­i­can artist and schol­ar whose inter­est in the sculp­ture of India and the Bagh­da­di and Bene Israel com­mu­ni­ties brought them to the atten­tion of Israel and the west. Rob­bins dis­cuss­es Berkson’s inter­est in rasa,” the Indi­an aes­thet­ic con­cept that categoriz[es] art in terms of its provo­ca­tion of par­tic­u­lar emo­tion­al states of mind.” Berk­son also rejects the Jew­ish com­mand­ment against the wor­ship of images, which she con­sid­ered an “‘innate human response.’”

Essays also deal with con­tem­po­rary artists as well as Jew­ish art patrons and crit­ics. Each includes doc­u­men­ta­tion in bibliography.

Jews and the Indi­an Nation­al Art Project is deserv­ing of pop­u­lar as well as schol­ar­ly atten­tion that focus­ing on Jew­ish par­tic­i­pa­tion in the dynam­ic art world of India in the recent century.

Relat­ed Content:

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions