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Saving the Sassoon legacy

  • Keneseth Eliyahoo, one of the country’s three synagogues for the Baghdadi Jewish community, gets a new lease of life
  • The restoration of Keneseth Eliyahoo is part of JSW foundation’s philanthropic programme to promote arts and culture

Keneseth Eliyahoo, prior to restoration. Photo courtesy: JSW Foundation
Keneseth Eliyahoo, prior to restoration. Photo courtesy: JSW Foundation

In Mumbai’s southern neighbourhood of Kala Ghoda—where you canpair a cup of saffron almond milk with hand-woven cotton tunics—stands a building that is often referred to as the Blue Synagogue. I remember visiting in October 2016, when prayers were offered for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It was followed by dinner. A Rosh Hashanah meal is always symbolic, with ingredients listed in the Talmud—pomegranates, dates, wilted greens. Inside this building, wrinkled with age, the lights were dim and the plaster peeling off but there was merriment and chatter and sweet challah bread, courtesy chef Moshe Shek.

Soon after, the three-storeyed synagogue, built in 1884 by Jacob Sassoon, was surrounded by scaffolding and its sky- blue façade was tucked away from sight. The 135-year-old building, officially known as Keneseth Eliyahoo, was in for a much-needed makeover. After two years, the fully-restored Keneseth Eliyahoo will be unveiled on 7 February and visitors will be able to see it in its original beauty.

The restoration has been funded by the JSW Foundation, the social development arm of steel conglomerate JSW group. The foundation’s involvement is evident on the Indian cultural map—it publishes the monthly magazine Art India, for starters. In November 2017, the foundation extended its support to the ground-breaking St+art Urban Art Festival, by putting up colossal art installations across a bustling fish market at the Sassoon Docks in south Mumbai. The restoration of Keneseth Eliyahoo is part of the foundation’s philanthropic programme to promote arts and culture. It joins other projects such as the restoration of ancient temples in Hampi, a 13th century village named Kuldhara in Rajasthan, and the Kedarnath Valley, home to one of the holiest Hindu temples.

Sangita Jindal is the chairperson of the JSW Foundation. The art patron is on the boards of cultural institutions such as Asia Society, and her office, situated in Jindal Mansion on Peddar Road, houses a substantial collection of artworks, both canonical and contemporary. The display is refreshed every three months. As we settle down in her office, Sangita says if you are in Kala Ghoda, it is hard to miss Keneseth Eliyahoo. “My daughter (interior designer) Tarini used to own a studio that overlooked the synagogue. On my visits to the studio, I would often see the synagogue and its remarkable sky-blue colour—it just stood out. I couldn’t help but notice how dilapidated it was, and also how wonderful its stained glasswork was. I kept telling myself that I would pay it a visit someday," recalls Sangita.

Sangita Jindal, chairperson of the JSW Foundation. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Sangita Jindal, chairperson of the JSW Foundation. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The Sassoon story

Ever since 26/11 and the attack on Chabad House, a Jewish outreach centre in Colaba, Keneseth Eliyahoo has been under round-the-clock surveillance. For a brief while, photography around the structure wasn’t allowed. For the visitor who could still brave this sombre police protection, the question of entering Keneseth Eliyahoo was amplified by an unfamiliarity with Jewish customs—are women allowed inside a synagogue? Are non-Jews allowed? Do all male visitors to the synagogue need to wear a skullcap called the kippah? (The answer to all these questions is “yes".) “I initially didn’t know if I would be welcome inside the synagogue. I felt intimidated," says Sangita.

All this changed once the JSW Foundation decided to work with Keneseth Eliyahoo. Several visits later, Sangita says she has learned more about Jewish customs. A further impetus came from the World Monuments Fund, which, under the Jewish Heritage Programme, has worked on 60 sites across the world. Sangita is among the trustees of World Monuments Fund India, and found a way to turn a personal interest into a philanthropic one. In the area of heritage conservation, the project is an example of why partnerships such as these are important.

Keneseth Eliyahoo holds a special place in the urban history of Mumbai and in the history of the small Baghdadi Jewish community in India. Jacob Sassoon built it in memory of his father, Elias. The dedication is captured in the synagogue’s name, which translates to “The Assembly of Elias". Jacob was the grandson of David Sassoon, a figure so inextricably connected with Mumbai’s history that he could count as one of the sons of soil.

David and his family were among those who fled Baghdad in 1828, seeking refuge from the Iranian Pasha, who was on a rampage to persecute the Jews. Once in Bombay, David profited from the trade of opium and textiles, but his legacy is visible across the city not through commerce alone, but also through philanthropy and architectural landmarks. A little further down from Keneseth Eliyahoo is the David Sassoon Library. The Sassoon Docks are not far, and a short taxi ride away, in Byculla, is the David Sassoon building on the premises of the JJ Hospital.

The interiors post-restoration. Photo courtesy: JSW Foundation  
The interiors post-restoration. Photo courtesy: JSW Foundation  

Turning back time

Sangita says when she embarked on this project, there were those who wondered why a Hindu would be interested in funding a Jewish heritage structure. “But this is not about politics or religion; this is about saving our heritage. That way, this is more than just a restoration project; it is a message," she adds.

“Keneseth Eliyahoo is an important reminder from the 19th century about how different communities—the Jews, Parsis, Gujarati Jains, Maharashtrians, Armenians—all contributed to the development of Mumbai, how syncretic and multicultural this city’s development is," says conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, whose firm has been commissioned by the JSW Foundation to carry out the restoration.

A walkthrough of the synagogue shows the sensitive handling by the restorers. Lambah says much of the building had suffered cracks, but it was fortunate to have the support of cast-iron pillars. The tiled, rain-battered roof has been fixed, as has the flooring, which was earlier sinking in. The JSW Foundation contributed 4 crore to the project, with additional sums from the World Monuments Fund ( 15 lakh) and the Kala Ghoda Association ( 30 lakh).

In the main prayer hall, above, are polished chandeliers and gilt railings; below are the most vivid Minton tiles to be seen in all of Mumbai. However, as restoration architects will often tell you, the real thrill lay in discovering the original details. As they scraped through layers of plaster and paint, the interiors revealed vestiges of a vine that wreathed around the prayer hall. This and other panel motifs have been thoughtfully brought back to life. The restoration team has attempted to bring the building closer to its companions from that era, which is why visitors may now find a semblance between the prayer hall and the interiors of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, which was opened to the public in 1872.

But visitors are in for a surprise. Locals will tell you that the synagogue’s sky-blue colour was incidental. The original façade and interiors had been entirely painted over, on the whim of a contractor, more than a decade ago. The restorers have turned back time. The façade has returned to raw Porbandar stone with a wash of white lime, but hints of blue have been introduced. “We wanted to respect local oral history too and hence decided to bring in elements of blue. Only, it’s a natural indigo shade," says Lambah. The prayer hall now has a coat of moss green to highlight the gilt details. Sangita says the paint comes from a new formula devised at JSW’s soon-to-be launched paint company.

It may not be the Blue Synagogue anymore, but perhaps it is time that we allowed Keneseth Eliyahoo its rightful place in the city.

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