Sunday 31 December 2017

The Diamond - Wolverhampton's Art Deco Jewel

Wolverhampton once had several art deco cinemas. Today only one remains and it now operates as a banqueting hall. The former Odeon stands in Skinner Street in the town centre and was designed by Harry Weedon and P.J. Price for Oscar Deutsch, owner of the Odeon chain. It was formally opened on 11th September 1937 by the then Mayor, Charles Mander. The first screening was of Dark Journey starring Conrad Veidt and Vivian Leigh.

A single screen cinema, it could originally seat 1.272 in the stalls and 668 in the balcony. It was re-modelled in 1973 when a second screen was added, resulting in a significant reduction in the total number of seats. Throughout the 1970's and 80's attendances fell and the final screening took place on 4th June 1983 when The Boys In Blue, Table For Five and Nutcracker were shown. The building was then converted to a Top Rank bingo club and restored to a single auditorium. Later acquired by Mecca Bingo it closed again in March 2007 and was offered for sale. It now operates as The Diamond Banqueting Suite. Listed in 2000 with Grade II status, several original features remain, particularly on the facade. On a recent visit to Wolverhampton I managed to peep through the main doors and the tiled entrance lobby, grill at first floor level and some of the internal doors also appear to be original or at least good replicas.

The building has a striking facade, topped by a tower on the left hand side. There are two vertical ribs made of black faience that contrast with beige tiles on the rest of the tower. Elegant horizontal red ribs run up the tower's side as well as on the facade where they are crossed by vertical green bands. The entrance is below a projecting canopy whilst to the right there are five imposing double height windows surrounded by black faience crossed with green stripes and surrounded by beige tiles. The space above the windows originally carried the word Odeon but has been replaced with Diamond - the building's current name,  albeit in stylised Art Deco lettering. The word Odeon has also been removed from the tower's summit.

Architect Weedon was a local man, born in Handsworth, Birmingham. He studied at Birmingham School of Art and was made an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects at the age of 24. Influenced by the work of Erich Mendelsohn, he oversaw the design of Oscar Deutsch's Odeon chain of cinemas in the UK, including several in the West Midlands. After the Second World War, he designed a number of major industrial premises and continued working until his death in 1970. His practice still operates.

Wolverhampton's other deco cinemas included the Cannon, originally the Savoy and later the ABC, which also opened in 1937. The architect was William Riddell Glen who was designed a number of art deco style buildings in East London. The Savoy originally boasted 1,777 seats and a cafe for cinema patrons. Sadly it was demolished in 1995 and replaced by a spectacularly ugly building housing a nightclub. I lived in Wolverhampton for a few years in the mid 1980's and saw a few films at the Cannon. Its demise represents a major architectural loss to the town.

The wonderful Cinema Treasures website lists 14 demolished Wolverhampton cinemas, including several in the suburbs. One of my favourites is the former Carlton Cinema in Horsley Fields which apparently started life as a pork sausage and pie factory. Perhaps they sold sausage rolls in the foyer!

You might also like Cinema Orot - Brutalist Architecture in Beersheba or Art Deco in the Philippines, Manila's Majestic Metropolitan Theatre

Wednesday 13 December 2017

London Art Deco and Modernism - A Further Five

Earlier these year I posted two pieces highlighting some of London's very best art deco and modernist buildings. Both posts were well received so here is a third one in the series, to round off the year. This time, we have a mixture of residential and commercial buildings from right across the city.

Former Daily Express building, Ellis, Clark and Sir Owen Williams, 1930-32.
Fleet Street was once the centre of Britain's newspaper industry. Most of the papers moved to Docklands in the 1980's, despite mass protests against both the move and increased mechanisation. Reuters were the last to leave in 2005 and there are no longer any news organisations in the street whose name is still synonymous with journalism. However some fine examples of art deco and streamline moderne architecture that were once home to national daily newspapers can still be seen. My favourite is the former Daily Express building at number 120 Fleet Street.  In 1930 Lord Beaverbrook commissioned architects Ellis and Clarke to extend an already existing structure but when their original proposals proved impracticable Sir Owen Williams was called in to assist. Problems resolved, construction was completed in 1932. Williams would later go on to design and construct the first section of the M1 motorway. 

The exterior features a stunning black vitrolite and glass facade with the name Express being retained at ground floor level in stylised art deco lettering. The incredible deco entrance hall is off limits to all except employees and visitors with appointments. It was designed by Robert Atkinson and includes relief panels sculpted by Eric Aumonier who created the famous archer at East Finchley station. It also features an oval staircase and silvered pendant lamp. The building was listed with Grade II status in 1972. The Express left in 1989 and ownership has now passed to Goldman Sachs. Open House London if you are listening - this would be a great place to have on your programme for 2018.

Trinity Court, Grey's Inn Road, F. Taperell and Haase, 1935.
Trinity Court is a beautiful Art Deco apartment block, completed in 1935 on Grey's Inn Road, a short  walk from Kings Cross Station. Architects F. Taperell and Haase designed this eight storey rectangular block, the shorter sides of which face the street. The magnificent facade includes double glazed doors with decorative tracery above which a pediment bears the name in blue letters, contrasting with the white wall. Seven metal framed windows stand above, culminating in a second pediment which conceals the housing of the lift shaft at roof level. There are balconies at each side of and these are accessed through a door which adjoins metal blue framed bay windows. The blue contrast is continued with the balustrades some of which have decorative detail.

The architects designed a number of apartment buildings in London during the 1930's including Heath View in Kentish Town. Haase turns up in the 13th May 1931 edition of the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advisor as a victim of robbery from his house in Marylebone. The thieves made off with several items including a Van Dyck painting, several Persian rugs, 22 Chinese ivory figures and four boxes of cigars - each containing fifty. He clearly liked a smoke.

Trinity Court backs onto the former St. Andrews Holborn burial ground which is now a pleasant public park. In the summer it attracts office workers from the surrounding area who come to eat their lunch. When I first came to London it was inhabited by street drinkers and drugs detritus was clearly visible. I'm not sure when the change occurred but renovation works were carried out a couple of years ago so perhaps then. The rear mirrors the front facade with the exception of having a smaller entrance and an incongruent modern lobby.

Trinity Court entrance.
Cholmeley Lodge, Guy Morgan, 1935.

Cholmeley Lodge stands in a small side street at the top of Highgate Hill. Completed in 1935, it was the work of Guy Morgan who also designed Florin Court in the City of London. The Lodge shares some features with Florin Court, in particular the wave of three curved crescents on the facade. Awarded Grade ll listed status in 2003 for architectural and historical interest, it was constructed with yellow bricks and cast stone with steel horizontal bar casement windows. There are four entrance doorways with fluted surrounds and a curved canopy, each bearing the name of the block in stylised lettering. The overall impact is enhanced by boldly projecting, squared off balconies on every floor.

Each of the crescents have staircase towers leading to a flat roof, designed as a sundeck and which must offer spectacular views over the city. Reflecting both the modernity and the class divisions of the 1930's, the Lodge was designed with a series of lifts for residents and staircases for trades purposes - at the rear of course. The listing status refers to 54 flats in the block, although according to a 2006 Haringey Council report on the Highgate Conservation Area there are only 48.

If things had gone as planned, Cholmeley Court would not have been built in London. Originally intended for Bournemouth, it was rejected by the local planners as they found the ultra-modern design too stark and demanded that the elevation be softened with Tudor timber work! Thankfully Morgan refused to comply and Bournemouth's loss became Highgate's gain.

St. Olaf House,, Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel, 1928-32. 
The London Bridge area on the south side of the Thames is known for its famous station, proximity to Borough Market and it's historical connections to the river. It should also be known for St. Olaf House, the art deco building at 27 Tooley Street. Designed by architect Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel it was built between 1928 and 1932 for the Hay's Wharf Company which operated wharves and warehouses along the Thames.

Six storeys high, it is built on a steel frame and clad in white Portland stone, which coupled with the interesting window design makes for a striking facade. There are wide oriel bay windows for four storeys above the ground floor entrance bay and these are topped by five small square windows on the fifth floor. This is in turn topped by a decorative parapet. The white frontage is relived by the name of the building set out in long, slim gilt art deco lettering above the entrance bay as well as above a smaller entrance to the side. The main entrance hall is at the rear. Frank Dobson (the sculptor not the politician) was responsible for the figure of St. Olaf King of Norway which can be seen from Tooley Street as well as for a series of panels on the river side. Listed at Grade II in 1971, St. Olaf House is now used as consulting rooms and for administrative work by the London Bridge Private Hospital.

The former Hay's Wharf Company office is one of the first buildings seen when exiting London Bridge Station on the Tooley Street side. Those large windows on the facade were designed to maximise natural light but today they also reflect contemporary London. If you look carefully at the picture below, it is possible to see the reflection of its better known neighbour - The Shard, completed in 2013 and attracting visitors from all over the world.

Reflection of the Shard in St. Olaf House windows
Former Curry's building, F.E. Simkins, 1936.
My fifth choice for this post takes us across London to what was once known as London's Golden Mile. The Great West Road north of Brentford was opened in 1925 to bypass the then traffic clogged Brentford High Street. The new road was soon flanked by factories, several of them in the art deco style. A number of these beauties remain. My favourite is the former Curry's distribution centre, from where stock was sent to heir chain of shops. It is now occupied by the international marketing company JC Decaux. Built in 1936 and designed by F.E. Simkins it was sensitively restored by Norman Foster in 1997 having achieved Grade II listed status in 1994.

It is built from reinforced concrete with a partial steel frame and a flat roof. The red metal window frames are a vivid contrast to the plain white facade which leans in to the central clock tower. As with many deco buildings, this one has a beautiful entrance with a red door frame and white rounded canopy. When I visited in the summer of 2016, works were being carried out to the facade and this together with a decidedly unfriendly workman made it difficult to get the best pictures. I promised myself I would return and try again - something for spring 2018 I think.

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Thursday 30 November 2017

Streatham - Art Deco Capital of South London

During the 1930's, Streatham in south London developed into one of the city's main entertainment areas with cinemas, theatres and dance halls opening and attracting a clientele from a wide area.  Although unlike Metroland on London's periphery, the tube never made it here, large numbers of mansion blocks were built, providing luxurious accommodation with all modern conveniences to attract the well-off. Many of these new homes were designed in the art deco and modernist styles and several of them survive today. 

I lived and worked in and around this area for a number of years in the 1990's but only recently discovered just how rich it is in art deco and modernism. Like many other parts of London, Streatham suffered hard times from the 1970's onwards, losing its much loved department store, Pratts (a branch of John Lewis), several cinemas and theatres and many of its better quality shops. It acquired a bad reputation for street prostitution as well as being famous at the upper end of the same industry through the antics of Cynthia Payne, who amongst other things is said to have accepted luncheon vouchers as payment for the services of her employees. Streatham could also boast  many other famous residents including horror writer Dennis Wheatley, super model Naomi Campbell, actors Simon Callow, June Whitfield and Roger Moore and occultist Aleister Crowley. An eclectic list indeed.

Today things seem to be improving again. There are many new, good quality cafes and restaurants. There is an excellent live jazz venue, The Hideaway, which attracts top flight acts, and the area has managed to both keep its library and to acquire a new leisure centre complete with swimming pool and skating rink. And of course, there is the art deco...

Pullman Court, F. Gibberd, 1935.
Pullman Court is one of London's best examples of modernist architecture. Influenced by the Bauhaus movement, it was designed by Frederick Gibberd and completed in 1935. It is best admired from the opposite side of the High Road from where there is a clear view of the upper levels, the front blocks with their glazed towers and the iconic lettering carrying the building's name. Pullman Court is a series of units, all of which are painted a pristine white which together with the small balconies that many of the flats have, gives the place a very cosmopolitan feeling. It would not look out of place in the sunshine of Tel-Aviv or the winter sun of Scandinavia.

Many of the residential blocks built in Streatham during the 1930's boasted ultra modern living, none more so than Pullman Court. An advertisement in the January 1938 programme of the Streatham Hill Theatre extolls the benefits of life in Gibberd's modernist paradise " Uniformed porters, electric lifts, separate lifts for tradesmen...unusual social amenities are available comprising a Resident's Club with Billiards Room, Table Tennis and facilities for Dancing and Refreshments as well as a fine private swimming pool".  Note the separate entrance for tradesmen, something that was quite common during the 1930's, emphasising class differences and ensuring we all knew our place. Note also the gratuitous use of upper case in the advert. Flats were advertised at £80 per annum for 2 rooms or £110 per annum for 3-4 rooms, both options with kitchen, bathroom and furniture designed by the architect.  Expect to pay rather more than that now. In 2013, a two bedroom flat was offered for rental at £300 per week. Pullman Court is listed at Grade II star.

Pullman Court, F. Gibberd, 1935.
Corner Fielde stands on the junction of Streatham High Road and Wavertree Road.  This huge apartment block was designed by R. Toms and Partners and was completed in 1937. This Mayfair based architectural firm was prolific during the 1930's, designing several residential buildings both here and across London. The  Corner Fielde flats were spacious and included central heating, constant hot water, fridges and an electric lift. The building was advertised as "Mayfair in Streatham", a reference perhaps to the architects as well as emphasising quality and modernity and most of all, luxury. The exterior features a number of art deco elements. These include a decorative freeze between the third and fourth floors and use of the Broadway typeface to display the block's name over the doorways. There is also what may be an original deco light fitting, or at least in the style of to the right of the Wavertree Road entrance. The advertising for Corner Fielde claimed that the flats were "...unusually spacious, luxurious accommodation planned on sun trap lines..." This reference to sun trap lines is supported by the metal cased Crittal windows designed to make the flats as light as possible.

Corner Fielde, R.Toms & Partners, 1937.

Streatleigh Court occupies an imposing position where the High Road meets Leigham Court Road. The rather plain facade on the High Road is relieved by some decorative brickwork beneath the bay windows but the main external features are the four balconies on the northern corner. Their shape and location at the narrow end of the building give them a nautical appearance in line with the art deco ocean liner motif. The name of the building is set out over the middle two balconies. An earlier structure of the same name stood on this site and was replaced in 1937 by the current Streatleigh Court, designed by Harrington's Architects. The ground floor is given over to commercial use and from 1938 until 1993 was home to the South Metropolitan Gas Company which later became British Gas.

Streatleigh Court, Harrington's Architects, 1937.
Leigham Hall decorative panel, R. Toms & Partners, c1936.
Leigham Hall is another very large apartment block, completed circa 1936 and designed by our old friends R. Toms and Partners for the Bell Property Trust. Similar to Corner Fielde, the flats boasted constant hot water, tiled bathrooms and electric lifts whilst Leigham Hall residents also had the benefit of a private swimming pool. I particularly like the external doors with their stylish ironwork and wonderful leaping gazelles. The end corner of the block, where the High Road meets Leigham Avenue is also worth a look as it features decorative panels using deco motifs.

Leigham Hall, door detail, R. Toms and Partners, c1936.
The High is a little further along the High Road from Leigham Court. It is the largest of Streatham's inter-war residential developments and comprises 174 flats across five large blocks that sit above commercial units,  as well as in a long continuous block at the rear.  Yet another R. Toms and Partners project commissioned by Bell Property, the High was completed in 1937. Residents here also had access to a private swimming pool and there are garages to the rear. Both facilities are still in use. As with Streatham's other large residential developments from this period, the exterior is restrained with some decorative details in the brickwork and on the bay windows to relieve the simplicity. However, the external doorways are magnificent. The glazing has decorative metalwork whilst the external lobby floor has the building's name in black tiles on a white tiled background. The name is in turn reflected by the metalwork at the bottom of the doors. Fabulous.

The High, R. Toms and Partners, 1937.
Elephant details, former Burton's, Harry Wilson, 1932.
Montague Burton of Burton's gentlemen's outfitters opened a store at 103-105 Streatham High Road in 1932. Architect Harry Wilson designed many of Burton's stores including this one which has a spectacular art deco facade above ground floor level. Burton's is long gone and the ground floor is now a pub with a "modernised" and incongruous facade, but the upper levels retain their original features with a series of stylised elephant heads and trunks as well as a series of zigzag decorative details. There are also two commemorative stones, dated 1932 noting the opening of the shop by Stanley Howard Burton and Barbara Jessie Burton.

Montague Burton was born Meshe Osinsky in 1885 in Kaunas, now part of Lithuania, coming to Britain in 1900, fleeing pogroms in the then Russian Empire. He developed a taste for art deco architecture which became the Burton's house style. His interest was clearly serious as he acquired Harry Wilson's architecture practice in the early 1930's and must be one of a very few retailers to have had his own architectural department.

Former Burton's, Harry Wilson, 1932.
Still with the rag trade, Streatham had several drapers in the 1930's. These included Sharman's at numbers 180-182 on the High Road, now occupied by W.H. Smith. The facade dates from 1929 and has simple Art Deco motifs surrounding the two large windows and a stepped pediment where it is still just about possible to make out the original store name. One former customer reminisces about seeing "piles of salmon pink corsets and nylons at 2/ 11d three farthings". A bit before even my time but fascinating none the less.

Former Sharman's drapers, architect not known, circa 1929.
As mentioned earlier, this was a major entertainment destination during the 1930's and the former Regal Cinema at 5 Streatham High Road would have been one of the main attractions. Built in 1938 it was designed by William Riddell Glen who designed several cinemas around the country including the still functioning Genesis in east London. The single screen auditorium could seat 1232 in the stalls with a further 730 in the circle. Deco elements of the interior design included a double staircase leading to the circle foyer and backlit niches containing stylised figurines in the auditorium. The first screenings took place on November 14th 1938 when Vivacious Lady starring Ginger Rogers and Prison Farm with Shirley Ross were shown.

Over the years, ownership of the cinema passed to the ABC group, then to Cannon and back to ABC, before closure in 2000. The cinema then stood empty for some time and suffered damage from squatters and a series of fires. Despite the facade being listed at Grade II status in 1998, the auditorium and stage were demolished in 2007 and flats built in their place. The remaining ground floor area now contains a carpet shop and a gym. The large faience tiles and black decorative pillars on the facade have been retained as has a side tower, hinting at the Regal's original splendour.

Former Regal Cinema, W.R. Glen, 1938.
Former South London Press building, architect not known, opened 1939.
The South London Press newspaper had its headquarters in Streatham until 2013 when it moved to Beckenham. The newspaper operated from a purpose built structure in Leigham Court Road, built  between 1935 and 1939. The restrained art deco style includes a central crowned tower with a glazed stairwell whilst the horizontal and vertical lines are emphasised with cornices. The windows are a key feature, designed to maximise natural light in line with 1930's ideas about improving the working environment. The upper levels are now converted to residential use and an additional storey has been added, spoiling the original lines and prominence of the tower. The ground floor remains in commercial use. There is a small cafe opposite - Cafe Mes Amis which serves good coffee and sometimes has Nata - those delicious Portuguese custard tarts as well as more substantial offerings. 

The majority of the buildings featured in this post can be found along Streatham High Road, sometimes claimed as the longest high road in Europe (although it isn't). There are several more art deco buildings here both on the High Road and in the streets that run off it. Architecture enthusiasts are encouraged to visit and see for themselves as well as to sample one, or more, of the excellent new cafes. 

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Tuesday 14 November 2017

A Postcard From India - 9 Cochin, people at work.

Cochin was the final stop on my recent tour of India. It had a different pace and feel to the huge cities further, less crowded and more relaxed. But there was at least one similarity and that was the warm hearted welcome of the people in the street, in the cafes and at their place of work.

In Cochin I met people from many different backgrounds. I met fishermen whose families have worked here for generations, people working in the Dhobi Khana in Fort Cochin, women working in weaving and pappadum co-operatives and merchants selling all kinds of fruit and vegetables in the bazaar at Ernakulam. And of course, there were chance encounters with people in the street. As elsewhere in India, people were happy to stop, talk, offer tea and to be photographed.

Husband and wife ironing team, Dhobi Khana
Washerman, Dhobi Khana
Mumbai's Dhobi Ghats (laundries) are well known and attract many visitors from around the world. Less well known, but just as interesting is Cochin's Dhobi Khana. This is where hotels, hospitals and private homes can send their laundry to be dealt with in the traditional way. The current site was established in 1976 by the Greater Cochin Development Authority but the laundry dates from the colonial period when the British brought Tamil villagers here to work as washermen.

The Khana has separate sections for washing, drying and ironing. Items are first soaked in water and a light detergent before being beaten on stones, rinsed, dried and ironed. There are 40 "pens" in which the washing takes place, each pen being allocated to a separate family. The washing is normally done by men whilst both men and women iron and women look after the drying. Some of the charcoal irons used were originally brought from Sri Lanka, several decades ago, their continued use a testament to their durability. Drying takes about five hours and the items are hung without the aid of pegs, instead they are tucked between the ropes so that the wind cannot carry them away. Rice water is used for items that require starching.

Despite the work being hard, several older people are still employed here. This may in part be because the younger generation are drifting away from this type of work and finding employment elsewhere. The laundry also competes with technology as more and more hotels, hostels and hospitals have their own automated facilities. The people I met were friendly and used to visitors coming to see their pace of work. When asked if they would mind being photographed, some of them assumed quite formal poses. There were of course exceptions - including the wife of the serious looking man in the blue shirt. She found it all amusing!

One of the most rewarding things about traveling are chance encounters with people in the street. After visiting St. George's Orthodox Church in Mattanchery, I noticed a single storey house painted in pastel colours, with a split "saloon style" door, what appeared to be a drop down counter and the remnant of two posters. I took a couple of pictures and a face appeared at the open upper part of the door. A young man waved, called hello and indicated that he would like to be photographed. I went across to him, managed to exchange a few words and then took the picture above. He told me his name is Babu. He was very pleased to be photographed. 

Similarly, when walking in Synagogue Lane, I noticed an elderly man dressed in a crisp white t-shirt and brightly coloured lungi. This was Hamid, aged 82 and still working as a cycle rickshaw driver. His rickshaw was parked outside one of the restaurants on the Lane whilst he sheltered from the afternoon heat and waited for his next customer. I learned that he has a family that take care of him but that he wants to continue working and to maintain some independence. He was clearly proud of his elegant and very well kept rickshaw.

It is not unusual to meet people who work into their old age in India. Many continue to work in family businesses whilst others work independently in order to maintain themselves. I saw several older women working in the streets selling lottery tickets including the lady dressed in purple pictured below.

Hamid, cycle rickshaw driver
Lottery ticket saleswoman
Many of the people I met earn a living from selling food in the street or in cafes and restaurants. The bazaar at Enrkulam is full of colour, aromas and noise. Here you can find brightly coloured spices, home made pickles, countless types of garlic and onions, every kind of fruit and vegetable you could think of and lots more. There are also different kinds of banana for sale . I spotted a store room door left open and was fascinated by the shapes of the bunches of green bananas pointing outwards and the contrast with the red walls of the shop. Whilst photographing this, the merchant asked me to wait a moment, retreated to the rear of the shop and then came back with a huge bunch of bananas that he proudly held up for another picture. The merchants here and at other markets in India were very proud of their fresh produce and several would hold up their best stock to show me and to pose for a picture.

Proud of the produce, Ernakulam bazaar
Weighing bananas, Ernakulam bazaar
Lime seller, Ernakulam bazaar
It was towards the end of the day when I arrived at the bazaar and some of the merchants were beginning to wind down and relax after a long day of selling. I noticed three men sitting in the shade, baskets of limes at their feet. The wall behind them was plastered with posters announcing a political conference, some of which featured pictures of Stalin who could also be seen in a framed painting at the top of the wall beside portraits of Lenin, Marx and other Communist luminaries. Private enterprise meets socialism in the market place. I especially wanted to photograph these men because of the backdrop, the way the light fell across their crisp white clothing and the gentle face of the man beneath the Stalin poster.

Under the posters, Ernakulam bazaar
The Sree Venkateshwara tea shop in Parur was one of my favourite places in Kerala. As well as tea, the shop sells tasty hot snacks and treats, all of them prepared on the premises using local produce. I visited on a Saturday morning and the shop was full with local people enjoying the tea, snacks and the chance to catch up on news with friends and family. One of the staff asked me where I was from and how I liked the tea before inviting me to look around behind the scenes where I saw chapatis being made, vegetables being peeled and curries being prepared for the hungry customers. I was also given free rein to take as many pictures as I liked. Some of the staff found this very amusing, especially when their friends were being photographed but all were interested in seeing themselves on the camera and I was able to arrange for them to receive copies of the pictures later on. Perhaps the star of the show was the man making the tea who pulled an impossibly long flow of liquid between the pot and a jug

Pouring the tea, Sree Venkateshwara tea shop Parur
In the kitchen, Sree Venkateshwara tea shop, Parur
Keeping an eye on things, Sree Venkateshwara tea shop, Parur
Sree Mahila Thejas Pappad
There are several co-operatives in Kerala, organisations where people work together for mutual social, economic and cultural benefit. The co-operatives are mutually owned and democratically organised. I visited two such organisations in Cochin, both of them run by and for women. Sree Mahila Thejas Pappad produces many different types of papad, also known as pappadums, the thin, disc shaped food usually made from black garam flour, fried or cooked with dry heat. Fans of Indian food will have enjoyed them with pickles whilst waiting for their man courses to come to the table.  This co-operative produces, packs and distributes thousands of papad every day, including deep red ones, filled with chilli and sweeter banana chips. I left the co-operative with several purchases to enjoy on my return to London.

I visited a second women's co-operative, one where many women are employed in weaving. The co-operative trains local women to use traditional hand-operated looms to produce garments and household goods in order to be able to make a living.

Weaving co-operative
Weaving co-operative
Chinese nets fishermen
Frying fish straight from the waterside
Kerala is famous for its cuisine which includes many dishes made from locally caught fresh fish. The Chinese fishing nets of Cochin are one of the area's special attractions. The nets are attached to fixed land installations set up on bamboo and teak poles held horizontally by large mechanisms that lower them into the sea. The nets are left in the water for a short time before being lifted out by the fishermen pulling on ropes. Legend has it that the nets were introduced to the area by an explorer, one Zheng He,  who came from the court of Kublai Khan. For a small fee, the fishermen will show tourists how the nets work as well as giving them the chance to help pull the ropes. There are also independent fishermen who work with less sophisticated but still traditional methods, standing in the sea and casting nets by hand.

Every evening, the fishermen come to a small jetty in Cochin where the daily catch is auctioned. A crowd quickly gathers and the sale proceeds apace. It is not unusual for the purchased fish to be taken directly to one of the street food stalls adjacent to the water and then cooked immediately. You can't get any fresher than that.

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You can see more pictures from India here.

Saturday 11 November 2017

A Postcard from India 8 - Jewish Kerala

There have been Jews in Kerala for a very long time. Evidence places Jewish merchants here during the reign of King Solomon and it is believed that Kerala sandalwood was used in the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. It is known that Jews came here from Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Evidence of these communities includes diaries and letters from travellers over various centuries and 72 rights set out on copperplates given by Hindu ruler Bhaskara Ravi Varman (962-1020) and given to Joseph Rabban, leader of the Cochin Jews. Further evidence is the existence, for several centuries, of  AnchuVanam, a prosperous, virtually independent Jewish principality in Cranganore under the protection of Hindu royalty. The principality ended when the community was attacked by Arab settlers allied to a neighbouring ruler. Most of the Jews fled to nearby Cochin and the protection of the Hindu Raja.

Aron Hakodesh, former synagogue at Chennamangalam
These early arrivals spoke Judeo-Malayalam and became known as the  Malabaris, sometimes referred to as the "black Jews". Later arrivals began coming from Europe in the 16th century, some of them fleeing the Inquisition. This community became known as the Paradesis and also as "the white Jews". The Portuguese occupation of Cochin brought problems for Kerala's Jews in the form of the Inquisition and more generalised persecution. The situation improved significantly in 1660 when the Dutch displaced the Portuguese and instituted a more tolerant regime. 

The departure of the Portuguese was not to be the end of the Kerala Jews' troubles. The Paradesi community refused for many years to accept the Malabaris as authentically Jewish, preventing them from entering the Paradesi synagogue and forbidding inter-marriage. This was despite rulings from various rabbis and is completely at odds with Jewish law. Concessions were painstakingly won over time but the discrimination faced by the Malabaris, caused lasting damage to relations between the two communities and in part contributed to the final decline of a Jewish presence in Kerala. When the State of Israel was re-established in 1948, many Kerala Jews decide to emigrate and within a few years, the community had declined significantly. Some of those that remained later chose to follow their fellow Jews to Israel identifying a lack of marriage partners and poor economic opportunities as the reasons why. These matters have been written about at length, but perhaps the best account which examines the position of both communities is that of Edna Fernandes in her book The Last Jews of Kerala.

Today there are few Jews in Kerala and only one working synagogue although others are now converted to museums. During my recent time in India I was able to visit several of these synagogues and to meet two of the remaining members of these small communities.

Paradesi synagogue, Mattancherry
The Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry, Cochin dates back to 1568 and is located in the appropriately named Synagogue Lane in the area known as Jew Town. It is the last of Kerala's synagogues to hold services although it is rare for there to be a minyan of ten adult Jewish men - the minimum required for certain religious obligations. There is no Rabbi here, but during the main Jewish holidays, rabbis are brought in from elsewhere in India or from overseas to lead the prayers and maintain traditions.

The simple white painted exterior complements the other buildings in Jew Town. At first glance the interior is relatively austere. There are two unfixed wooden benches placed in the centre of the floor, facing those arranged around the periphery. This arrangement, with seats facing each other is a feature of Indian synagogues and different from the front facing rows that I am more familiar with. The women's gallery was roped off when I visited but men and women are still pray separately in the synagogue.  

Nn two tiles in the Paradesi synagogue are identical
Detail, Paradesi synagogue
Detail, Paradesi synagogue
The decorative highlight of the interior may well be the Chinese willow pattern floor tiles.  Not original they are believed to have been  acquired by one Ezehiel Rahabi in the 1760's. No two tiles are identical. There are different theories about their origin. One is that they were imported from the Netherlands but I prefer an alternative story, that they were originally manufactured for one of the local Rajas who upon learning that animal products had been used in their manufacture declined to use them and sold them on to Cochin's Jews for their synagogue. Whatever their origin, they are beautiful and a major feature of this house of prayer.

The bright red, blue, green and clear glass lanterns hanging from the ceiling are a local feature found in both religious and secular buildings in Kerala. Some of them were manufactured in Europe, others more locally. Other items suspended from the ceiling include objects made from brass, pewter, silver and bronze, again reflecting local tradition. Most importantly in the heat of Cochin, a number of ceiling fans are used to cool the interior.

I visited the Paradesi synagogue twice during my stay, once to attend part of the Rosh Hashanah service and later to spend time looking at the craftsmanship involved in its design and to see ten stylised canvases illustrating the history of the Paradesi Jews. They are the work of Hindu artist S.S. Krishna and were commissioned by the community in the 1960's. 

Sarah Cohen
Former Jewish owned building, Mattancherry
Following my second visit I was able to meet Sarah Cohen. Sarah lives on Synagogue Lane, just a few steps from the synagogue. At 93, she is the oldest of the remaining five Paradesi Jews. During the day she sits by her window, reading the Torah, singing religious songs and talking to visitors who drop in on their way to and from the synagogue. We chatted for a while in both English and Hebrew. When I left she asked me to visit her again and to bring her a Hebrew book, "so that we can learn something together". Sarah is an accomplished craftswoman and her sewing can be purchased from a small shop, the proceeds of which help to pay for her care. It was interesting to meet her, and not a little sad to think that this once illustrious community is now nearing its end in India.

Until the 1950's there were many Jewish owned businesses in Synagogue Lane. Now there are none and the shops have been taken over to a large extent by Kashmiri traders. However, it is possible to see many signs of the former community as several buildings bear a Magen David whilst on one building the Jewish star is accompanied by the Sassoon family name and the year of construction - 1849. 

Sassoon building, Mattancherry, built in 1849
Magen David incorporated into building facade, Mattacnherry
The cemetery of the Paradesi Jews is a short distance from the synagogue. It is well kept but special arrangements have to be made to visit it.  Another Jewish cemetery in Mattancherry has been lost due to several houses having been built on the site. Some of the tombstones were removed by local people and used for other purposes but one tomb, that of Rabbi Nehemia Mota has been preserved.

In addition to being a rabbi, Mota was a kabbalist and a composer of songs. Thought to have been born in Aden, he settled in Cochin in the later part of the 16th century and married a Malabari Jewish woman. He spent the rest of his life in India and died at the lighting of the first Chanukah candle in 1615. After his death he achieved saintly status and the anniversary of his passing is marked by special prayers amongst the Malabari community.  His tomb is in a small lane between the houses and is cared for by some of the women who live close by. It is considered a place of pilgrimage by Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus. I met some of the women who care for the tomb and they told me its presence has brought them fortune and that caring for it is an honour. None of these women are Jewish.   

Tombstone of Rabbi Nehemia Mota
Some of the women who care for Rabbi Mota's tombstone
Erankulam is about 15 kilometres from Mattancherry and was once home to a substantial community of Malabari Jews. It is believed that they came here from Cranganore in the 12th century, fleeing conflict with Arab settlers over the spice trade, whilst others came seeking the protection of the Hindu Rajah after problems with the Portuguese. 

Ernakulam's Kadavumbagam Synagogue was built in around 1200 but the current building is believed to date from the late 16th or early 17th century. It can be found on Jews Street between Market Road and Broadway, in the heart of the town's busy bazaar and in the former Jewish quarter. As well as serving the religious needs of the community, the synagogue housed a Jewish school at the upper level. 

In Ernakulam, I was fortunate to visit the Kadavumbagam and to meet Elias "Babu" Josephai, the guardian of the synagogue. He told me much about the history of the community including that it decreased significantly in the 1950's and 1960's due to emigration to Israel. Despite this, services continued until 1972 when the synagogue finally closed. The Torah Scrolls were removed and taken to Moshav Nevatim in Israel where there is now a Cochin Jewish Heritage Centre.  In 1975 a major storm resulted damage to the foundations of the building which required the entire structure to be hydraulically lifted whilst in 1977 several items were lost in a burglary.

Elias "Babu" Josephai
Interior, former Kadavumbagam synagogue, Ernakulam
Babu took on the role of guardian in 1979. The building remained vacant until 1985 when he established an ornamental fish and plant shop in the front part of the ground floor. Since then he has worked extremely hard to carry out renovation work, including raising the funds to make this possible. He kindly showed me the interior of the synagogue, pointing out the restored tiled floor, the original ceiling detail and the red glass lanterns above the ground floor bimah. Uniquely, Keralan synagogues have a second bimah in the women's gallery to which the Rabbi would ascend during the Jewish holidays, and read the prayers from there. 

Babu's achievements should not be underestimated. As well as securing funding, he has had to act as works manager, continue running his business and in some cases do the renovation work himself. He is a man of many talents, originally training as a shochet - a kosher butcher. He told me that there are less than 30 Jews living in Ernakulam today but that there are also several hundred people claiming Jewish heritage who are hoping to convert and eventually make aliyah to Israel. A few minutes walk from the Kadavumbagam is another former synagogue. The Tekkumbagam synagogue has not been a working house of prayer for some decades although it has seen occasional use for community events. It is not currently possible to visit.

Former Chennamangalam synagogue
Interior, former Chennamangalam synagogue
I also visited two former synagogues that have been painstakingly restored and converted to museums. Most of the Jews of Chennamangalam left for Israel in the 1950's and 60's and although a tiny community remained until the 1990's their beautiful synagogue was little used and fell into disrepair. The roof and floors collapsed, vegetation engulfed the building and the windows and doors were sealed in order to provide protection from the climate and potential vandalism. Eventually the Indian Department of Archaeology assumed responsible for the building and in 2004 a skilled and sensitive restoration commenced. This in itself was an achievement since the building had deteriorated so badly that at first there was no certainty that it could be saved. A dedicated team of local craftsmen were so devoted to their task that on occasion they even slept in the building, preparing their meals on site. The synagogue museum opened in 2006 and now welcomes visitors throughout the year.

The exterior is painted white as are the internal walls but the ceiling, Aron Hakodesh and woodwork details are a riot of colour with floral decorative features in bright reds, greens and yellows. The ceiling is particularly impressive with brightly coloured lotus flower medallions. As with the Kadavumbagam synagogue in Ernakulam the Chennamangalam building was once home to a school at the upper level. It also has a second bimah in the women's gallery whilst the main bimah on the ground floor has a tiered railing. Outside the synagogue there is a tombstone dated 1268  dedicated to a Jewish woman called Sarah. It bears the oldest known Hebrew text in Kerala and is further evidence of the area's long Jewish history. Tradition has it that the stone was brought here from nearby Kottapuram.

Keeper of the former Chennamangalam synagogue 
Detail of the Aron HaKodesh, former Chennamangalam synagogue 
The Paravur synagogue is a short drive from Chennamangalam. It too has been restored and has a beautiful wooden interior and an interactive exhibition at the upper level. I received a warm welcome at all of Kerala's synagogues and at the Paravur, I met an official guide working for the state tourism board. He had recently completed his training and was keen to tell me about the history of the building. It is very encouraging that investment is being made in training young people to promote and explain this important part of Kerala's heritage.

The efforts made to preserve and promote Kerala's Jewish history are impressive and compare well with those in other parts of the world. However, there is still work to be done, an example of which is the former Kadavumbagam synagogue in Mattancherry. Long abandoned, the building is in poor condition, the only clue to its provenance being a plaque with Hebrew script above the entrance proclaiming it to be "the gate of the righteous". Urgent action is needed if this building is to be saved and help from interested communities and organisations would be most welcome.

Former Kadavumbagam synagogue, Mattancherry
I spent just four days in Kerala. In this short time I was able to see much of what remains of a once large and successful Jewish community. I was especially privileged to meet Babu in Ernakulam and Sarah Cohen in Mattancherry. For all of this I must thank my extremely knowledgeable guide, B. Thomas and  my excellent driver, Rejeesh. Without them it would not have been possible to achieve so much in such a short time. Mr Thomas is both an historian and a tour guide working for Incredible India.

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You can see more pictures from Kerala here.

This excellent website gives much more detail about Kerala's synagogues -  The Synagogues of Kerala, India