On the eve of the inaugural ‘Journeys in Watercolours – Synagogues of India’ Exhibition at the Millie Phillips Gallery at Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney in June 2022, Professor Waronker spoke to IJAANZ about the beautiful synagogues of India, of synagogues as living spaces, and the inspiration behind his work. Australians will have an opportunity to view a curated selection reproductions of these artworks for the first time.
Professor Jay A. Waronker is Professor at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta. He was educated in architecture and architectural history at the University of Michigan, Harvard and Cornell Universities. He has pursued research in the history of diasporic synagogues for decades. Professor Waronker is the recipient of innumerable awards, scholarships and grants including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and more than two Fulbright scholarships – which he won again to study in India this year to complete detailed watercolour renderings in the centuries-old tradition of hand-drawings of synagogues in India. Professor Waronker founded and served as the curator for India’s first Jewish museum, and was  advisor to the Government of Kerala. He has written extensively on the subject, including his book,The Synagogues of India’, part proceeds of which are kindly donated to IJAANZ, and is available for purchase. (contact@ijaanz.org) 

Professor Waronker, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your life’s work on the synagogues of India. What do the synagogues of India mean to its congregants? How were they viewed then, and now?  
To their congregants, the synagogues of India were—and still are—welcome settings where they gathered and prayed, became a part of a mutual whole, joyously and solemnly celebrated holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Simchat Torah and Yom Kippur. They gathered for such life-cycle events as b’nei mitzvahs and weddings, learned Hebrew, studied Torah and Talmud and assembled to kindle Shabbat candles, offer the kiddush on wine and recite the hamotzi with bread. 
“Synagogues become centres of life and friendships—and perhaps even where spouses were found. It’s much more than architecture…”
Here, they would exchange thoughts about religion and the world, come together to acknowledge timely events—the outbreak and conclusion of wars, Indian independence and the establishment of the State of Israel—pause to reflect spiritually and bodily, listen to sermons and speakers, socialise, share meals, make lifelong friends and even find spouses. As a result, so many recall and cherish their experiences growing up in the Indian synagogues, which are dear to their hearts and psyche. People love their modest structures as much as the fanciest and most beautifully designed ones.
Some see them solely as community buildings and don’t worry too much about aesthetics and space.  Synagogues become centres of life and friendships—and perhaps even where spouses were found. It’s much more than architecture, but still the architecture deserves centre attention.
Tell us more about your experiences about studying and painting the synagogues of India.
Some forty structures constructed as synagogues can be found in India today. Among them are fully functioning ones, open yet marginally active, closed but still intact and repurposed. 

“Remarkably, some of these synagogues date from the mid-sixteenth century and are among the oldest synagogues in the Commonwealth.”

These synagogues were realised by five distinct communities of Jews living in India. Three are especially rooted to the country historically and culturally—the Bene Israel, Cochini and Baghdadi.  Two, the B’nei Menashe and Bene Ephraim, are more recently organised with less defined histories.  A sixth group, the Shavei Israel, is a new enclave comparatively, and its members have yet to erect a synagogue.
India’s standing synagogues date from the sixteenth to the current century. They vary in design, scale and appointments from the large and grand to the one-room and modest. Erected on urban, suburban or rural sites in different styles and spatial arrangements influenced by many design precedents, climatic considerations and construction traditions, they now range tremendously in their levels of upkeep and preservation.  
The synagogues of India can be found primarily in states along the country’s perimeter. The Bene Israel ones, making up the majority, are all located in Maharashtra state of central-eastern India except for a single synagogue in Gujarat state just to the north.  Five exist in Mumbai, one in Mumbai’s suburb of Kurla West, one in Thane, at least eleven south of Mumbai in the Raigad district of the Konkan region, one in Pune and one in Ahmedabad in Gujarat.  Not all of these are functioning.
The synagogues of the Cochini Jews, all located in central-eastern Kerala state, are by far the oldest in India. Seven of their buildings are extant, yet only the Paradesi in Kochi-Mattanchery and Kadavumbagam in Kochi-Ernakulam remain operational as synagogues.  Two synagogues outside Kochi, in Parur (Paravur) and Chendamangalam (Chennamangalam), were extensively renovated by artisan craftsmen with Kerala and Indian government funding, and are now museums that welcome visitors.
Baghdadi Jews arrived in India considerably later and began erecting synagogues in the mid-nineteenth century, and their synagogues exist in Maharashtra and the western state of West Bengal.
The Baghdadis built two synagogues in Mumbai, one in Pune and five in Kolkata (three surviving), which can be visited today.
In the eastern region of Andhra Pradesh state, the Bene Ephraim Jews recently constructed two small synagogues. The B’nei Menashe, who live in India’s north-eastern hill states founded several small synagogues over the last few years.
Above: Professor Jay A. Waronker, Ph.D. is Professor of Architecture at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta GA, USA, and recipient of innumerable awards, scholarships and grants. His book, 'The Synagogues of India' is available for sale from IJAANZ.
In New Delhi, one prayer hall from 1956, which has always served a diverse congregation of Jews in the nation’s capital, remains open and relatively active.
The synagogues of India are tangible objects. They are celebrated by the writings of the ancient Roman architect and historian Marcus ‘Vitruvius’ Pollio for their firmitas (firmness and structure), utilitas  (commodity and function) and venustas (delight and beauty).
Yet this is not only about the past, since synagogues and Jewish life associated with them unequivocally persevere—albeit in much diminished numbers—in India today.
Collectively, these buildings had, and in numerous cases continue to have, relevance architecturally and aesthetically, metaphysically and emotionally, communally and privately.”
Since too little has been published to date on the synagogues of India, the foremost purpose of this exhibition is an attempt to fill a gap in existing research, literature and discussion on this singular building type.
What role does architecture play in everyday life?
Ideally, architecture compared to ordinary construction should encompass all three benchmarks for determining how good a building is. Missing from Vitruvius’ take on architecture, especially when it serves a public function—and synagogues do—is a fourth variable: civitas ministerium (community service).
“Buildings that include synagogues, whether secular or religious, become places and spaces where histories are generated, life stories fashioned and memories triggered.”
Extending well beyond its sheer brick and mortar and for-shelter purposes, architecture is what we inhabit and interact with regularly. In doing so, architecture influences, affects and moves us. Through architecture, a sense of place, identity and community is established. Buildings might not literally speak for themselves, yet when people keenly and sensitively pay attention, they communicate considerable information and insight. Architecture serves as a measuring device—as an interpreter—of a given culture from a certain time and at a particular location. Architecture’s link to society and humanity is profound.
You’ve had a distinguished career in architecture and art, painting more than 65 synagogues in watercolours. What inspired you make the study of the synagogues of India your passion?  
The genesis of my awareness and interest in surveying, documenting, interpreting, discussing and dispersing information on the synagogues of India to the diaspora can be traced to a particular moment, place and source that I can vividly recall.
During my architectural studies at Harvard University many years back, while browsing the stacks of the Graduate School of Design’s Frances Loeb Library one afternoon, I came across a small book titled “The Synagogue.” Within its pages was a chart listing where synagogues existed country by country along with a building tally.
To my surprise, a number of Indian ones were included. How could a place so overwhelmingly associated to my limited consciousness at the time with the Taj Mahal and other Mughal tombs,  crowded street life, Hinduism, curry and spicy food, mangoes, lassis, the British Raj and Gandhi and also be home to so many Jewish communities and their places of worship?
I checked out the book and read it cover to cover but, aside from piquing my interest, nothing immediately came of it. I went on to pursue an architectural apprenticeship with Robert A. M. Stern Architects and licensure in New York City and teaching with an architectural practice in Atlanta, knowing that someday, something would come of this revelation.
When the time and conditions were right, an apposite plan of action focusing on these curious religious buildings in all too distant and unfamiliar lands would come into being and consume my time and attention. It was my bashert.
Interior of the Beth El Synagogue, Kolkata, West Bengal. The synagogue was built by the Baghdadi Jewish community in 1856 and improved in 1885. © 2021 Jay Waronker, USA. Home page image: Interior of the Paradesi Synagogue in Synagogue Lane, Jew Town, Kochi. It was built by the Cochini Jewish community in 1568 and is now a museum. ©2021 Jay Waronker, USA.
The ‘Journeys in Watercolours – Synagogues of India’ Exhibition can be viewed at the Millie Phillips Gallery at Emanuel Synagogue, 7 Ocean Street, Woollahra from June 1-30, 2022. For more information or to arrange a tour for your synagogue or group, please contact us: contact@ijaanz.org.
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