Monday, December 24, 2012

A ruler’s magnanimity

Joseph Semah, a Jewish artist, who lives in the Netherlands, has made an installation art in tribute to a king of Kerala, who conferred recognition on Jews and Christians

Photo by Manu R. Mavelil

By Shevlin Sebastian

Around two and a half months ago, Netherlands-based artist Joseph Semah came to Kochi for a visit. Like any Jew, he went to the 450-year-old synagogue at Mattancherry. It was there that he came across a replica of copper plates which highlighted the 72 privileges given by King Cheraman Perumal in 1000 AD to the Jews to live and do business in Kodungallur. He also gave similar benefits to the Christians.

Semah got very excited. “It was incredible that the king decided, for whatever reason, to elevate the Jews and the Christians,” he says. “It showed the magnanimity of the ruler. He brought these people closer to him.”

The entitlements included sitting along with the king, travelling on an elephant, riding horses and collecting taxes.

Semah made 72 drawings, highlighting each of the rights, using India ink and tracing paper. Thereafter, to make the copper plates, Semah worked with the local artisans. And what he has produced is a striking and vivid installation. Each copper plate has been embedded on the hard surface of a wooden table. And through the various holes there are white cotton threads, which also lie all over the floor.

It is not only about the 72 copper plates, but the harmonious way that people of different religions live in Kochi,” says Semah. “You can hear the muezzin’s call to prayer five times a day, and see the open church doors, with a Hindu temple next to it. And the people walk in and out in complete freedom. There are no differences, till you ask them their names. And then you understand that this one is a John, while the other is a Mohammed. This is a paradise of integration. If this assimilation can be emulated all over the world, there will be world peace.”
Owing to Semah's background in electronic engineering – he took a degree from the University of Tel Aviv – there are precise numbers for the installation. So, the length of the table is 22 metres, to resemble the 22 letters of the Hebrew language. The size of the copper plates is exactly the size of the India ink drawings: 8" x 3".

The white cotton threads have a length of 5000m. “This is the circumference length of the walls of Old Jerusalem during the time of Jesus,” says Semah. “Since the Chera King gave the privileges to the Jews, I wanted to make a link to Jerusalem.”

Another reason is personal. “Every artist wants to be international, but, at the same time, each one of us would want to relate to our most private places,” he says.

Semah, who was born in Baghdad, lived in Tel Aviv for many years, before he moved to Europe as a young man in the 1970s. “I had participated in a few wars – ‘Six-Day’ and ‘Yom Kippur’ – between Israel and Egypt, and the experience was horrific,” he says. “I was tired physically and mentally and decided to move away and have a career in the arts.” Semah settled in the Netherlands in 1980.

As an artist Semah makes videos, films, drawings, sculptures and writes texts. At the Kochi Biennale, he put up a performance art. About eight people of different religions, like Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, read from their Holy Books. Then 72 children, from local schools, holding a wine glass, danced and lit one end of the privilege, written on a piece of paper, with the help of candles and placed it inside the glass. Those glasses have been neatly placed, one on top of the other, near the copper plate installation.

Not surprisingly, the Kochiites have taken the artist to heart. When he got into an auto-rickshaw recently, the driver effortlessly began discussing the installation. “This could never happen in the Netherlands,” he says. “When I entered a tea-shop, the people recognised me and clapped loudly. You cannot find so much of love, appreciation, and sincerity in Europe. I will go back with an enormous fund of good memories.”

(The New Indian Express, Sunday Magazine, South India and New Delhi) 

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