Tag Archives: Indian Jews

Jews of the Week: Sulochana & Pramila

India’s Superstars

Sulochana and Pramila

Esther Victoria Abraham (1916-2006) was born in Calcutta, India to a wealthy Iraqi-Jewish family. Although she studied at the University of Cambridge to become a teacher, her passion was acting. Her first gig was dancing for a Persian theatre company. From there, she made the jump to Bollywood, and went on to star in 30 films under her stage name Pramila. Following India’s independence in 1947, she won the country’s first Miss India beauty pageant. Pramila was also one of India’s first female film producers, making 16 movies under her own Silver Productions company. Interestingly, her daughter won the Miss India contest in 1967, making them the only mother-daughter duo to win the pageant. Her son continues to be a popular Indian TV and film star today.

Pramila’s fellow Iraqi-Jewish actress was Ruby Myers (1907-1983), born in the city of Pune. Myers was working as a telephone operator with no interest in film when she was discovered by a director. She initially turned down his offers but ultimately relented when he kept pursuing her. Despite having no formal training in acting, Myers soon became India’s biggest and highest paid actress, going under the stage name Sulochana. Incredibly talented and versatile, in one 1927 film she played eight different roles! She was so popular that when Gandhi was struggling for India’s independence, he used an image of Sulochana in his campaign poster. She went on to start her own production company, too, called Rubi Pics. Becoming very wealthy, Sulochana drove the first Rolls Royce in India. In 1973, she won the country’s most prestigious cinema honour, the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, and in 1983 was featured on an Indian stamp.

Words of the Week

Be mild in speech, suppress your anger, and always strive to be on the best terms with your relatives and all people, even with the stranger in the street, so that you may be beloved Above and well-liked below and be acceptable to all of your fellows.
– Rabbi Abbaye (Talmud, Berakhot 17a)

Jew of the Week: Mirra Alfassa

Alfassa and her symbol

Alfassa and her symbol

Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973) was born in Paris to a Turkish-Jewish father and Egyptian-Jewish mother. Growing up in a wealthy Sephardic home, she was exposed to a great deal of spiritual teachings, art, and her father’s vast library – which she had read entirely by age 14. After studying art at the prestigious Académie Julian, she found success as a painter and artist, collaborating with such greats as Matisse, Rodin, and Zola. After ten years of this, Alfassa wished to pursue her spiritual inclinations and found her way to a Polish Jew in Algeria who led a Kabbalah-based mystical circle. In 1908, she established her own mystical circle in Paris, fusing together esoteric Jewish teachings with those of Buddhism and Hinduism. In 1914, she moved to Pondicherry, India – then a French colony – where her second husband was seeking election to the senate. There, Alfassa met a yogi named Sri Aurobindo and became his devoted follower. For the next six years (four of which were spent in Japan), she and her husband published a regular journal of Aurobindo’s teachings. Eventually, the couple divorced, and Alfassa moved to Aurobindo’s house. Aurobindo soon recognized Alfassa as his spiritual equal, and titled her “the Mother” – an incarnation of the cosmic “Divine Mother” of the universe. Alfassa and Aurobindo started teaching together and attracted many followers. The house soon transformed into an ashram. By 1937, their ashram had grown so much that Alfassa commissioned the construction of a new community. This community would draw many, including the daughter of US President Woodrow Wilson, who stayed there for the rest of her life. During World War II, while many in India supported Nazi Germany (in order to overthrow their British rulers), Aurobindo and Alfassa worked hard to support the Allied Forces, and donated much of their funds for the war effort. In 1943, Alfassa founded a new school, which later became the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. After Aurobindo’s death in 1950, Alfassa became the sole leader of the movement, and a prominent holy figure in India. In 1956, she established another ashram and school in Delhi, and did the same in Gujarat in 1967. Meanwhile, a popular 13-volume book of her life and teachings was published (now expanded to 17 volumes).

Matrimandir

Perhaps her greatest legacy is Auroville, a city-state she founded in 1968 near Pondicherry. Auroville was meant to be a model community for the whole world, where all people regardless of background could live in total harmony, spirituality, and peace. Delegates from 124 nations attended the inauguration ceremony. Today, Auroville has over 2500 permanent residents from some 50 countries. A self-sustaining community, it has its own institutions, including farms, schools, and restaurants (one of which is an Israeli cafe – closed on Shabbat, of course). The city’s centrepiece is the beautiful Matrimandir, the solar-powered “Mother Temple”, designed in the form of a famous golden vision once seen by Alfassa, who is still known affectionately as “the Mother”.

Words of the Week

The most important thing for an individual is to unify himself around his divine centre; in that way he becomes a true individual, master of himself and his destiny. Otherwise, he is a plaything of forces that toss him about like a piece of cork on a river…
– Mirra Alfassa, “the Mother”

Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo

Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo