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The Siddis-African descendents in India

January 2007
The Siddis-African descendents in India

The stage comes alive as the drums throb to the rhythms of harmonious songs and spirited dance movements. The energetic performance ends with a fascinated audience enthusiastically applauding the Siddi performers, who in turn acknowledge the warm encouragement. From their quiet existence in India to the international arena, the Siddis have awakened to their past and begun a journey of self-discovery to determine their place in time.

While there are many theories to the origins of the Siddis, legend has it that their ancestors perhaps came from Kano in northern Nigeria and settled in India on their return from a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Some believe Siddis may be descendants of Ethiopians, but this assumption is perhaps inaccurate, as researchers believe that Siddis came from various parts of Africa – such as Somalia, Sudan and later Zanzibar – in the 12th century. Moreover, a number of scholars point out ‘Siddi' is a common salutation used in certain areas of North Africa. According to Amy Catlin- Jairazbhoy, a research scholar and visiting associate professor of ethnomusicology at University of California, Los Angeles, "the Siddis are descendants of African slaves, sailors, servants and merchants who remained in India after arriving through the sea trade with East Africa and the Gulf."

Today, the small Siddi community spread across India and can be found mostly in the western state of Gujarat, where an estimated population of 20,000-30,000 lives in tribal areas, villages, towns and cities. Smaller settlements of few thousand Siddis are also present in the neighboring state of Maharashtra and the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. However, there is no comprehensive data on the actual number of Siddis living in India and their true population remains an estimated figure, as they struggle to survive a life on the fringes of mainstream society, burdened by isolation and poverty. The situation is made more difficult by a rigid caste system that sees them as untouchables, and stereotypes that prevent many from discovering how remarkable the community truly is. The Siddis, to a large extent, have been able to assimilate into Indian society over time. They speak the local languages and have even adopted the religious traditions of the subcontinent. Yet they do hold on to the remnants of their African heritage through music and dance. Thus, while the Siddis see themselves as Indians, some are conscious of their African heritage and a few even continue to maintain contacts with relatives in Africa.

The Siddis would perhaps have remained the forgotten people of India had it not been for the pioneering work of scholars like Dr. Helene Basu, whose book Habshi Sklaven, Siddi Fakire in German is considered a classic treatise on the Siddi Community. Other significant works followed.

Along with the documentary filmmaker Beheroze Shroff and her ethnomusicologist husband Nazir Jairazbhoy, Amy Catlin- Jairazbhoy met the Siddis in Mumbai and Gujarat. She was interested in exploring the cultural and historical impact of the Siddis not only as part of Indian society, but also as part of the larger African diaspora. After successfully organizing a three-day conference on the Siddis in Gujarat, Catlin-Jairazbhoy and her husband founded the Apsara Media for Intercultural Education to provide a wider platform for in-depth documentary research from Southeast Asia, including the Siddis.

In 2002, she took a more imaginative approach to promoting Siddi culture by successfully organizing the first of a series of Siddi concert and lecture tours outside India. The musical tour had been painstakingly researched with detailed program notes and also included a historic tour to East Africa. The tours were further complemented with the release of a CD complied by Catlin- Jairazbhoy and her husband – with collaboration from Abdul Hamid Sidi and the Sidi community – titled Siddi Sufis: African Indian Mystics of Gujarat. The recordings were done during their visits to various Siddi shrines in Gujarat in 1999-2002, with the proceeds of the sale benefiting Siddi education projects in Gujarat. By 2003, Amy Catlin- Jairazbhoy had put together a feature length documentary, From Africa to India: Siddi music in the Indian Ocean Diaspora, about the Siddis, their history and their music over the centuries. It was an interesting and positive contribution to a better understanding of the African diaspora within the context of the Indian subcontinent.

The majority of Siddis are Muslim Sufis whose music and dance is deeply embedded in Sufism and their devotion to a 16th century Sufi Saint of African descent called Gori Pir. Traditionally, the Siddis of Gujarat have been wandering fakirs that go from villages to shrines performing the sacred music and dance devoted to their Sufi saint, Gori Pir, and living on the alms given along the way. The sacred songs pay tribute to Gori Pir for bringing the gift of joy from the waves of the sea. Amy Catlin- Jairazbhoy brought to light the distinctiveness of the Siddi musical genre and its striking similarity to African music in her work, Siddi Goma: Mystic Musicians and Dances to the Black Sufi Saint, Gori Pir, where she discusses the interlocking rhythms brought to life by a combination of strong vocals, fast drumming and rhythmic dance movements.

Many of the instruments used by the Siddis in their performance are very similar to the ones used in Africa – a good example being the Musindo, a big cylindrical drum placed around the player's neck. There are other interesting instruments such as coconut rattles, armpit-held drums and the Malunga bows that reflect the African heritage of the Siddis. Some of the accompanying vocals are in the African language, performed with sincerity by participants who most often remain unaware of the meanings. However, over the centuries, the Siddis' musical styles, rhythms, lyrics and instruments have been influenced by local flavors to form a distinct sound that embodies the liveliness of two cultures.

The efforts of scholars in India and abroad have generated interest and appreciation for the unique historical and cultural heritage of the Siddis in India. The rhythmic sounds of their drums herald the aspirations that lie ahead, as they sing to the glories of the past and dance to the optimism of the present. The Siddis have begun forging a more prominent identity rooted in the present even as they embrace their past legacy and continue to positively contribute to the rich cultural mosaic of contemporary Indian society.

By Fatima Chowdhury

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