“Where are they from in Africa?” was my first question to Loh Kok Hong, a friend and Singaporean documentary filmmaker, who sent me a photo of an indigenous community. What happened over the next few days forever altered my perception of the diversity of my own country, India.
Loh replied, “They are called Siddis. They are of African descent but live in your own country, India,” and went on to tell me that there are more than 50,000 descendants of people from the Bantu region of East Africa who have lived in the remote forests of India for centuries. He invited me to join his crew to meet Siddis on a filming expedition he had planned for the following week.
The scattered communities of the Siddi
Very spontaneously, I packed my bags and boarded the 40-hour train journey to Hubli to learn more about the Siddis, their culture, their stories and their daily struggles. More than anything, to hear about their 500 years of resilience in the face of adversity.
The total population of Siddis in India stands at around 50,000 to 75,000 people, of which more than a third live in Karnataka. The rest are mostly in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. While many more live in Pakistan.
In Yellapur, Karnataka, we meet Ramnath Siddi. He tells us that the communities of Gujarat and Karnataka only recently found out about each other’s existence in 2003, as they brought to the country via different ports and led very secluded lives in separate areas.
Within their own communities they retain strong bonds, forged, in particular, during their cultural celebrations.
Siddi are often disadvantaged
Ramnath Siddi seeks to strengthen his community’s identity and fight bonded labour, child labour and acquisition of their land. Within India, the Siddi are one of the most socio-economically disadvantaged groups.
Ramnath Siddi reports from his own experience that discrimination and bullying were commonplace for Siddi children in state schools ten years ago, as other children wanted nothing to do with them. As a result, many Siddi children dropped out of school. In the meantime, however, the situation has improved.
Widespread cultural influences
“Our women wear saris, we speak a mix of Konkani, Marathi, and Kannada, and we eat rice, pulses, and fish curry. We are called the Siddis of Karnataka,” Ramnath answered when I first asked him about the Siddis.
They follow three religions – Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam – but they don’t discriminate within the community and coexist harmoniously.
They have their own folk music and dance, including Dhamal, a traditional folk dance, which is unique to their culture and forms the primary source of entertainment for all members of the community. Siddis are also known for their animal hunting skills, and their passion for hunting is also reflected in dhamal.
Dhamal was also known as Mashira Nritya, which they used to perform after returning from a successful hunting expedition. It was also considered the main source of entertainment for rulers during the reign of kings.
The Dhamal is of particular importance to the community. This folk dance, also known as “Mashira Nritya”, is considered very spiritual and is performed after a successful hunt. During the time of the kings, it served to entertain the rulers.
Traditionally accompanied by the dhol, a double-sided drum, and smaller musical instruments, nowadays the dhamal is an action-packed dance performance. Sometimes coconuts are tossed into the air, which shatter on the dancers’ heads.
Sometimes the Siddi dance barefoot over glowing ashes to demonstrate their bravery and strength. Leaves, peacock feathers and tropical flowers are incorporated into their costumes.
African migration to India
The cultural roots of the Siddi go back centuries. As Ramnath’s 69-year-old father, Subba Siddi, told me, many Siddi came to the country as slaves in the 10th century, as a gift from the Portuguese for the governor of the Indian princely state of Junagadh.
Others arrived in India with Arab merchants. Some also believe that the Siddi originally came to India from Kano in Nigeria via Sudan and Mecca, where the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage, took them. Their origins remain unclear to this day.
Known for their strength and vigour, they were hired by kings and spread to more and more regions of the subcontinent. Despite their reputation as great fighters, most Siddi tribes worked as servants and in the fields. Some had fled to the forests to live there as their own small community, Subba explained to me.
It was a great pleasure for me to get to know my fellow countrymen and their rich culture and I felt very welcome. As I said goodbye to Ramnath and his family, we danced to the resonant sounds of African music.