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A world unto themselves


An exhibition of photographs by Ketaki Sheth at the NGMA throws light on the lives of the little-known community of Sidis, Indians of African descent
KS NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: October 20, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : religious and political persecution | Gujarat and Maharashtra | Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka | Prof Mamdani |

India has, for many centuries, been a safe haven for several races that have faced religious and political persecution across the globe. Prominent among those that sought refuge in India were Bohras, Jews and Parsis. Though the long list also includes the Sidis, they are not known too well in India, except when you travel to parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra or the hinterland of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Very little is known about the Sidis who landed in India about 500 years ago as slaves and merchants from the coast of East Africa. It is roughly estimated that there are 70,000 of them in the above four states in India.

The Sidis in India have predominantly Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. According to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs website, the Sidis have ST status in districts of Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka and Daman and Diu.

All these and more have come to light thanks to a photographic voyage undertaken by an eminent Mumbai-based photographer Ketaki Sheth. She stumbled upon the Sidi community in 2005 as she tried to catch a glimpse of big cats in the Gir Sanctuary in Gujarat.

Through the ongoing exhibition titled “A Certain Grace - The Sidi: Indians of African Descent”, at the National Gallery of Modern Art (open till November 3) Sheth has been able to open their invisible yet an intimate life to the masses.

Walking through the exhibition, the photographs reveal the painstaking attention Sheth has paid in realisation of the project, carefully picturing the people, their lifestyle, their social behavior and their emotions. This has entailed extensive travel through the small pockets inhabitated by them. Between 2005 and 2011, Sheth travelled through Gujarat, Bombay, Goa, Hyderabad and the forests near Manchikere in Karnataka, clicking the Sidis.

After documenting the social and religious practices of the community, Sheth has compiled her effort into a book of 75 full-page images and close to 15 smaller ones, A Certain Grace: The Sidi, Indians of African Descent.

Through a collection of 65 black and white photographs Sheth has documented Sidis by showing them in their everyday life and how they have assimilated into their new home by embracing its customs, traditions, food, dress and even religion.

The exhibition is largely portraits of Sidi men, women and children. There are pictures of girls giggling, boys striking poses against the Arabian Sea in Surat and an aged woman sitting with her sixth grandson on her lap in Ratanpur. 

Most of these pictures seem to have been shot with subjects posing before the camera and for the photographer. For instance some of the images are Aminaben in Surenderanagar holding a cigarette, two sisters dressed for a wedding in Surendranagar are seated in a formal manner, another pair of siblings shares their shawl in Jambur and Juje and Juliana by a banyan tree near their home, Mumbai.

Similarly, another picture shows a young Sidi girl getting ready to attend a marriage in a traditional Indian salwar-kameez and jewellery. A newlywed couple is greeted with a chadar over their head. Decked with bangles and necklaces, Rizwana of Ratanpur too has posed for a particularly striking picture.

May be for uninitiated many of these pictures may seem ordinary. But reflecting on the works of Shah, many experienced observers and experts have appreciated the efforts of the award- winning photographer.

Summing up her work, Prof Mahmood Mamdani, who is the executive director of Makerere Institute of Social Science in Kampala, Uganda, observes: “Ketaki’s remarkable photographs allow us a privileged view, both intimate and comprehensive, of the beauty and dignity of a people once from Africa and but now at home in India.”

Noting that Sheth’s photographs impressively narrate the lives of Sidis, Prof Rajeev Lochan Director, National Gallery of Modern Art, said: “Ketaki’s work truly reflects the emotions of a race and their aspirations during our times.”

Lochan lavishes more praise on Sheth. He commends that the artist has made conscious efforts to ensure that the camera does not make the subjects feel awkward; rather they communicate uninhibitedly with her, almost ignoring presence of the camera.

Sheth’s pictures, though, also highlight the Sidis customs of African origin. A woman undergoes exorcism with a fallen tree lying on her body. Sidis worship their saint Bawa Gor at a masjid in Ratanpur and a dancer breaks a coconut on his head while performing the Siddi Goma dance in Sachin, Gujarat.

At another level, the exhibition also helps us to know who these invisible Indians are? It raises questions as to who are Sidis? Why did they come to India? Were all the Sidis who landed here and made India their home slaves?

Though many historians specialising in the Medieval India and Sultanate period believes that current forefathers of these Sidis were brought to India mostly as slaves and later started settling here along the western coastline of India. Historians attribute to their role in socio-political and military life during the period of the (13th century) Delhi Sultanate, the Nizamshahi era and Mughal India.

Not all. Here the opinions differ. Prof Mamdani, who is a Ugandan academic of Indian origin, in his Introduction note to the exhibition, observes: "The Sidi experience in India spans over a millennium. However, scholarship on the Sidi is very much in the preliminary stages. Not only does it rely on fragmentary information, it also tends to be heavily politicised..."

Again Mamdani poses a relevant question. “Is there a common Sidi identity, one based on common African descent or a common historical experience? Unlike with people of African descent in the Americas, the Sidi communities of India are not bonded historically by the experience of slavery. To begin with, not all came as slaves; a significant number came as free persons. Furthermore, unlike the slave experience in the capitalist plantations of the Americas, most slaves of the pre-modern world were joined to dynasties and households rather than large-scale commercialized plantations. This made for a highly differentiated experience and a softer slave regime. Not only were African slaves in India-unlike those in the Americas-differentiated between elite and ordinary slaves, the harsh American experience of chattel slavery made for a Jim Crow-type legal discrimination even after abolition. Both facts made for a common black experience in the Americas. The absence of plantation slavery alongside a slave experience that differentiated between elite soldier-administrators and lowly servants goes a long way to explain the assimilation of former Sidi communities in Gujarat,“ he points out.

“If there was a parallel to Jim Crow-type discrimination in India, it can be traced to the politicisation of caste as community—its introduction in the census and its use for purposes of public policy—during post-1857 indirect rule in British India. At the same time, one is struck that even the most well-off among free immigrants today acknowledge a common African descent, even if tinged with ambivalence.

The last word belongs to Ahmedi Begum Khan: “We know we are from Africa, but I don’t feel African.” She paused, and continued: “But I do have a special feeling for Africa. When Obama became President I felt it… Our family came to Bijapur, as administrative officers, army officers. … I strongly feel that I am Indian. I belong to the Western Coast. I am proud of my great-grandfather. I am very fond of food of Western India, of its lok sangeet [folk music]. …I came hearing of Africa from my childhood. Our grandparents spoke of Africa. I would like to go to North Africa, because of its history, to Egypt, not because of roots.”

Other pictures displayed at the NGMA Gallery in the Capital shows a group of boys play with tyres in the 2006 gelatin print Tyres and Shadows, in another photographer, they hop over a line of shoes in Honest Buggy Band in Jamnnagar.
Sheth finds a few from the community who have settled for the urban life. A photograph has Heena, the daughter of a Bollywood stuntman who lives in Kurla, and another image has Juliana and her husband Juje, an athlete and a government employee, who live in Borivali. "They are completely Indian in their culture, language and food.

Commenting on Sheth’s work, India’s ace photographer Raghu Rai, who was also the special guest at the inauguration of the exhibition, said: As they say when you breakthrough the perception of predictability then the unseen and unknown starts revealing itself. When the unknown starts revealing itself we call it darshan. And to me photography is darshan. These images we will many have darshans.”

No wonder Sheth’s remarkable photographs capture the world of the Sidi with amazing grace.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017