Script: Dipanjana Dey
Africans of India? Weird but true. The Gujarat-based Sidi community calls itself the “lost Africans” of India.
The Sidis are a tribal community of East African origin. who came to India eight centuries ago and made Gujarat their home. They carried with them their exceptionally rich musical tradition, which has a strong Sufi strain, and kept it alive and flourishing through generations, unknown to the rest of the world.
The community has formed a cultural group, ´Sidi-Goma´, to popularize their unique Indo-African Sufi musical tradition. The group has been touring India and abroad, performing in ´Sufi Sutra´ festivals in Bangladesh, Kolkata and Goa.
The amazing Sidi-Goma troupe comprises a group of twelve men – four drummersand singers and eight dancers. At the beginning of the performance, the sidi rituals of prayer are conducted by a muezzin. The performance itself is a rendition of Sidi history and traditions.
According to one of the performers, Sidibadshah Sabbirhusen Mofadhusen,the Sidi population in India is hardly 10,000 but the community is striving to showcase its art and cultural traditions before the larger population in an effort towards better integration. “As children we have seen our fathers and grandfathers singing and playing their instruments outside mosques. This music is unique to our culture and we realized that we could bring it to the notice of others outside our community”, he adds.
“Even people in India hardly know of ourpresence in this country. We have been staying here for centuries. We may care for our African legacy but we are Indians now and we want everybody in theworld know us as Indian-African Gujratis”, says Mofadhusen.
Long before African slaves were moved en mass to the New World to toil in tobacco, sugar and cotton plantations, a smaller number of Africans were brought (or forcibly taken) eastward to India. This migration is believed to have lasted from the 12th to the 19th century. Amitabha Bhattacharya, a Kolkata-based Cultural Researcher, says the Sidis are the descendants of these slaves from North and South Africa.
Most of the Sidis in India do not know where in Africa their ancestors came from, but amazingly, they have some how preserved the musical and dance traditions of their long-lost forefathers. Some of them also speak the language of their ancestors but their numbers are dwindling as most of the younger Sidis are Gujarati speaking.
The Sidiaffinity with African music gets reflected in the use of certain musical instruments like the “bow”. The Sidis call it the ´dhanush´. The instrument is shaped like a bow and one-stringed like the Indian ´ektara´. According to Amitabha Bhattacharya, their African-derived musical genre called ´goma´ translates into ´dhamal´ in Hindi.
The small population of the Sidi community is like a drop in the ocean of Indians but the community believes that there might be other fellow Africans in other parts of India. “Our folklore quotes our forefathers as saying that other African slaves were also brought to different parts of India centuries ago. So we believe that there might be other communities like ours probably thriving somewhere in this large country”, says Mofadhusen.
This Indo – African community speaks Guajarati and Hindi.Sagarika Dutta Chowdhury, one of those who had the privilege to catch one of the troupe´s performancessays “I never knew that there were Africans in India or that they have been here for centuries. It is amazing to see how they have preserved their culture and traditions integrated with the Sufi genre.
The Sidis are Muslims. Most of them stay in rural areas and farming is the main profession. Some of them are now doing government jobs, aided by the quota available under the SC category.