Indians Of African Descent - The Sidis of India
Long before the first slave
ships started supplying labor to the cotton plantations of the American south, and
many centuries before the first Africans were brought ashore to the sugar estates
of Brazil and the Caribbean, Africans were being sold as slave-soldiers for India's
princely states. Their descendants are the least visible part of the huge African
Diaspora. But today in India, almost lost among the mosaic of different cultures
and communities in that country, are tens of thousands of people of African descent.
Although they came at first as slaves, they were so successful as fighters that
they at times usurped power from the rulers they were supposed to be serving.
Yet they are now struggling at the margins of Indian society. "The Sidis are descendants
of African slaves, sailors and servants, and merchants who remained in India after
arriving through the sea trade with East Africa and the Gulf," says Amy Catlin of
the University of California, who is making a special study of Sidi culture "That
was a process which began in the 12th century or before, and lasted until the late 19th century".
Some Sidis are keenly
aware of their past, and a few remain in touch with relatives in
But in the western Indian state of Gujarat - where most Sidis live - the community
has lost touch with its roots. The village of Jambur, deep in the Gir forest, is
one of two exclusively Sidi settlements.The headman explains that yes, everyone
in Jambur is a Sidi. Their forbears came from Africa. But they have lost any knowledge
of African languages, and don't know where exactly their ancestors came from or
why they settled in India. Music and dance The only remnant they retain of their
African lineage is their music and dance.This is what Professor Catlin, an ethno-musicologist,
hopes to use to fill in the story of the Sidis.
"In Gujarat, affinities with African music include certain musical instruments and
their names", she says, "and also the performance of an African-derived musical
genre called "goma". In the nearby town of Junagadh, a smaller group of Sidis lives
alongside the shrine of Bava Gor, an ancient Sufi Muslim holyman who was himself
of African descent.
hold on their African past is a little more secure. They
say they know a few songs
in an African language, but not their meaning. And their dance is more obviously
African. But again, their music, song and dance are the only links with their African
Amy Catlin believes that the Sidis of western India came from coastal and inland
villages in east Africa which were raided by slave traders. But that's far from
Indeed, one legend has it that the Sidis of inland Gujarat originally came from
Kano in northern Nigeria, and ended up in India after undertaking a Hajj pilgrimage
to Mecca. Music may be the only key that can unlock their past.