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The Siddi Tribe of Gujarat India of African origin

March 02, 2012 3 min read

In 2009 December I watched  a folk dance festival in Goa.

Again, as the rest of my life has been, it was just by chance that I strolled in to the grounds of Kala Academy one sunset and found it set up with a stage for performances and chairs for the audience. The festival ran for a few days – and so I decided to go back the next day with the camera.

There I took pictures of Sikkimese dancers, The spectacular Ramayana Chabua dancers of Bihar and the world renowned (which I came to know later) Manganiar singers of Rajasthan. And for a few closeups I went backstage.

And I was nothing short of startled!

A group of young African boys were preparing to perform. Peacock feather skirts, Peacock feather hats and indigo dyed fabric sashes across their bare chests. One boy was applying face paint on the other creating the look they needed for the performance. All in all – the visual impact of these 20 yr old boys was stunning! I just assumed they were from Africa and here on invitation to perform.

But the shock and surprise occurred when they opened their mouths to speak ……. they were speaking my mother tongue – Gujarati …..

I was so confused that my mind had lost its ability to formulate even simple questions.

And I chatted with them in a state of stupor …..in Gujarati.

I had all the time in the world but they had to perform so my confusion remained just that. At the next opportunity I got, I spoke to my aunts and grand aunts and demanded to know everything they knew about this seeming anomaly. And their reaction was – ‘yes – everyone knows about this migration that happened centuries ago and so now the Siddis are a part of the history of Gujarat’!!

Someone obviously forgot to tell me and this amazing fact of cultural migrations remained unknown to me until this chance stroll introduced me to this culture.

In 2012 I intend to seek them out and listen to every story they can tell me about themselves….in Gujarati!!

Even today,  thinking about this adventure of discovery that awaits me,  I feel like other women must feel when they are given the gift of diamonds or something equivalent. This soon-to-be-had-experience is MY gem – one that has me thrilled to bits!

Here is an excerpt from the Deccan Herald describing their dance:

“Siddi, also known by the names of Sheedi and Habshi, is one of the major tribal communities of Gujarat, while a few of them also live in parts of Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra

Most Siddis are believed to be the descendants of slaves, sailors, servants and merchants from the Bantu-speaking parts of East Africa who arrived and became residents of the subcontinent during the 1200-1900 CE period. In fact, it is believed that a large influx of Siddis to the region occurred in the 17th century when Portuguese slave traders sold a number of them to the local princes.

The cultural heritage of Siddis dates back to almost 300 years. Their dance and music are quite exquisite. Dhamal is one such dance form that reflects the Siddis’ passion for hunting. In the olden days, also known as Mashira Nritya, this dance was performed by Siddis after returning from a successful hunting expedition. During the reign of kings, Dhamal was the main source of entertainment for rulers.

Although Siddis have adopted the language and customs of their present residence, some African traditions have remained undisturbed.

In the earlier days, dhol (known as dhamal in their tongue) or mushira, as well as small dholkis were played as essential instruments.

An action-filled dance, the dancers are sometimes seen throwing coconuts in the air which fall on their heads and get broken into bits and pieces. Sometimes dancers  even dance barefoot over burning embers.

When it comes to costumes, they hardly wear anything above the waist while they wear either a piece of fabric or peacock feathers below the waist. However, a waist belt with shells is a must.

Siddis, known for their physical strength and loyalty, are proud of their cultural heritage and participate in the dance as and when they get an opportunity. ”



Fen 2012

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