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India’s Africans keeping ancient customs alive


The tiny Sidi community, descendants of ninth-century African migrants, have lived quietly along India’s west coast for hundreds of years without ever losing touch of their ancient traditions.

“A Certain Grace,” a new book by Indian photographer Ketaki Sheth, reveals how the community, many of whose members live in poverty, has assimilated in India while keeping its distinctive culture alive.

At the book’s launch in Mumbai last month, Sheth recalled her first brush with the community during a 2005 vacation in Gujarat state. “I first saw the Sidi in Sirwan, a village in the middle of the forest given to them by the ‘nawab’ (Muslim prince) . . . in recognition of their loyal services. I was intrigued,” she said.

Estimated to number from 60,000 to 70,000 in a nation of 1.2 billion, the Sidi originate from a swath of eastern Africa stretching southward from Ethiopia.

The fiercely proud community discourages marriage to non-Sidis, and outsiders are unwelcome, as Sheth found out firsthand when she was greeted by a group of young men eyeing her suspiciously at the entrance to another village in the area, Jambur.

“If looks could kill, honestly, I would be dead. I could sense irritation, hostility, perhaps even resentment to this very obvious outsider,” she said.

Two of those boys — “still angry and daunting” — would later turn up in a portrait shot by Sheth, their resistance apparently having faded over the five years she spent working on the project that blends portraiture and street photography.

Often described as descendants of slaves brought to India by Arab and other troops, the Sidi mostly live in villages and towns along India’s west coast, with a few groups scattered across the rest of the country.

Anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani, a professor at Columbia University, says many came to India not only as cheap labor but also as soldiers, with some rising quickly through the ranks and even acquiring royal titles. Successive waves of migration saw Portuguese invaders transport slave-soldiers from modern-day Mozambique to India, Mamdani writes in Sheth’s book.

“Their main attraction was not their cheapness, but their loyalty. In this context, slaves are best thought of as lifelong servants of ruling or upper caste families,” he writes.

Those deemed most loyal were given land that is now home to villages inhabited exclusively by Sidis.

Academic Beheroze Shroff, who has studied the Sidi for years, said that they, like other migrants, “have reinvented their traditions.” Some customs have disappeared, while others, involving music, dance and the addition of Swahili words to the Gujarati dialect spoken in Sidi settlements have survived.

Shroff said Gujarati Sidi Muslims in particular still practice “elaborate rituals and ceremonies, which involve drumming and ecstatic dancing called ‘goma,’ ” a Swahili word that means drum, song and dance.

“This is handed down, learned by each subsequent generation, from childhood,” said Shroff, who teaches at the University of California, Irvine.

The Sidi, considered a marginalized tribe since 1956, have been the beneficiaries of affirmative action policies in India. Few belong to the middle class, most struggle to find jobs and literacy levels remain low, as many Sidis can only afford to send their children to poorly managed state schools.

And many children like Sukhi, a young girl whose portrait is Sheth’s favorite of the 88 photographs in her book, attend school infrequently.

Sheth said she took Sukhi’s striking portrait, her eyes downcast, her curly hair askew, on her first shoot in Jambur.

“The early morning light was flat because it was pre-monsoon, the bricks and cement behind her were static and graphic, and her stripy dress seemed to move like a river even though she was so still,” Sheth recalled.