Shantaram Budna Siddi
Shantaram Budna SiddiFile photo/Facebook

African-Indians! Siddis and Habshis who have made India their home

Vadodara, December 14, 2022

Last weekend I was over in Bangaluru and found that Shantaram Budna Siddi from the ethnic tribal community that traces its origins to east Africa has been nominated to the Karnataka Legislative Council, thus becoming India’s first African-Indian politician. Well, technically this is really old news because this happened in July 2020 when we were in the grip of the pandemic and could not see beyond the virus.

So, perhaps, it is a good idea to think about this again. Not many Indians know about these Africans (now African-Indians) who apparently were brought into India as part of the slave trade in the 13th -14th centuries, first landing at Bharuch port in Gujarat.

I first saw the Siddis in the early 1980s at their traditional "Dhamaal" performance at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. These Siddis were settled in Saurashtra, and had come to Ahmedabad to perform at a Folk Dance Festival. This tribe comprised black persons of African origin in India and I was most surprised to know they were Indians.

The "Dhamaal" performance was amazing, nothing even remotely like the regional folk dances that we were familiar with. It was obvious that its roots – musical as well as movement -- were of another culture that had been carefully preserved over generations by the descendants who now live in parts of Gujarat as well as the Deccan area. But they had lost their language.

As I found out the second time I came in contact with them when, as part of a project on Endangered Languages in 2021, we at the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, were recording the languages of 10 tribal communities in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka, and found that the Siddis in Gujarat had lost their original language completely. They only spoke Gujarati and had no recollection of what might be their own language, not even some words here and there. The same must be the case with the community which has also made Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh their home, though they generally continue to live in secluded, forested areas. There are believed to be about 60,000 Siddis in India today.

How and why did these Africans land in India and make it their home? For several centuries, the Western coast of India has had strong trading links with East Africa. Part of the "products" traded included human slaves, though slavery never seriously took root anywhere in the Indian sub-continent. The African captive slaves sailed across to India in overcrowded dhows, to unknown lands and uncertain futures.

But from Bengal in the east to Gujarat in the west and the Deccan in central India, some of these Africans – known as Siddis and Habshis – grew up and evolved to vigorously assert themselves in the country of their enslavement. They were known as elite slaves because of their position. Elite slavery was often a frontier phenomenon, that developed in areas which suffered socio-political instability often due to power struggles in the ruler family and where their authority was seen as already weak. Such rulers needed the Africans they could depend on, who had nothing to do with the local populace or any traditional authority.

The word Habshi is of Abyssinian origin and Siddi is either derived from sayyidi which means "my lord" in Arabic or saydi meaning a captive or prisoner of war.

They were mostly from Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and adjoining areas. Trained as soldiers, they were highly prized for their military skills. Some of them distinguished themselves as generals, commanders, admirals, prime ministers and in a few cases, even rulers.

They have thus written a story unparalleled in the rest of the world – that of enslaved Africans attaining the pinnacle of military and political authority not only in a foreign country (India) but also on another continent (Asia).

In that sense, their history is almost diametrically different from that of African slaves from West Africa who were taken as slaves to America. One of the main reasons, historians believe, was the Islamic laws and societal conventions that governed the East African and their enslaved descendants in India, and which allowed them much greater social mobility.

In 2015, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, got together to work on an exhibition, “Africans in India: A Rediscovery”, curated by Dr Sylviane Diouf, director, Schomburg Center, in association with Ken Robbins, who has co-written a book on African elite slaves in India.

The exhibition that has travelled across the globe, opened in New Delhi and came to Baroda in July that year. The exhibition was an eye-opener in several ways, but the most astounding was to know how a group of persons brought to the Indian sub-continent (that included present-day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh) as slaves, sometime in the 13th-14th centuries, could rise in their lives to even rule some parts of India!

Their history, impact on Indian socio-cultural norms, contribution to political and economic growth, the challenge they presented to reigning kings including the mighty Mughals have not only been recorded in Indian texts, but also in rich paintings of different eras, with especially the portraits captured in vibrant and exquisite styles, where the Africans were either the principal subjects or in the immediate vicinity of the Indian rulers.

This exhibition generally concentrated on the paintings that are in the Schomburg Centre collection and also borrowed from more than a dozen art collections in the UK, Ireland, France and USA.

Among these paintings is a priceless one featuring the Mughal ruler, Jahangir aiming arrows at the head of Ambar Malik, the fearless Deccan regent who defeated and drove away Jahangir’s army trying to capture the Deccan. Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian slave, was an outstanding military strategist who drove Jahangir furious.

Eminent art historian B N Goswamy explains it thus: The two never came face to face or took the field against each other. But a painter at the Jahangiri court – the greatly gifted Abu’l Hasan – realised for his patron a triumphal dream, for he painted for him an allegory, in which the emperor is seen standing atop the globe of the world and shooting an arrow through the severed head of Malik Ambar that is impaled on a tall pike.

The event never came about, of course, but looking at the painting must have given the emperor great satisfaction. For woven into it are subtle references and remarkably flattering allusions. While on the hapless head of Ambar an owl sits and then falls along the pike as the arrow goes through the open mouth of the black general, a bird of paradise descends from the heavens and heads towards the emperor’s crown placed on a tall golden structure at right, as if to add its own feather to it; the globe masterfully held under his delicately shod feet by the emperor — in a clear reference to his name, Jahangir, "Seizer of the World" — rests on the back of a bull who, in turn, stands upon a large, outsized fish, allusions to ancient Hindu myths: the saving of the earth by Matsya, the universe resting upon the noble bull called Dharma; from the sky above, from behind clouds, little cherubs descend, bearing divine weapons for the emperor, as it were.

Scattered over the painting, in a very minute hand, are also verses in Persian, like: "The head of the night-coloured usurper is become the house of the owl" or "Thine enemy-smiting arrow has driven from the world (Ambar) the owl, which fled the light". Jahangir, in this elaborate allegory, is clearly meant to be seen as symbolising the forces of goodness and light while Ambar those of darkness and evil.

While other paintings are not so fabulous, they are still able to establish the position of power that the truly gifted Africans enjoyed. A few African women slaves too rose to positions of eminence as can be seen in the paintings in which they feature. Yasmin Mahal was one of the wives of Wajid Ali Shah, the lastNawab of Oudh and enjoyed the king’s confidence.

The portrait of Ikhlas Khan, Chief Minister of Bijapur,  establishes his importance as he was in charge of administration, was commander-in chief and minister of finances under Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II and his son and successor, Muhammad Adil Shah (1580s onwards). This work is now in the collection of the San Diego Museum of Art, USA.

Murud Janjira Fort
Murud Janjira Fort Shomdev Pal/Wikimedia

Two African dynasties were established in western India, in Janjira (also known as Habsan) off the coast in Maharashtra. Part of the state was an island that the Ethiopians transformed into a fortress in the early 1700s. Considered one of the best specimens of naval fort architecture, it was never conquered though it was attacked numerous times.

The second African dynasty ruled Sachin state in Gujarat from 1791. Like Janjira, Sachin had its own cavalry, currency and stamped paper. Their descendants even today stay in their palaces in these places. Their portraits and photographs are very impressive documents of their prestige that ruled over 300 years. Some of these are in the Kenneth and Joyce Robbins Collection.

“We thought it was time for us to look at African diaspora in the Indian Ocean world, which in the Western world, nobody knows about,” said Diouf, whose work as a historian focuses on Africans along the Atlantic.

One of the most fascinating stories that emerged from the Indian Ocean region, which included Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan, was that India had African rulers, notables and chief ministers. This was not the case with African diaspora in any other place, she said. What stands out, is that Africans are represented very realistically, neither ridiculed nor stereotyped.

Despite so many stories, so many layers and sub-layers of African contribution to India, Indians don't seem to know much about it. Well even Delhi University students of African studies said they didn't know so much about the African contribution until they came to the exhibition. So you can imagine how much the common man knows.

"What we Indians basically need to do is revisit the past. The past will open our eyes to our present and future, and maybe we will find our famed tolerance and open-mindedness that we left behind somewhere back in time," said an IGNCA official.

Never a truer word was said!

Sandhya Bordewekar writes on contemporary art, architecture, heritage, food and life in general.


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