Forty-three-year-old Shabbir Siddi looks like any tourist from Africa until he begins to speak Gujarati. A resident of Ratanpur village, 30 kms from Bharuch in Gujarat, Shabbir belongs to the Siddis, a community whose roots are in East Africa. His forefathers came to India as slaves, sailors and merchants during the 17th century.
Today, their population is more than 18,000 and the Siddis have mostly settled in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Gujarat and are mainly self-employed.
Yet the buzz in Ratanpur is undeniable. The village is celebrating its annual Urs festival and the community’s youth has gathered for the ten-day event.
The highlight of the festival is the dhamaal — a dance that men from the community’s Siddi Goma troupe perform on the last two days of the festival — and has been a part of their tradition for the last 20 years. The songs are mostly in Swahili but is performed to the beats of the dhol.
In fact it was Shabbir’s father who played a major role in popularising this dance form. “My father, Qamar Mohammad Siddi, felt that this dance form was a very interesting way to involved the youth,” says Shabbir, “And so he enticed half a dozen boys into learning the dance from him.”
The community is now taking the dance form around the world including places like London, Europe, Malaysia, Canada and East Africa. Their next destination is the Commonwealth Games at Delhi. And while other forms of folk art are dying, young Siddi boys are devoting their lives to this art form, sometimes even giving up their studies
Hindustan Times’ photojournalist Prasad Gori travelled to Ratanpur and spent two days with the community.