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Invisible Indians

mumbai Updated: Mar 24, 2013 01:48 IST
Humaira Ansari
Humaira Ansari
Hindustan Times
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Two patrolling policemen bring their bike to a screeching halt when they see Juje Jackie Harnodkar walking with a young woman in Borivli’s dimly lit Sodawala lane at 10.15 pm.

“Come on, I’ll show you some drama?” says Harnodkar, 41, chuckling as he strides towards the bike.

“What’s your name?” the cops shout sternly from a distance. Juje stops directly under a streetlight and answers in fluent Marathi.

The policemen now recognise him as the senior clerk and Borivli resident whose passport renewal took eight months because of his distinctive African features.

"My family has lived in India for nearly 400 years, but I still carry ID proof everywhere," he says, smiling. "Marathi works better, though."

Juje and his wife Juliana, a model coordinator, are among 88 individuals, couple and families featured in A Certain Grace: The Sidi, Indians of African Descent, by photographer Ketaki Shaha.

The book, launched on Friday in Mumbai, explores the culture, traditions and way of life of a unique Indian community, the African-origin Sidis.

Their story is intriguing, some of it still shrouded in mystery.

It all began when colonial powers, as well as some Indian princes and wealthy merchants, began bringing slaves and bonded labourers to western India from east Africa in the 11th century, to work as bodyguards, domestic servants and soldiers. The Africans were in demand because of their loyalty, devotion and famed physical prowess. This practice continued through to the 18th century.

Some Sidis, however, have descended from east African sailors and traders who settled on the western coast in India during the same period.

The term Sidi is believed to have derived from the Arab ‘Sayyid’, a term of respect meaning ‘leader’ or ‘master’, comparable with the Hindi ‘Sahib’.

Primarily Muslim, with small numbers of Hindus and Christians, there is now also a sizeable Sidi population in Pakistan too, comprising African-origin Indians who migrated there during Partition. In all, India has an estimated 60,000 Sidis, concentrated in the erstwhile Bombay Presidency, current-day Gujarat and Maharashtra, and also in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.


“What’s interesting about the Sidis in Mumbai is how they symbolically relate to their past, but now as modern subjects of a global world, they aspire to become as globalised and Westernised as everyone else in this city,” says research scholar and documentary filmmaker Beheroze Shroff, who has made five documentaries on Sidis in India between 1991 and 2010. “But then, identity and belonging are a dilemma for the African diaspora around the world.”

Juje, for instance, now a senior clerk with the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation, migrated to Mumbai 15 years ago from Wada, a settlement of Sidi farmers in Karnataka. He doesn’t know exactly when his ancestors came to India, or where from.

A Catholic Sidi, Juje has virtually no links with his original culture.

“I have tried to trace my ancestry, spoken to anthropologists and scholars, but I have come up with nothing,” he says. “At the same time, I think of myself as Indian. I only wish that, when my [seven-year-old] son came home from school asking why he looks so different, I had a more comprehensive explanation.”

Even among the Muslim Sidis, there is little recorded history, as a result of the community’s oral traditions.

Swahili songs are still sung during the Urs for Sidi saints, which are celebrated with much fanfare, and African drums are played at the city’s two Siddi dargahs — in Dongri and Kurla.

“Unlike Sidis across India, who live in close communities, Muslim Sidis in Mumbai connect mostly at the time of the Sidi Urs and Maqdoom Shah Urs,” says Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy, Sidi scholar and faculty member at University of California, Los Angeles.

In Dadar, for instance, three generations of the Khan family gather each year to enact the Goma, also now called Dhamaal (Hindi for ‘ruckus), which involves musical instruments such as the misra, a type of rattle and African drums, and the singing of traditional songs called zikars.

Though Hindi words have found their way into some of the songs, the roots remain. “I connect more with the singing and dancing of the Goma than I do with even Id celebrations,” says Sadiya Khan, 21, a college student who is one-quarter Sidi, daughter of a Gujarati-Sidi and a non-Sidi Muslim.