In 2014, when photojournalist Sanjay Austa first went to Junagarh, Gujarat to document the life of the Siddi community, what struck him was their indifference towards their African roots. He remembers how quickly they would change the subject of the conversation to the more pressing issues of their community every time he would inquire about this aspect of their cultural history.
"Whenever I would ask a question related to Africa, they would invariably skip it. There was this guy who was very angry at the 2013 Supreme Court decision which decreed some Asiatic lions of Gir to be deported to Madhya Pradesh. They feared those lions would be dead because of rampant poaching in the state," Austa recounts, "They were not interested in Africa at all."
In DK Bhattacharya's book (Delhi University, 1970) Indians of African Origin, he mentions that the existence of the Siddi community in the subcontinent can be traced back to 1100 AD, when slave trading between Africa and the western coast of India was common. However, according to the 1931 census, the Siddis arrived with the Arab and Portuguese traders during the late 17th century. Many African slaves were "brought by traders for their use and sale", Bhattacharya writes, and over the years, many of these slaves "earned freedom and settled in various parts of the state [Gujarat]". While much of the local literature and early records suggest that of the Indo-African communities, the Siddis stood out and "emerged as skilful and daring sailors and soldiers in Western India", the reality today is quite different.
Most of the Siddis (also referred to as Habshi or Kafri), especially in Gujarat, live in deplorable conditions and often on the fringes of society. Unlike their ancestors who took to mercantile occupations and set up local businesses, the current generation is fighting for basic amenities in their villages.
The Siddis have been, more often than not, exoticised and looked at voyeuristically. But to them, it doesn't matter at all. They are "just like everyone else in rural Junagarh, including in their accents, culture and habits," points out Austa, who embarked on this journey of photographing the Siddis after seeing them perform at the Surajkund Art Fair and other venues.
"I did not plan this. I had read about them and seen them perform. But this was the first time I saw them in their own village as I was travelling across Junagarh. They fascinated me and I decided to document them," Austa says. He mentions how he specifically made it a point to not focus on their appearance at all. Instead, he delved deeper into their everyday lives and the community as a microcosm.
"I met them as you would meet any other rural farmer. They treated me as any rural farmer would treat an outsider."
As a result of Portuguese and British colonisation, and later due to the abolition of slavery, the Siddis migrated to small pockets across the western coast, settling in parts of Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. There is a small Siddi population in parts of Kerala too. Over the years, they have imbibed the cultures of these states to such an extent that it is impossible to discern their lineage, if not for their external features: dark skin, curlicues of hair, a snub nose and thick lips, as Austa points out. "Siddis from other states are as different from each other as any other Indian group spread across regions. They vary in religion, language and culture," Austa informs. He says that the Siddis in Maharashtra are generally Christians, while those in Gujarat are Sufi Muslims and Hindus. As of 2013, there were around 70,000 Siddis living in western India, as reported by the Indo Asian News Service, in one of their reports.
Austa's photographs also depict the challenges that they face. Historically, they have been living in an extremely impoverished state. Most of the Siddis living in the villages are either farmers or labourers, while those who moved to cities become drivers or security guards. Siddi farmers face day-to-day issues like water scarcity, bad produce, draught etc. However, the biggest issue is tackling racial discrimination. Austa explains, "They are fine when they are in their own region, but when they step out, they are treated as Africans; they have been at the receiving end of racism across India. There was an instance where a judge in Maharashtra refused to believe a Siddi when he said he was Indian and that he had an ancestral village in rural Maharashtra."
The community has, more recently, found ways to deal with, if not confront, this racial abuse. They have come up with their own music-cum-dance form, which involves fire breathing, gymnastics and dancing to the beat of drums. Their music bears a stark resemblance to that of the South-East African Bantu tribe (Ngoma music), to which the community is said to owe its lineage. They are invited to various local and regional art festivals/fairs to perform the 'African dance'. "They are monetising it," Austa says, "They are expected to be Africans for the outsiders, so they play it up because then they get hired by local hotels and resorts. I think since they come from a very poor section with no other employment options, they cash on it apart from what they do in the villages in terms of agriculture, which I think is absolutely okay."
The Siddi community has been largely disconnected from the outside world, and this is tied to their fear of discrimination. It's the reason why they have remained isolated and have preferred to marry among themselves, keeping their genetic pool considerably small. On 8 January, 2003, the Government of India classified Siddis under the list of Scheduled Tribes (ST). They are recognised as STs in the Amreli, Bhavnagar, Jamnagar, Junagadh, Rajkot and Surendranagar districts of Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka (Uttara Kannada district) and the Union Territory of Daman & Diu. Recently, activists have been demanding that the Siddis be given ST status across Karnataka as opposed to just one district in the state.
Austa hopes projects like his photo series and works of other chroniclers will help the Siddi community to be recognised and acknowledged. "They are a racial minority and further given that they mostly live in rural India and not in the metros, there is very little information on them. Hopefully, documentation like this will help bring more visibility," he says. As for what the future of this community looks like currently, Austa observes that the changes in their living conditions are tied to the socio-economic changes in the region they belong to. Considering where the community stands today, upliftment may take some time, he concludes.
All photographs courtesy of Sanjay Austa
Sanjay Austa's photo series was exhibited at Godrej Culture Lab's event Migration Museum on 8 June.
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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2019 10:39:28 IST