It wasn’t until I read Alice Albinia’s book “Empires of the Indus” that I had ever heard of the Siddis. I would never have believed otherwise that there is indeed a caste of Africans living in India who descend from slave trade, sailors and merchant ships crossing the Arabian Sea from the Swahili coast some 700 years ago. Although their culture and language has been mostly lost as well as even the memory of their origins, their genetics and music carry on. Damaal is the devotional music of the ‘Black Sufis’, imbued with a frenetic, pulsating and distinctly African rhythm often accompanied by dancers dressed in grass skirts and painted bodies, breaking coconuts on their heads. Their songs tell of a past that connects them with Africa as much as Islam, as they sing in worship of Allah, with an occasional Swahili word thrown in.
My first meeting with the Siddis was to be with the extremely hospitable Jamadar family in Bhuj. Amongst an astonishing collection of antiques hangs an old photograph of the Grandfather and namesake of the family, who is rightly given all the credit for his descendants being educated and having such a profound respect for a culture which for many years has remained on the periphery of acceptance in India. Without needing any other reason than having an interest in their culture and history, I was graciously invited into their home, introduced to extended relatives who came from nearby houses to meet me and even given an impromptu concert of their traditional instruments.
As I sat with three generations of Siddis, many of whom appeared to be Indian on the outside, it was remarkable to witness how connected they felt with a land they had never even set foot in. Countless years after the first boats docked in India and even total assimilation with the culture, it is obvious that for the Jamadar family Africa is not just a color or a continent, but it is part of a soul that will never be forgotten. While this family dreams of nothing more than to make a pilgrimage to their motherland in hopes of discovering the missing pieces of their past it is clear who they are now. With warm jovial natures, deep belly laughs and hearts as open as their home, my first encounter with the Siddis has certainly expanded my understanding of India’s complexities and once again shown me the beauty of human nature in all of its forms.
If you’d like to know more about the Siddis then check out Wasim Jamadar’s website in progress as he pays tribute to his heritage, www.wix.com/blacksufi/sidigoma