The Siddi people, India's forgotten tribe

Wednesday, July 8, 2020 - 8:11pm

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

In harmonious 3/3 time, the feet of the Siddi people bounce up and down with vigor, excitement and passion. They’re dancing in a semi-circle formation with movements slightly organized as a kora —an African-style drum — plays briskly, complementing their tempo. In a mix of song and chant, they let out words that are foreign to me, seemingly native to Africa — clearly telling some sort of story. And according to the crowd, it was a captivating one at that. 

Six men dancing are adorned in a white shell necklace, a bright orange and black skirt and a grass-covered belt. Their headbands matched the bottom — bright orange and black with mock horns extending from out the top. Decorative face paint juxtaposes their skin, and the men move their lean bodies gracefully within their pack, displaying immaculate rhythm and practice, almost resemblant of antelope. Their movements are hypnotizing in a sense. Their movements exude sincere passion and incite a sort of magnetism, forbidding you remove your glance, and I can’t help but move my own body side to side a bit, entrapped by the group’s chant and song.

Over the six or seven trips I’ve taken to India in my life, I can’t recount a time I saw one Black person; as I continue to educate myself on the Black Liberation Movement worldwide, I questioned this. With a population of over 1.3 billion people hailing from various parts of the word, and in a place that shares cultural, geographic and religious similarities to several African countries, I felt inclined to research the history and state of Black lives in India today.

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

The Siddi people, “India’s forgotten African tribe,” are the notorious African Indians. It is estimated that the Siddis settled in India around 700 and 900 AD from Bantu or other Sub-Saharan tribes, enslaved by Indian rulers. However due to their physical strength, many were able to take up roles as soldiers in political warfare. An extremely famous Siddi, Malik Ambar, was known to be a great asset to the Maratha kings of India, introducing guerrilla warfare — previously used in Africa — to help defeat Mughals. As time passed, some Siddis bought freedom and some created their own communities in forests, often becoming entertainers, musicians and seers to survive. 

In the modern day, around 55,000 Siddis live scattered across a few Indian states (Karnataka — where most are — Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and West Bengal) are recognized as a tribe by the Indian government thus receiving some government benefits. Many women work for higher-class families tending to livestock, picking rice or they stay at home, while men typically work as security guards or drivers. Siddis identify as Indian: They wear Indian traditional dress, speak the native language of their state and mainly follow the Indian culture. Yet, within their small communities in extremely rural areas, they are seemingly ostracized by mainstream Indian society and are subject to hostile microaggressions and implicit discrimination. 

As an Indian American, separated from these people by oceans, it’s frustrating to read about the barriers from integration. While some social workers fight for Siddi land rights, to grow and protect these communities, the general stigma is the separation between Siddis and Indians is for the better — more comfortable and easier for both sides. So in a population size of 4 percent of all of India, how do the Siddi people remain generally content with their place?

My eyes remain on their orange and black motion. The cultural tradition employs African style bamboo drums, call-and-response singing with words traced to Bantu languages and drum rhythms which resemble the East African Ngoma style. The Siddis are free in their expressions — through their singing, dancing, grace, intricacy, passion and fervency, they exude freedom and hope for their people and their culture to exist within India. The community moves in this glorious state of harmony when their dance comes together in the privacy of their villages, the public streets or larger venues in India. To the rest of the country, they honor their culture through an outlet that people — regardless of race — can feel deep within their heart and feet: music. In America too, Black Americans have utilized music and dance to show resilience in the face of adversity, ranging from Songs of Survival and Songs of Freedom during their enslavement to spiritual, gospel and folk music during the Civil Rights Movement to artists empowering Black youth today through hip hop culture.

Showing the instruments, languages and song styles of their native land is “how [the Siddi]...survive,” says Asha Stuart, the African-American filmmaker who had studied Siddis two years ago. In these marginalized communities, change — active, passionate change to deep-rooted systems and cultures — takes place over years, and is an ongoing fight. Learning about the Siddi people’s strength through music was inspiring not only because of the demonstration of power that singing, dancing and music can have on individuals, but more so the importance of cultural pride, togetherness, hope and structure in the resilience of a group during these years of waiting for change. As the Black Liberation Movement continues worldwide, as will the dancing. And at the end of the day, the self-expression and freedom through music might be just what gets us to the next one.

Sunitha Palat can be reached at spalat@umich.edu.