Unravelling the Sidi community

A writer is forever in the search of subjects – new, unknown, unusual and interesting. So is a photographer who wants to tell stories through her photographs.

So one can imagine Mumbai-based lenswoman Ketaki Sheth’s surprise and sense of accomplishment when she discovered the Sidis – a small group of Indians of African descent – while on a family holiday to the Gir forests, Gujarat.

Of all the diverse racial, religious and linguistic groups that India houses, the Sidis are extraordinarily fascinating. They are believed to be descendents of African soldiers, slaves, traders and Muslim pilgrims who wound up in India over centuries. The first wave is believed to have arrived in the 9th century when Arab-led armies with African soldiers took over Sindh, now in southern Pakistan. The second followed in the 17th C. when the Portuguese brought slaves from their trading posts in Africa to Goa, their colony in India.

What is most interesting about Sidis is that over time they have so beautifully assimilated in the Indian culture that some have converted to Hinduism, follow Indian traditions, speak Hindi and Gujarati, have taken to Indian cuisines and consider themselves ‘Indians.’ All that remains of their African origins is their dance-music ritual, the famous ‘Siddi Goma.’
After her stunning find, Ketaki Sheth went on to hunt for the Sidis in remote towns and villages of Gujarat and Karnataka. She spent no less than seven years in their habitations and developed such an easy relationship with them that the shy Sidis would happily pose for her photo documentary on the community A Certain Grace: The Sidi, Indians of African Descent.

She came out with a book titled the same earlier this year; now, she is showcasing these black and white evocative photographs at the National Gallery of Modern Art, till November 3.

The exhibition is largely portraits of Sidi men, women and children. So there are girls giggling away to glory with the backdrop of their sparse hutments in Jambur, Gujarat. Young Sidi boys strike a handsome pose against the Arabian Sea in Surat and an aged woman sits with her sixth grandson in her lap in Ratanpur.  

A young Sidi girl gets ready to attend a marriage in a traditional Indian salwar-kam­e­ez and jewellery. A newlywed couple are greeted with a chadar over their head.

Ketaki’s pictures, though, also highlight the Sidis customs of African origin. A woman undergoes exorcism with a fallen tree lying on her body. Sidis worship their saint Bawa Gor at a masjid in Ratanpur and a dancer breaks a coconut on his head while performing the Siddi Goma dance in Sachin, Gujarat.

‘A Certain Grace…’ makes for a fascinating exhibition. Not to be missed.   

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