We all know, thanks in part to Mahatma Gandhi, of the Indian presence in Africa. Less is known about the influx of Africans into India, but that narrative while less documented is no less interesting.
The few accounts that exist of African immigrants are of the few who rose to positions of power in the royal armies. In India's rigid caste system, African men often became palace guards, soldiers and royal bodyguards. The most well known of these is Malik Ambar, brought to Ahmadnagar as a warrior-slave in the 16th century, he rose to be the general of the Deccan sultanate’s army and eventually its regent. Then there is Jalal-ud-din Yakut who in 1236 served in the important imperial post of master of the royal stable, an honour conferred by the Delhi Sultana Raziya.
Of the thousands of Africans brought to India by Arab and Portuguese slavers across the Arabian Sea, and many others who came as mercenaries and merchants what remains is a few scattered tribes in India called the Sidis. The video above filmed by Christophe Abegg shows the tribe in Karnataka.
Sidis are named possibly after Sidi Badr, a guardsman of African descent in the employ of a king in West Bengal who in 1490 usurped power and ruled for three years as Shams-ud-din Abu Nasr Musaffar Shah. When Badr was overthrown most Africans were expelled from Bengal and made their way to the Deccan and Gujarat. This is speculation though, since the history of the Sidis is lost and no one knows for certain which part of Africa they came from.
The community occupies the margins of Indian society separated if not by culture then by appearance. They are also fragmented within themselves. Predominantly living in Gujarat and Karnataka, there are few remaining links between the communities, other than music.
“We don’t even have our own language,” says Mohan Siddi, a community leader from Karnataka spoke to Scroll.in. “We speak Konkani in Karwar, close to Dharwar where people speak Marathi. Muslim Sidis speak Urdu and Gujarati. But we still have our music."