India's African Past

The Sidi community lives mostly in Gujarat (in western India), with smaller populations settled in the neighboring state of Maharashtra and the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. There is no accurate census on the number of Sidis in India. According to various publications, there are no more than 20,000 in any one state. Although most Sidis live in villages, many are urban dwellers residing in towns and cities. Some also live in tribal surroundings and villages.

Descendants of African slaves and seamen, the ancestors of the Sidis came to India through sea trade with East Africa and the Gulf around the 12th century. They came from different areas such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and later Zanzibar. The Sidis of Gujarat are Muslims with a strong Sufi tradition. They have to some extent assimilated into the local culture through their dress, food and language, though their dark skin and African features are distinctive. Some have even married outside of their community. But, by and large, they remain marginalized, leading a life of relative obscurity and poverty. In some districts, the government has accorded them the Scheduled Tribe status.

Their history lost in time, the Sidis' only link to their past is their devotional music and dance dedicated to Gori Pir, a Sufi saint from Africa. Known as Hazrat Mubarak Nobi, he is said to have come from Nubia to India from Africa via Mecca, and stopped in Basra (in Iraq) to study with Rifai Sufis. He has shrines throughout Gujarat, in the places stopped at before settling in Bharuch district. Here he set up an agate workshop and became part of the Indian Ocean trade, especially in tasbihs (Islamic prayer beads) for hajis (pilgrims).

The fascinating culture and history of the Sidis was unknown to the world beyond their small communities spread across India. Over the past seven-eight years, though, Dr Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy's intervention has changed that. A visiting Associate Professor and Research Scholar in the Department of Ethnomusicology at University of California, Los Angeles, Catlin-Jairazbhoy has explored the cultural and historical significance of the Sidis, not only in Indian society but also as part of the larger African Diaspora. Her work has been much inspired by the groundbreaking anthropological work of Dr Helen Basu - whose book 'Sidi Sklaven, Habshi Fakiren' (Sidi Slaves, Habshi Faqirs) is considered a classic on the Sidi community; husband Nazir Jairazbhoy's collaboration; Professor of Women's Studies at University of California at Irvine and the advice of Beheroze Shroff, who guided her initial contacts with Sidis in Mumbai and Gujarat.

Catlin-Jairazbhoy became interested in the Sidi community in the 1970s, when she came from the US to Chennai, Tamil Nadu to do her dissertation in Carnatic music. She had always been interested in spirituality and music. And since she grew up during the era of the American Civil Rights movement, Catlin-Jairazbhoy had become well acquainted with the African-American culture and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and India. Twenty years later, she and her husband ethnomusicologist Nazir Jairazbhoy made a short film on the music of Kutch. This was when they came into contact with the Sidis of Gujarat.

The film generated much interest in the US, but Catlin-Jairazbhoy wanted to do more for the Sidis. She approached the erstwhile royal family of Rajpipla to put up a conference on the Sidis in Gujarat. The three-day conference brought much-needed attention to the community, with several scholars in attendance and active media participation. The Sidis welcomed her efforts and, as she points out, "in fact sought help to find an opportunity to tour outside India".

In 1991, Catlin-Jairazbhoy and her husband founded the Apsara Media for Intercultural Education based in Van Nuys, California USA, to create a platform for in-depth documentary research from South Asia and Southeast Asia, including research on the Sidis. A small but important step had been taken towards changing the perception of the Sidis from that of an outsider community to a people who had much to offer through their rich musical tradition. In September 2002, Catlin-Jairazbhoy put together a group of Sidi performers from Gujarat for their first concert and lecture tour outside India. It seemed destined; Catlin-Jairazbhoy found "everything worked like magic". The success of the show was followed by more international performances by the Sidis, including a historic tour to East Africa, the land of their ancestors. They performed to excited audiences in Mombasa and in Nairobi followed by 'jamming sessions' with local musicians in a sort of cultural exchange during a two-day stay at Zanzibar.

In 2002, Catlin-Jairazbhoy published the CD 'Sidi Sufis: African Indian Mystics of Gujarat' and a year later 'From Africa to India: Sidi Music in the Indian Ocean Diaspora, the feature-length documentary, which pieces together the history, religion and sacred music of the Sidis over the centuries, making it an important part of understanding the African Diaspora in the context of the Indian subcontinent. The following year, she co-edited 'Sidis and Scholars: Essays on African Indians' containing essays by European, American and Indian scholars who have worked with the Sidis in Gujarat, Karnataka, and Mumbai.

There is also the CD compilation, which comprises field recordings from Sidi shrines (dedicated to Gori Pir) throughout Gujarat, recorded between 1999 and 2002. The Sidis have traditionally been wandering faqirs (mendicants) making their livelihood from alms given for their musical performances. These performances include a mesmerizing array of instruments - such as coconut rattles and armpit-held drums - which hark back to their African roots. However, the most distinctive of these instruments is the footed drum, with its pegged head and three or four 'feet'. As Catlin-Jairazbhoy points out, "Similar types of pegged drumheads and footed drums are widespread on the East Coast of Africa, while they are otherwise unknown in India."

The CD was made in collaboration with the Sidi community and Abdul Hamid Sidi, one of the lead dancers in Sidi Goma the touring group, whom the Jairazbhoys have trained in research and documentation. The proceeds from the recordings were put to the benefit of Sidi education projects in Gujarat.
In February 2003, she held a workshop to preserve Sidi culture. The 'Sidi Malunga Project' brought together some Sidi elders to teach the basic techniques of constructing and performing the traditional Malunga - an African musical bow used by the Sidis in their songs.

There is no doubt we live in a culture that is exceedingly becoming absorbed by the events of the present. But Catlin-Jairazbhoy's work emphasizes the importance of cultural and historical legacy in discovering our own place in contemporary society. Thus, as the Sidis sing and dance, and tour the world, they celebrate their present and honor their past with the hope that their new local and transnational relationships will create a more promising future.    

By arrangement with Women's Feature Service 


More by :  Fatima Chowdhury

Top | Society

Views: 3473      Comments: 5

Comment commenting on this 15+ years later in 2022.
Fatima your article made an impression on me Fatima in 2005.-Re-reading it now shows just how "knowledge" changes over time. EG 'experts' stated Easter Island depopulated due to infighting/civil war but NOW todays experts say it was constant Christian European slave raiding that depopulated the island. Ditto with Siddi Story, with ‘rediscovering’ of Janjira Fort for example

04-Sep-2022 03:24 AM

Comment Thank you Fatima for your engaging response. Best of luck.

14-Jul-2015 03:20 AM

Comment Dear Imeh,
Am not a spokesman of either the government of India or any state, am just a common citizen who chanced upon this article while searching the net for some 'Sidi' songs and music.

U may be surprised to know that health care facilities for ALL citizens, (irrespective of age, gender, religion, caste, race... or any other form of discrimination) has ALWAYS been provided at NO COST since decades, by the government through a network of hospitals and health centres spread all over in the state of Gujarat. Some members of this tribe are also regular employees (not slaves..!!) of such institutions.
So, although you have made a very important point in the improvement of parts of the society, its already in practice for decades together in the state where this tribe is also a part of the citizenry.

As regards education, you might again be surprised to know that even that is provided freely in government-run schools & colleges, and even reservations & scholarships are given to students of 'scheduled tribes'.

Dr. Amy and Fatima have done a great job in enlightening the world about the presence of these tribes in India "beyond the country borders".
NOT "beyond their small communities". They are and have always been as much a well-recognized and well-amalgamated part of the society as all others, NOT "neglected".

True, for such a large and populous country like India, with such a vast and diverse population, there is bound to be huge numbers of citizens who may be unaware about the presence of miniscule communities in other parts of the country or state, who are distinctly and definitely different from their own selves.

As regards the Sidi culture, traditions and religion, what better illustrates the freedom of even the "smallest of communities" and the support that larger ones and successive governments have provided them, than the fact that their devotional music and dance has been surviving since centuries...(from the 12th to the 21st) for the West to "explore", "discover" and publicize.
This itself is in sharp contrast to almost all other groups/tribes/communities who have migrated for various parts of Africa to other developed countries and continents.

Not to say that all is hunky-dory. The condition of these communities in other states of India is not similar to that in Gujarat. But then, there are so many avenues and criteria in which Gujarat is better than most other states.
Then there's this fact that there might be lots of areas where even the most educated and prosperous groups might improve with others' help, assistance and guidance.

Miracles, small and big, do keep happening, with or without our knowledge. Let's hope and pray that we may be able to recognize some and also individually contribute towards some.

God Bless All.

01-May-2014 18:08 PM

Comment Hello Fatima. I am a Nigerian resident in New York City. I have heard of the Sidis Tribe of India since I was in my teenage years. THEY ARE VERY BEAUTIFUL AFRICAN DERIVATIVES.
There are a few point that I would like to focus on:
(1) We don't have to feel SORRY for them since practically 80% of humanity and 100% of working humans are operating their lives under a perpetual and daily routine classified as "modern day slavery".

(2) We have to find ways and methods to finance their education. Education is the primary method and approach to self improvement and upgrading the peoples' confidence and growth - NOT RELIGION! Education is the UNIVERSAL MAGIC PANACEA!

(3)The State of nutrition in a people defines mental concentration and hence intelligence to a significant extend. As you are quite aware of, beautiful Fatima, no one can learn in a state of mal-nutrition! I would suggest getting in contact with many organizations worldwide for assistance.

For an innocuous group of people to remain at the periphery of a society since the 12th century is criminal neglect by ANY administration! Since the administration showed no indication in the psth of positive change for the Siddis tribe, I think we have to focus our attention in the private sector to (a) Supply them with computer - so they can SEE the world and what they are being excluded from. (b) Locating "Angel Financiers" tp pump in cash for education. (3) Such raised funding should not be given to the Indian Government but rather to an appointed administrator by the financier in order to avoid embezzlement!

Writing about these beautiful Africans in India is great in these days of internet communication, but taking an ACTIVE and PROACTIVE role to rectify this egregious neglect must be a priority among well-meaning humans around the world!

I was born in a tribe in Nigeria called The Annang Tribe. We went through years of neglect due to tribalism ( All right! Not RACISM or CAST What's The Difference!?). Even though the Petroleum deposit that you read about in Nigeria is deposited under our feels in our tribe, honestly speaking, we received absolutely NOTHING! We depended on our strength and focus for our survival UNTIL 1887 that we had out own State called Akwa Ibom State. Now the sky is NOT EVEN THE LIMIT FOR US! Our Governor is a physician. He understands the value of higher education and good health. Education if FREE and COMPULSORY in our State. Health Care is Free to all. They are thousands of Indians who have settled inmy State and Nigeria. Our State also selected an Akwa Ibom young lady with Indian parentage as Miss Akwa Ibom State.

As you can see, in order to overcome years of neglect (since many humans just love to be the only ones at the "PINNACLE"),, the mass have to be educated and well funded for such a progress to be effective. I think in Akwa Ibom State, we have attained a 90% literacy rate since 1987! An incredible feet in a few years of having our State!

If we can replicate same process among the Sidis tribe, a miracle will occur in our lifetime.

Visit my website and save on shopping at

Visit "Tour Africa" And See Akwa Ibom State:

So Long Fatima

19-Feb-2014 14:20 PM



11-May-2013 07:51 AM

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.