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Helping Indian Diaspora Trace their Roots
|by Shubha Singh|
Migration from India to other erstwhile British colonies began in the middle of the 19th century, when thousands of Indians were taken to work on the sugar plantations in Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa and the Caribbean while many went to East Africa and other countries.
It is the descendants of these Indian migrants - persons of Indian origin (PIOs) - who are keen to connect with the places where their ancestors lived in India.
Kenya-born dancer and author Neera Kapur-Damsom was living in Paris when a stray question set her thinking about her family's roots in India. "Where did your family come from?" she was asked, and Neera began thinking about her dual identity as a Kenyan-Indian.
An Odissi dancer, Neera Kapur-Damsom felt the need to explore her cultural connections and heritage. It was a search that took her from Kenya to her ancestral village, Tala, on the banks of the river Jhelum. For others, it is a deep-felt desire to connect with their ancestral homeland that sets them off on a search for their roots.
In 2006, Nalini Mohabir arrived in Delhi with copies of the emigration passes of her migrant great-grandparents. Living in Canada, Nalini considered herself Indo-Canadian with family connections with Guyana - her parents had moved from Guyana to Canada.
But a desire to know more about her Indian links led her to her journey through several small villages in Uttar Pradesh. Supported by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), Nalini began her search for her family roots travelling through Varanasi, Allahabad and Faizabad till she reached Dewarya and met some cousins.
With Nalini's search, the IGNCA's Diaspora Programme began its cultural search plan. Within a couple of months of listing the cultural search programme on its website, it had received 43 queries for ancestor searches.
Queries came from people living as far as Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, Guyana, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa who were keen to locate the places from where their ancestors had begun their journey of migration.
Individual quests to discover one's roots have often countered a host of difficulties. In the case of indentured workers, their names and village and district address were entered on their emigration passes. However, what made the search more complex was that the names of places and their spellings had changed in the last 100 odd years, villages had been incorporated in different districts and to make it even more complicated, there could be several villages with the same or similar names.
It is the intrepid, determined and lucky searcher who has successfully completed his investigation, and even located distant relatives. Nalini Mohabir had the advice and support of the IGNCA programme to help her find her way.
Out of the list of 43 responses, the IGNCA has selected 10 queries for conducting a search in the Azamgarh, Varanasi and Allahabad area. The IGNCA has a tie-up with an NGO called Saraswati Smarak Pustakalya, which will undertake the search for the 10 cases, completing them within 90 days.
Trained local researchers will collect the information, eventually collating it into a comprehensive report that will be handed over to the PIO. Researchers will look through old land records, talk to elderly people for the departure of a migrant was usually a much talked about event in the area, as well as study the birth and death registration certificates.
Most importantly, the researcher would also contact any relatives and seek their reactions to the prospect of meeting with their relatives living abroad. Often, there is some discomfort among the stay-at-home relatives over the possibility that some questions may arise about shares in the family property.
The report would have a genealogical history of the family with a family tree and would provide the social and cultural life of the village at the time the migrant left the village. The report would give the local history of the village and its present condition as well as the family history of the surviving relatives of the migrant.
Since the search is being conducted free of cost to the inquirer, the report would give a picture of the local conditions in the area and make suggestions where the inquirer can make a contribution to the ancestral village and its inhabitants.
The search programme is part of the cultural search project of the IGNCA. As consultant to the programme, Suresh Pillai explained, "The IGNCA charter is for intercultural dialogue, and mapping of displacement is part of it. This project is looking at the 19th century colonial displacement and linking it with the diaspora."
"It is an ethno-anthropological search, which will result in documentation of the displacement and its effects. We will publish it in a book form."
But for the PIOs, the search for their roots has a much deeper emotional meaning as it meets a strong urge to connect with their own history.
(Shubha Singh is a writer on the Indian diaspora and international affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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