They’re not as miniscule as the Armenian community, which is sadly down to just one representative, but the few hundred Sidis in Mumbai make up one of the city’s smallest ethnic groups. So much so that the only time you see a significant number of Sidis is during their annual Urs in July, and the odd cultural festival, when they perform the goma, an energetic performance of percussion and dance that is among the few traces of the community’s East African origins.
A majority of the community lives in Karnataka and Gujarat. And it was in Gir in 2005 that photographer Ketaki Sheth found the Sidi village of Sirwan and the subject of her new book A Certain Grace, The Sidi: Indians of African Descent. “I had only vaguely heard about the Sidi when I visited the Gir,” Sheth said in an email interview. “It fascinated me that India had a community of African descent.” She spent the next five years documenting the lives of Sidis in Gujarat, Karnataka and Mumbai. The result is a touching series of black and white portraits and candid images that suggest the almost complete assimilation into local culture of this predominantly Muslim community.
In an introductory essay, Mahmood Mamdani, a professor at Columbia University in the US and Markere University in Kampala, writes that Africans have been coming to India since the ninth century as both slave-soldiers and free persons. By the 16th century, Sidis featured prominently in various princely armies. The best example is the Sidi royal family of Janjira, whose ancestors joined the army of the king of Ahmednagar in the 15th century and were appointed governors of the fort at Murud-Janjira. Mamdani, who is an East African of Indian descent, found that Sidis, while they do practice some ancestral customs and speak Gujarati flecked with Swahili words, identify almost completely with India.
You get a sense of this in Sheth’s subjects whose dress and gestures are entirely Indian. From Sheth’s pictures of happy faces and active community life, you also get the feeling that Sidis are so familiar in Gujarat that they rarely suffer the sort of discrimination African immigrants and visitors face in Mumbai. “Yes I did not sense they felt discriminated against,” Sheth said. “But my friend Juje in Bombay did say he still has people stopping and staring on trains and how his passport took forever to get made with so many questions.”
A Certain Grace, The Sidi: Indians of African Descent by Ketaki Sheth, Photoink, Rs1,500.