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Shantaram Siddi (right) during the felicitation of a folk artist at the Siddi Folk Festival in Sambrani. Image Credit: Supplied

Yellapur: Nestled on the foothills of the Western Ghats, Yellapur is a small town in Karnataka known for its thick forests and forest-dwellers.

It is home to many tribes such as Gowli, Kunbi and Siddi, who live in and around the forest areas, but the Siddis are the ones that stand out due to their distinct cultural heritage and more importantly their physical features highlighting their African ancestry.

Until recently, they were also known for their near primitive existence that contained a self-sustaining cycle of growing their own food, rearing animals and living in small close-knit communities having limited contact with the outside world.

Though they are sufficiently exposed to the outside world now, their cultural heritage is still worth exploring. Come, meet the Siddis…

A colonial legacy

Siddis were brought to India as slaves by the Portuguese in the 16th century, many of whom escaped and settled in the forests, mostly in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka.

Fascinated by the stories of these forest-dwellers we took a ride to explore these little known villages and our first stop was Hitlalli, native of the most prominent Siddi, Shantaram, a member of Karnataka’s Legislative Council.

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Siddi farm workers in the village of Bhagavati take a break from their daily toil on the field. Image Credit: Supplied

Shantaram is the first from the Siddi tribe to be chosen for the legislative council, a reward for his long struggle towards the development of tribal children’s education.

“Our community has gone through a long struggle to reach the position we are in and we have much more to do. I am proud to have this opportunity to represent my people at the highest level in the state. We have a unique culture and folk tradition and my focus is to highlight its place in the rainbow of Indian traditions and to preserve it for the future,” said Shantaram Siddi as he inaugurated the annual Siddi Folk Festival in Sambrani, near the town of Haliyal.

African gene, Indian heart

Over the centuries, the Siddis have adopted the local languages, belief systems and way of life, however, its folk tradition still has a distinct African flavour mixed with a steady influence of local beats.

With Damami, a percussion instrument unique to Siddis and thought to be of African origin, Siddis maintain a distinctive rhythm and their dance moves have a heavy African influence.

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Nirmala and Florina Siddi are busy cooking some local veggie delicacies. Image Credit: Supplied

“Damami is central to our culture and I have been enjoying its beats since I was young. It reminds me of our ancestral journey. That is the reason why I learnt to play it. I also learnt to play Gumte (another local percussion instrument). Through it, I have found a new life,” said Laxmi Siddi, a folk artist and actor from the village of Kotemane near Yellapur.

With several short roles to her credit in Kannada films, Laxmi has made a name for herself and her community.

She might have been a villain in movies, but in her village she is a hero, representing her community’s folk traditions on MTV and other TV channels.

But, when she is not dabbling with folk, she is telling stories of her ancestors’ journey from the shores of Africa to India.

Most of Siddi history is transmitted orally from one generation to another and Laxmi learnt the stories of her ancestors from her parents and grandparents.

“When our ancestors settled in the forests some 500 years ago, escaping slavery. They initially survived as hunters and gatherers. Later on, as they came in contact with the villagers nearby they started working as agricultural labours,” added the grandmother who has appeared on MTV and Zee TV, apart from featuring in six Kannada movies.

Oral History

According to the oral history that is popular among the Siddis, when their ancestors ran away from their slave-masters, they mostly lived as fugitives in forests and gradually made the forest their home.

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Life on a street of Bhagavati, a predominantly Siddi Village near Dandeli. Image Credit: Supplied

While maintaining their African folk rhythm they gradually adopted local languages and customs and eventually embraced the religions of the people they worked with.

“My ancestors worked with Hindu families and eventually they adopted their culture, habits and belief systems, similarly Siddis who worked with people of other faiths adopted their religion, hence, we have people in our tribe who are Christians and Muslims as well,” added Laxmi.

Similarly, Siddis from the Christian and Hindu communities speak in a variant of Konkani, while the Muslims from the tribe have adopted the Deccani language and their folk traditions also have the local Muslim cultural influence with their songs sounding more like Qawwalis.

However, Damami figures prominently in their folk tradition as well.

“There is no Siddi folk without Damami. Siddis got the official tribal status because of this musical instrument that is unique to our culture. It is not found anywhere else in India and it was brought here by our ancestors. We have countless songs in our traditions, I have lost count of the number. We can go on from morning to evening, playing Damami and singing to its rhythm, this is the only entertainment we had until recently and we perform at every cultural and social events,” said Khatun Bi Siddi, leader of a folk troupe from Bhagavati, a predominantly Muslim Siddi village near Dandeli.

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Miriani and Milagrine Siddi head to the field to start a new day in Wadai Ukalli, a forest village near Yellapur. Image Credit: Supplied

Khatun Bi has been leading the troupe for several decades, reeling off songs from her impeccable memory, as there is no written lyrics.

Though, the likes of Shantaram, Laxmi and Khatun Bi have strongly embedded themselves with the rest of India, while maintaining their culture and traditions, there are still many Siddis like Miriani and Milagrine, who have limited contact with the outside world.

Natural Abundance

Hailing from the village of Wadai Ukalli, deep inside the forest of Yellapur, the couple use modern amenities such as a mobile phone or a motorcycle but they hardly venture out as they practise a naturally-sustainable lifestyle.

“This is a small village where only a dozen families live, we are all related to each other. We have our lands and animals so we grow and rear most of what we need for our sustenance. But, it is hard to maintain the traditional way of life now. The younger generation is getting educated and seeking jobs in the cities, so gradually the village is getting empty,” said the 52 year old father of two.

Miriani and his neighbours grow paddy, fruits and vegetables, while their animals and birds provide them with dairy products, eggs and meat.

However, the rich life of clean air, healthy food and natural abundance don’t seem to attract the youngsters of the tribe anymore.

“There is enough here if one wants to have a peaceful life. No doubt, this is a life of hard work, but this is a natural abundance and there are opportunities here even if one wants to make money. Most of us collect palm sap and turn it into a kind of natural glue, which many local industries buy from us, apparently it is useful for them. I also work part time in the fields of neighbouring villages, so we have sufficient to fulfil most of our needs, the only thing we need is a proper healthcare,” said Miriani, whose children work in the small towns several kilometres away from his jungle abode.

Apart from Karnataka, Siddis can also be found in the state of Gujarat, while another community of African descent called Habashis are found in the Deccan cities of Bidar and Hyderabad.

Unlike the Siddis, the Habashis, who are also of East African origin, Ethiopian to be precise, have a more glorious history in India, with many of them occupying important positions as generals and ministers of various Deccan kingdoms, some of them even establishing their own independent dynasties.

However, after centuries of living in India, the descendants of both the African communities are now as Indian as any other, adding more colour to an already vibrant and syncretic canvas of India.

- Shafaat Shahbandari is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist. He is the founder of Thousand Shades of India, an alternative media platform that celebrates the diversity of India.