Does India remember its only African tribe?


For over 800 years, this African descent tribe has called India its home. Its women wear saris, and the men, children, and elders speak the same languages that we do. But how well do we know the Siddis? A documentary brings you their story.

In the monsoons of 2013, Aditya Ranade, who is currently YourStory’s very own graphic designer, found himself in the lush forests of North Karnataka with one agenda in mind – filming a documentary on the lives and ways of the Siddis of Karnataka. Who are they, you ask? Aditya recalls the moment when he stumbled upon a hidden tribe that he was until then, like many of us, completely unaware of.

“I was working on the production of a friend’s advertisement when I got to talking to one of the crew members. I assumed he was African, so I kept talking to him in English. He didn’t speak a word until he finally told me, in fluent Hindi, that he didn’t speak English.” The man was, in fact, as much Indian as Aditya, and belonged to a tribe of African descent that has been living in India for nearly 10 centuries.

“That really caught my interest,” he says. And so, after four weeks of research and filming and nearly six months of editing, came the documentary, Raanachi Pakhara, the description of which begins with “In the deep forests of Karnataka lies a secret…”

Aditya (extreme right) and team in action.

Aditya’s documentary chronicles the history, culture, and struggles of a community that, although living among us, has been long forgotten. The Siddis are descendants of the Bantu people of East Africa, and were first brought to India as slaves by the Arabs, and then the Portuguese and the British in and around the 13th century. After India attained Independence, the Siddis, who naturally dominated all manual labour, found themselves in the heart of conflict as they were suddenly a threat to other Indians labourers.

Bosco, an African scholar who came to India for his studies and has now settled to work with the Siddis, explains in the documentary how this conflict drove them into the forests, which they have now made their home. The Siddis themselves open up to talk about the exploitation faced by their forefathers at the hands of upper caste Brahmins and the discrimination they still face from society today.

Only few hold their lands, whereas most work as laborers for other land holders.

After generations of being forest dwellers, the Siddis have become a timid people, and are content without external interference. They are, in fact, quite wary of outsiders, and with good reason, as Aditya explains,

“I was on a bridge one day, and when a man returning from the forest walked past me, I slowly turned my camera towards him. After walking a short distance, he stopped in his tracks, turned, and charged at me with an axe in his hand!” When the situation calmed, the man later explained to Aditya the many instances where people have encroached upon and taken advantage of the tribe’s naivety.

Families come together to play Dammam and dance to its beats.

The pockets of the Siddi community found in Karnataka make up most of the Siddi population of India, the remaining being found in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. As Aditya points out, it wasn’t until 2003 that the communities of Gujarat and Karnataka found out about each other’s existence, as they were each brought to the country from different ports. Such are the secluded lives led by the Siddis.

But within their communities itself, the Siddis are very well connected through their culture. Although they now have three distinct religions – Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam – the Siddis don’t discriminate, and live harmoniously. Like any Indian tribe, music and dance form the core of this culture that binds them. Dammam, a percussion instrument unique to their culture, is held in spiritual regard, and forms the primary source of entertainment for all members of the community.

“Sport is a major form of identity, and they speak more languages than an average Indian – Kannada, Konkani, Hindi, and English,” Aditya remarks. Despite their strong presence, they remain largely ignored by the government. Many have lost their lands and work as labourers in the farms of Brahmins, or move to neighbourhood towns and cities, as they struggle to find sustainable work opportunities.

Spread across the Haliyal, Yellapur, Mundgod, Sirsi, and Ankola districts, the Siddis of Karnataka are, despite the doubtful and discriminating gaze that follows them, a peaceful community, with a culture that needs to be recognised and respected.

Aditya’s documentary, embossed with anecdotes, music, and the sounds of the forest the Siddis call home, is a charming effort to bring out the voice and the story of this community that is an exemplar of India’s diversity.