Long before slave ships started supplying labour to cotton plantations in America,groups from the Dark Continent were being brought to India. A minute part of the African diaspora had made the country their home settling in its remote interiors,from Gujarat and Karnataka to Mumbai and Hyderabad. Living in seclusion,most of them adapted Indian traditions,embracing its prominent religions,and distancing themselves from their roots. Mumbai-based photographer Ketaki Sheth is now documenting this little-known community,sharing their visual stories.
I wasnt looking at them as a good subject and I wasnt looking to photograph a diasporic community. Like many Indians,I wasnt aware of the Sidis. We do not find any mention of them in our history books. The Sidis of Janjira defeated Shivaji. I googled,started talking to people,and bought books. There are academic films on them,but no one had visually photographed them in contemporary life, says the photographer,who spent seven years tracing settlements of the community across India. The exhibition A Certain Grace. The Sidi: Indians of African Descent at National Gallery of Modern Art,is an outcome of her research. Comprising portraiture and street photography,Sheth uses her analog camera to shoot in black and white. She clearly remembers her first encountered with the Sidis in 2005. On a family holiday to the Gir forest in Gujarat,she stumbled upon a few settlements. It was like entering a dusty film set. There was a gated entrance,a chai stall and four boys wearing T-shirts and baseball caps playing carrom. They did not look at me in a welcoming way. That gave me my first lesson in how this community lived so exclusively, says Sheth about her first visit to Jambur.
Two of those boys feature in the exhibition as Sheths subjects. Her entry point was Hirbaiben Lobi,a middle-aged Sidi woman,whom she describes as feisty,full of humour,strong,confident and fearless. The first time I went I did not carry a camera. I did not want to barge in and start shooting. With any subject,in this case a community,you have to win their confidence, says the 56-year-old.
While her initial plan was to photograph the Sidis as a series of portraits,she changed her mind once she was introduced to their various customs. Most do not know from which African country they originally belong,but they are linked to their roots through music and dance. They are deeply religious and are very peaceful. Its important for them to visit the dargah. Every Friday,they meet for goma (dance) and offer prayers. They also celebrate the annual Urs festival in memory of their ancestral saint Bava Gor, shares Sheth. The jubilation associated with the festival has also been captured in an image where the dead branches of a tree turn into a swing for boys in Jambur.
There are everyday images as well. Two sisters dressed for a wedding in Surendranagar are seated in a formal manner. Another pair of siblings share their shawl in Jambur. Young Ramzamma in Jambur laughs hard when she is asked if she is pregnant with her first child. Its actually her fourth, says Sheth.
The games they play feature as well.A group of boys play with tyres in the 2006 gelatin print Tyres and Shadows,in another photographer,they hop over a line of shoes in Honest Buggy Band in Jamnnagar.
Sheth finds few from the community who have settled for the urban race. A photograph has Heena,the daughter of a Bollywood stuntman who lives in Kurla,and another image has Juliana and her husband Juje,an athlete and a government employee,who lives in Borivali. They are completely Indian in their culture,language and food. The only reminder of their African past is their appearance,some features of their dance and some healing rituals, says Sheth.
The exhibition at National Gallery of Modern Art,Jaipur House,India Gate,is on till November 3.
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