Long before habshi became a derogatory term, Yaqut Dabuli Habshi, an Ethiopian, was one of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II’s prominent architects and designed a palace and a mihraab in Bijapur around 1635. Even before that, in the 1300s, people of African origin were living in India, many of them as generals, admirals and ministers in Muslim and Hindu kingdoms.
Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Awadh, had a queen of African descent called Yasmin and Malik Amber (1548-1626) – Ethiopian by birth – was the ruler of a state in the Deccan. Now, an exhibition of photographs and text from the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Studies, New York, is tracing this exciting and little-known history of Africans in India. Titled “Africans in India: A Rediscovery”, the exhibition will be held at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in Delhi from October 8 to November 4.
The images and text are arranged in panels around Mati Ghar, a gallery of IGNCA. One of the earliest panels of the 54 on display is titled “Traders”. Beneath images of a 4th century Ethiopian coin found in India, and a zebra —the animal was brought to India in 1621 — the text says that “the first Africans who reached India were not captives but merchants”.
The next panel, “Elite Slavery” has a reproduction of a painting of Sultan Mohammad Adil Shah of Bijapur with African courtiers around 1640. “This exhibition is focusing on the elite — people who arrived mostly from East Africa, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and so on, in the early centuries. There were people who came after that — from Mozambique with the Portuguese slave trade and also from Kenya — and they were different populations with different stories,” says New York-based curator Sylviane A Diouf.
Panels titled “African Queens” shows the royal trajectory of African women. Other photographs include a Raja Deen Dayal monochrome of African guards in Hyderabad in 1904. The Nizam’s African bodyguards graced his imperial durbar in a shot from 1877.
“Indian rulers allowed African men who had come as slaves to join the army and rise up the ranks. This was unlike the Americas where black men were not allowed in the army,” says Diouf.
Co-curator Kenneth X Robbins says, “What we found was that not all Africans came as slaves and even when they came as slaves, they were able to achieve important positions. They were more accepted in the past and allowed to function as a community and as individuals, especially in the Deccan.”
Thus, the panel titled “Rulers and Notables” shows the Habshi Kot or Abyssinian Fort near Bidar in Karnataka, where African nobles are buried. The curators say the “Abyssianian Party” was a powerful military and political network that dominated the Bijapur Sultanate in 1580 and one of its most famous governors was Ikhlas Khan.
So powerful was Ikhlas Khan that he has a panel all to himself at the exhibition and is present in several paintings. Separate panels describe the architectural geniuses of Malik Sandal (an Ethiopian eunuch, a former slave and a soldier) and Yaqut Dabuli Habshi. “It is important to know that Africans did not come to India yesterday,” says Diouf.