The call for prayers echo in the air on a warm Friday evening setting forth Siddi Abdul Mujawar Rauf Makwa’s wait for its conclusion. It is only after these prayers at sundown that he transitions into a spiritual realm of abundant, and often frenzied energy. Makwa, a Sufi Muslim, is from the Siddi community — an ethnic African group — brought to India in the early seventh century as slaves by the Portuguese.
A cramped, meandering bylane in Dongri leads us to a shrine, where he lives with his family. One has to tread cautiously as this constricted lane has recently been dug up. Irony marks the family’s existence here, and so does obscurity. Though known as the Siddi mohalla, Makwas are the only Siddi residents of the area. “Some left to make a better living in Gujarat, others had relatives in Arab countries so they moved there,” informs Makwa.
He is seated on the floor of what is the hall space for visitors around the shrine of his ancestor Siddi Baba Gaur Rahmatullah Alai Bilali Mubarak Nobi. Also put to rest are Baba Rahmatullah’s siblings – Ma Misra Ma and Baba Abbas Habas Rahmatullah Bilali – on either sides of his grave.
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Makwa is the medieval saint’s descendent and lives with his wife, sister and three children – all bearing unmistakable African features. “We belong to a race of Habshis of the ethnic minority group of Bantus. Our Somalian ancestors were known for their bravery, loyalty and strength. They fought wars and showed impeccable trust towards their masters,” he says.
Perhaps, that’s the reason, he asserts, they were taken in as slaves and transported to India. The story of the survival of the Siddis primarily revolves around their ability to adapt to new demographics and their expertise in religious mysticism. “When I was growing up, the Siddi mohalla had close to thousand people. But now it is just us. There are only 50-odd Siddi families left in the city,” he says.
During the Urs festival at Mumbai’s shrines, the Siddis often perform the popular dhamal, a runaway success for Makwa and his relatives who join him from Gujarat. The members of the dancing troupe paint their bodies while wearing a skirt-like piece of clothing below the waist.
“It is also known as Kenobi and is performed with traditional African instruments,” says Makwa, while showing off a Dhamama or dhol. His collection ranges from tall drums known as Moughamar to the stringed Nagash made of camel skin. Like an avid collector of relics, he ostentatiously displays his ancient collection of instruments.
With his repertoire full of possessions such as Misrey, Leva and Tasha, he takes pride in his lineage with a sense a responsibility. He now pins his hopes on his two sons, Siddi Abdul Razzak (22) and Siddi Abdul Gaffar (19), to carry forward the legacy.
The dargah, which he maintains, sees men and women from diverse backgrounds come and offer salutations. But he promises of a bigger gathering this May. “The dargah will mark its 784th Urs festival. It is a mere two years from now on that we will be celebrating the 786th Urs,” says Makwa. The number 786 is considered auspicious by Muslims.
And just to give a snapshot of how it going to be like, Makwa absorbs himself in a rhythmic, repetitive devotional song in the name of Allah.