Witnessing an exhibition that captures such details as 'Africans in India: A Rediscovery' is at once baffling and enlightening. For starters I got to know that the term Habshi was originally not meant to be a derro! ‘The African men and women who were taken to India through early slave trade were known as Habshi (Abyssinian) and Sidi (derived either from sayyidi, my lord in Arabic; or from saydi, meaning captive or prisoner of war). They came mostly from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and adjoining areas. Trained as soldiers they were highly prized for their military skills.
They could rise through the ranks and become 'Elite Slaves', amassing wealth and status’, states the exhibition literature. It spotlights the success of the many East Africans who came into the sub-continent as slaves/traders but conquered India in their own right. Reading through the panels left me with a sombre feeling of belonging to a regressed generation! Indians from hundreds and thousands of years ago were rather mingling and minus discrimination on the basis of skin color.
Africans could make a stand in the contemporary society even though they were brought in as slaves. And what happens to all the Africans who come in as independent citizens of their countries to pursue studies or other vocations to a modern India in this age? They are attacked and violated! For me, excerpts from this exhibition must be introduced in school curriculum if we are to get rid of our racial strains.
Many East Africans held high ranks including generals, admirals and ministers, in Muslim and Hindu states. Some of the women became queens for instance Bamba Muller (1848-87), daughter of an Ethiopian became Maharani Bamba Duleep Singh when she married the last ruler of Sikh Empire.
The ‘Abyssinian Party’ dominated the Bijapur Sultanate in 1580… and you must read about its famous African governor Ikhlas Khan. Also remarkable are the stories of rise of Malik Ambar, originally a slave from Southwest Ethiopia, turned builder and ruled as a regent and prime minister with a legacy of monuments in the Deccan; and those of architect Malik Sandal and Yaqut Dabuli Habshi- all this buttresses those rich paintings, its feasting!
Strategically organised in the rear hall at Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA), you learn about the important yet little known chapter of African contribution to Indian history, as you complete one round comprising 54 panels. Its near perfect articulation comes from Schomburg Center for research in black culture, The New York Public Library.
The exhibition zooms in on the East African forays in India, which were immortalised in rich paintings from different eras carefully reproduced for this exhibition from several libraries and museums across Europe and US. The curators, Dr. Sylviane A. Douf and Dr. Kenneth X. Robbins provide each reproduction with adequate description and the whole arrangement flows like easy-to-follow chapters in a history journal only more chromatically engaging. The intention behind this gigantic effort has been in the curators' words, ‘Although they were a common sight, the Africans who were an integral part of the history and culture of the Indian sub-continent have not received, in the present, the recognition they deserve.’
A day's conference held on 15 October added more spice to this fact as speakers and experts on the subject spoke passionately about ancestral links of the Afro-Indian Sidis, African Sufi saints, African diaspora and roots across Indian states. In his conclusive message a panelist who also belongs from a Sufi family articulated 'Majority of South Indians have African blood….and that blood is Bantu blood….a lot of Ethiopians in fact have Indian blood!'
So much for us to make it ‘Africans in India: A Recovery’!