An Afro-Indian Community in Karnataka, India: A Study of Ethnic Identity, its Maintenance and Change

An Afro-Indian Community in Karnataka, India: A Study of Ethnic Identity, its Maintenance and Change

One of the objectives of this research is to collect an ethnographic case material about the African community of Karnataka. As an ethnographic work, this study describes the social, cultural, religious, economic and political dimensions of this African Indian community.

Manat ceremony - A happy Siddi mother offering a feast in the name of the saint Ujala Shah for helping her get a baby boy. The dedication of the boy is conducted by shaving his hair inside the saint's shrine.

When we hear of the African Diaspora we tend to think solely of Africans in America and Europe. This is partially so because researchers who had studied the case dealt on the African immigrants to the western world without being aware of or paying due attention to the Oriental African Diaspora. Until very recently, only few studies dealt with Africans living in the Indian sub-continent and Asia. Unless the African communities living in other parts of the globe are equally represented in the literature we will not have the full picture of the African Diaspora. The few sublime works about African Indians that are worth of mentioning are that of the German ethnologist, Helene Basu, Muthana’s and Richard Pankhurst’s. Basu’s PhD dissertation and several articles provide considerable information particularly on the Siddi of Gujarat. I.M. Muthana, in his Indo-Ethiopian Relations for Centuries, published in 1956, has dealt extensively on the historical interconnections of the two countries and the subsequent immigration of many Ethiopians to India. Richard Pankhurst has written several study papers since the 1970s on the history of Indians of Ethiopian origin. Other works that are worth of consultation include Islam’s Black Slaves (2001) by Ronald Segal and Watson’s Asian and African Systems of Slavery (1980).

The researcher with the family of the informant.

Much of the available literature on slavery discusses the experience of African slaves in the western world. Despite some exceptions, slavery in oriental societies has figured only marginally in comparative studies of slavery. In fact, very little has been said about African slaves in the Orient. This research attempts to give the account of the other side of the coin, without which a comprehensive observation of the whole picture is not possible. “The study of slavery and slave trade has become one of the fastest growing areas of academic research into the economic and social history of the ‘Third World’ but the Eastern slave trade has not received its due share of attention” (Toledano 1998:155). Toledano’s Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East (1998) and Scarr’s Slaving and Slavery in the Indian Ocean (1998) are two of the most important works in this area.

With the advance of modern technology and science and with their continuous globalising effect even upon those who once were said to be closed societies, the Siddi cannot remain untouched. They are continuously loosing their cultural heritage and year by year swamped in the waves of modernisation. The Siddi of yesterday were not the same as the Siddi of today. And today’s Siddi will not remain the same. So, it is up to us, ethnologists and cultural anthropologists, to record such cultural lore before it is gone once and for all. Therefore, as I said earlier, the main objective of this study is to describe the people and their traditions.

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