Beheroze Shroff, a Bombay soul now exploring foreign shores, was fascinated by the vibrant history of the African diaspora. What we gained out of it are some exceptional documentaries
On December 10, 2014 the United Nations will launch the Decade for People of African Descent (Jan 2015-Dec 2024).
“The first global African diaspora occurred when some of the ancestors of all human beings migrated out of Africa, the birthplace of humanity,“ says Dr Sheila Walker, distinguished African American anthropologist who was here recently to visit some Sidi communities. She has researched many of the major areas of the global diaspora, but became interested in aspects of the diaspora in India after being “intrigued“ by the documentary films made by Beheroze Shroff, who is from Mumbai, but is now on the staff of the University of California, Irvine.
As always, Beheroze, who comes to India once a year for her research, was full of interesting details with which I was not familiar. For instance, she told me about a paper presented at the October conference by Rose Llewellyn Jones, which concerned the presence of Africans in Lucknow. In 1798, Lord Cornwallis banned slavery in India, but Arab traders in the 1830s continued to bring Africans to Lucknow in covered wagons. Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Lucknow had a Habshi Risalla regiment in which about 1,200 Africans had registered.He also had a regiment of African women, called Gulabi Platoon, and he used to ride with them.This regiment took up arms against the British in 1857.
Both Beheroze and Sheila Walker visited Hyderabad recently, to interview contemporary descendants of the African Cavalry Guards of the Nizam of Hyderabad. And then, of course there is Malik Ambar, Nawab of Janjira, also a Sidi, who married a young woman from a distinguished family in Mumbai.
I don’t know what Janjira is like now, but when I visited it with friends, it was rather scruffy. All I can remember of the “palace“ is a motheaten stuffed tiger, and rows of government tourist bungalows which consisted of one-room cement blocks, which, curiously, were built to face each other and not the sea. (We made up for all this with the prawns we bought and cooked).
Beheroze started making documentary films in the 1990s, but her family (Parsi Zorastrians) have been associated with the shrine of Bava Gor since the 1950s. Bava Gor is the saint venerated by the Sidis of Gujarat. He is said to have been an agate merchant who came to India about eight hundred years ago. If I’m not mistaken, there’s a shrine dedicated to him in Kurla, Mumbai.
She tells me that the younger generation of Sidis want to do new things, such as acquiring degrees in Business Management, Law, Chartered Accountancy. One young man, Jujhe, is already a successful model for Pepe Jeans.
What is interesting about Beheroze’s documentaries is that she never imposes a voice or a heory on them. She lets them talk for themselves. No chatter about whether they should be allowed to join the “mainstream“ or remain ethnic curiosities, doing the occasional dance for ourists and others. (Remember those debates about the various tribes of Madhya Pradesh and other Central Indian states?) In addition, she, like many independent ilm-makers, has had acute financial problems.Funding occasionally comes with strings at ached, unmentioned earlier -the familiar Indian phenomenon of Indian academics trying o latch onto work they haven’t done. I hope hat Indians interested in Indian culture will help finance her, and not spend their time burn ng libraries or gifting each other yachts and jets.
In the meantime, do look out for Vol 9 of UNESCO’s “General History of Africa,“ edited by Dr Sheila Walker as part of the celebrations.