“I want people to look at them with dignity and beauty. I want people to learn and appreciate their unique history and culture. I want people to know that they exist and their existence should be celebrated as one of the important parts of the complex South Asian jigsaw, not looked down upon.” - Luke Duggleby.
At a time when India’s racism towards the African community has become increasingly open and apparent, what many of us don’t know is how deeply the histories of our countries are in fact entwined. Countless individuals from the African subcontinent came to India as part of the slave trade, many even went on to become reformers and rulers. Malik Ambar is probably the most famous among the latter—making his name one of the few that’s better known when discussing the African diaspora in our country. But we forget that as incredible as Ambar was, he wasn’t just one man. There continues to exist a community of people in the country of African descent who we have little-to-no awareness about. The Siddi or Sheedi, as they are today known and referred to as, may be relatively small in number in a country of over a billion people but, as pointed out by The Economist, they’re “mostly concentrated in the rural areas of Gujarat and Karnataka in the west and south-west of the country, although some live in cities such as Mumbai and Hyderabad. After centuries in the subcontinent, the Siddi’s language, cuisine and clothes are completely Indian. Most do not even know from which African country they originally hail. Yet they are undeniably linked to their roots through music and dance.” It is this dislocated community of African descendants that has assimilated into society while holding strong to their cultural legacies and heritage, that photographer Luke Duggleby sheds light on and brings to the forefront in his photo-series titled ‘The Siddi Project.’
Living and working in Bangkok, Duggleby has spent the last two decades travelling and photographing in countries across Africa and Asia. It was while working on a documentary in Gujarat that his translator first mentioned the Siddis. “Several years ago I was making a documentary about salt making in the Rann of Kutch as part of a book project that was published in Germany in December 2015. My guide and translator was a wonderful and knowledgeable man from Bhuj and as we travelled for salt we talked at length about the cultures of Gujarat. The Siddi were one of the groups he mentioned and I was immediately fascinated,” Duggleby tells Homegrown. “As a younger man, almost 20 years ago, many of my first experiences of travel and photography were in various parts of Africa and I spent about 6 months living in Tanzania when I was 18. So I have always had a love for the continent. My life then took a turn East and I ended up in Asia where I have been based ever since. But, I have always had a deep fascination with both continents, so when I heard about the Siddi I became slightly obsessed and began researching more and more about the topic.” The result of his immense intrigue led to two self-funded trips to India, the main focus of which were the Siddi, one group in Gujarat and the other in Karnataka and Mumbai, and between those two was a trip to Pakistan where Duggleby tells us exists the largest population of Siddi.
HG: What made you want to take up this community as a subject for a photo-series?
LD: “After the initial interest and research into the history of the African diaspora in South Asia I met them and that’s where the real love affair began. They are a wonderful and kind group of people, proud of their African connection, but unfortunately feel discriminated against in their own country. They feel overlooked outside of India and Pakistan, but also inside, and long to have the same rights that their countrymen receive.
So I made a promise to them to try and raise awareness of their culture and their life. This led to the creation of The Sdidi Project which I hope will be seen by a wider audience who can then learn about them, but also for it to become a point of contact for anyone who wants to be put in touch with this group, in both India and Pakistan.”
HG: What is it about their culture that intrigued and drew you in so immensely?
LD: “Over the generations of settlers in India and Pakistan much of their African culture has been lost as they integrated into society. But several aspects have remained which are most commonly seen in either their appearance, which is still very ‘African,’ and in their music and dance. As musicians and performers they are remarkable and at the simple suggestion of seeing a performance they spontaneously offer an example. This part of their culture still has obvious roots in African tradition, which after all these years still remains strong.”
HG: In your opinion, how has the rest of the country treated, or mistreated, this minority community? Do you think the status given to them is correct?
LD: “As a minority they are certainly discriminated against. They aren’t given the same opportunities as others and have to fight much harder for their basic rights to education, social support and opportunities in the workforce. This is changing as more enter University level education and return to their communities to help, but it is still pervasive.
In my opinion, one problem that they face in terms of classification is that they aren’t united as one group. In Gujarat, there are around 12,000 Muslim Siddis who have very little connection to the roughly 12,000 Hindu and Christian Siddis of Karnataka. Grouped more along religious lines than historical ones, I think this inhibits a strong cohesion of the entire Siddi population. For example, whilst the Siddis of Gujarat are included as a Scheduled Tribe by the Indian Government those in Karnataka aren’t.”
HG: Is there anyone or any photograph in particular that stands out for you from the series?
LD: “I would say this one photo in particular sums up their situation in South Asia better than any other and that is the photograph of the Indian school girls walking past a Siddi dance performer in Karnataka. The expression on the girls face is one of curiosity and almost surprise. They look at them differently. Yet despite being born and raised in India for generations they are still often perceived as foreigners and generally even Indian’s from outside of their strongholds know very little about them if at all.”
HG: What would you like your viewers to take away from the photo-narrative?
LD: “This project is far from over—I am currently pursuing funding opportunities so that I can return and work more on this topic, which will focus on other aspects of their life that I haven’t yet captured, and at the end IT will become a book. But from what you can see of my work so far I want people to look at them with dignity and beauty. I want people to learn and appreciate their unique history and culture. I want people to know that they exist and their existence should be celebrated as one of the important parts of the complex South Asian jigsaw not looked down upon.”
You can find out more about the Siddi community and follow Luke Duggleby’s on-going project on his website and Instagram page. We’ve posted below some of our favourite images from The Siddi Project with permission from the photographer, click here to view the entire series.