Thursday, July 26, 2007

Art and some Indian history

I am continually amazed at the amount that art can teach when it comes to history... This week I learnt something about the country of my birth – India.

I was surprised to learn that certain kingdoms in India were ruled by people from Africa. A lecture hosted by the Sundaram Tagore gallery in Manhattan last week focused on this very eclectic phenomenon that highlighted the fact that India was the only country outside of Africa where Africans ruled over non-Africans.

A 17th century Mughal style painting from Alwar represents more dramatically and with greater fiction the so-called house of Timur. Jahangir's figure forms the axis, around which are portrayed his eight ascendants, each contained in a medallion.

Detail of the above painting showing Jahangir shooting Malik Ambar through the head.

They originally came to India either as slaves or mercenaries and later (either through luck or circumstance became small time rulers in their settled areas). A couple of incidents that were highlighted at this lecture were as follows:

In 1486, a group of African mercenaries fought the Sultan of Bengal and eventually won the throne for a good 100 years. The descendants of this class of people came to be known as the Sidis.

“After their conversion to Islam, the African freedmen of India, originally called Habshi from the Arabic, called themselves Sayyad (descendants of Muhammad) and were consequently called Siddis. There are identifiable Sidi communities in Gujarat, Maharashtra (around Bombay), and Hyderabad. Most of the Sidis live in Gujarat, a state in western India. Jambur, a village in the Gir forest is an exclusive Sidi settlement. The Sidis here have retained their lineage of music and dance – their only link now with Africa. A smaller group of Sidis lives in Junagadh, a town not far from Jambur. According to Professor Amy Catlin, an ethno-musicologist from UCLA, who is making a special study of Sidi culture, "In Gujarat, affinities with African music include certain musical instruments and their names", she says, "and also the performance of an African-derived musical genre called "goma".”

The rise and fall of Malik Ambar between 1560 and 1620 was the crowning achievement of Africans in India. This former slave after being freed slowly collected a small army and managed to rule the Nizam Shahi kingdom in central India with relative prosperity (so much so that the Mughals who ruled in the north were so incensed that they produced artwork that showed Jehangir taking archery pot shots at Malik Ambar's head). It is said that the revenue system that Malik Ambar developed when he ruled the kingdom lasted till the early days of independence (1940's) from British colonial rule.

Painting of an African Indian merchant - circa 1600

Indian painting depicting African Indian

Additional references:

- A Social History of the Deccan, 13001761: Eight Indian Lives (The New Cambridge History of India) (Hardcover)

- Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates (The New Cambridge History of India) (Hardcover)


Tree said...

I had no idea. Very interesting!

Anonymous said...

You may also enjoy the book "African Elites in India - Habshi Amarat", edited by Kenneth X Robbins and John McLeod. It's a beautiful and informative book, containing photos, paintings and a wealth of information from a number of authors on the subject. The foreword is written by His Highness Nawab Dr. Sidi N Khan. Nawab of Sachin who claims his African ancestry.