Breaking shackles of the past

[This article is the original version of the edited article ‘On a Cultural Drawbridge’ published in Deccan Herald, on 14th of March 2020. Both articles are written by me. Below is a snapshot of the published article.]

If India is known to be a country of diversity today, it is because the country welcomed cultures and communities from everywhere else in the world in the past. Today, such migrant cultures have become a part of the cultural diversity of India and are celebrated, even through hardships, as our very own.

One such community that came to India during the colonial era is the Siddhi community. This tribal community that is today resident in the areas of Hariyala, Yellapura, Shirsi, Mundagoda and Karwar of Karnataka are amongst the last surviving tribal communities in the Western Ghats of India. The Siddhi community basically hails from Africa. They were ferried to Goa when the British invaded the state, as the slaves of the British masters who assumed they were entitled to free service from these people. The community slowly began spreading across Goa and eventually migrated to Karnataka in search of food and shelter, but were not met with better fate when they arrived here. Until the very recent past, the Siddhi community has been treated as labours alone, and the people have been paid very little money and respect for their services. As a result of this, they have chosen to stay isolated within the forests and create their own community which consists of doctors, performers and other occupational specialists within their internal circle. All the members of the community are visibly connected to nature more than anything else. Their affinity with nature has sustained them for centuries now within the rather fierce ambiance of the Western Ghats. Their food, medicines and even celebrations are nature presented in different forms.

Despite the limitations of their material world, this community adds immensely to the cultural richness of the country. These people who live in forests have developed indigenous dance and folk forms that are no short of mesmerizing to behold. Recently, they celebrated a festival named ‘Siddhi Habba’ at Bhagavati Halli of Hariyala Taluk, where they showcased their dance forms such as Gamate Nrutya and Pugudi Nrutya to localities. This festival was the very first attempt by the community, made after centuries to make their presence known to the external world. The festival was successful as it took place in a nearby school and all the villagers arrived to share the joy of the occasion and know the community better. The traditional dance forms showcased at the festival originated in the community as a result of the simple belief that gatherings must always be joyous in nature. The Gamate Nrutya is performed by men of the community who dress up in tribal attire and dance with simple steps, holding an instrument named as Gamate. This instrument is basically a clay pot whose mouth is covered using a leather sheet, which produces a pleasant rhythmic percussion. The dance forms are performed during the festivals of Holi, Deppavali, Ramzan and Christmas.

The very special factor about the Siddhi community is that it has members from all religious faiths – Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Diyog Basthyaav Siddhi, a well renowned activist from the Siddhi community says that this diversity in religious faiths within the community happened owing to the practice of slavery in the past, where members of the community were sold separately to different households. They came back to the community as practitioners of the religion of the household they were raised in. This has resulted in the community having people practicing different religions, which sets the Siddhi community apart from other tribes. The traditional dances are hence performed during all important religious festivals and community weddings.

The Siddhi community can be distinguished by not just their cultural practices, but by appearance as well. They have curly hair and strong jaws they inherited from their African ancestors. The members of the community are known to be physically strong, which may have led to their exploitation as labourers in the past. However, the community has fought its way to equality under the leadership of Diyog Basthyaav Siddhi and his likes, who fought legally to free the community of ties of slavery. Dinesh Holla, an environmentalist and close associate of the community says “Siddhi community has had the worst of limitations amongst the tribes of Western Ghats. It is incredible that they have yet managed to preserve their identity and develop a cultural one as well. Now, they are also deliberately making efforts to reach out to the external world and become a part of the holistic identity of the country. That is a progress we all can be proud of.”

Members from the community are now availing sports and theatre training from reputed institutions like NINASAM. A handful of them have also pursued academic areas such as advocacy and Ph.D, paving way for the community to further amalgamate itself to the modern world. Shripad Bhat, a theatre expert says “Siddhi community members have a multicultural potential within themselves, which makes them exceptionally asset-full. Not only are they physically fit for sports, they also have displayed great adaptability over the years. This skilled community are amongst the biggest undiscovered assets of India.”

The Siddhi community and its heritage are slowly diffusing into the cultural ethos of India. For centuries, the community has stayed isolated within the forests of Western Ghats and are now willing to share their knowledge and customs with us. It is a change everyone can welcome.

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