Tracing the African legacy in India

The exhibition delineates the compelling tale of enslaved Africans attaining the pinnacle of military and political authority in a foreign land

Updated - May 23, 2016 04:32 pm IST

Published - October 08, 2014 10:41 am IST - NEW DELHI:

Once upon a time in India, East Africans greatly distinguished themselves as generals, commanders, admirals and rulers. An exhibition that opens here on Wednesday brings to the city’s residents the compelling tale of enslaved Africans attaining the pinnacle of military and political authority in a foreign land.

Through the 54 panels that will make up the ‘Africans in India: A Rediscovery’ hosted by The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), visitors will meet Ikhlas Khan, a famous African governor, from the ‘Abyssinian Party’ that dominated the Bijapur Sultanate starting in 1580. Or learn about Malik Ambar, a slave from Ethiopia who arrived in India in the early 1570s and who later ruled as regent and prime minister leaving one of the most impressive legacies of any ruler in the Deccan.

“From Bengal in the Northeast to Gujarat in the West and to the Deccan in Central India, East Africans – known as Sidis and Habshis – vigorously asserted themselves in the country of their enslavement,” reads the exhibition brochure. The curators acknowledge this success to “a strong testimony to the open-mindedness of a society in which they were a small religious and ethnic minority. As foreigners and Muslims, Africans ruled over indigenous Hindu, Muslim and Jewish populations”.

The collection, which has been sourced from The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, will be shown in the Capital just days after a mob attacked three African nationals in a busy Metro station in the heart of the city. “It’s is pure coincidence that this exhibition is taking place at such a time but I think it is more relevant today than anything else,” said an IGNCA official who is closely involved with the exhibition.

It was on a recent trip abroad that IGNCA Member-Secretary Dipali Khanna met author and Indophile Kenneth X. Robbins, came across the interesting stories of Africans who were once rulers, city planners and architects, and decided to bring this information home.

When the exhibition concludes here on November 4, it will travel to IGNCA’s centres across the country including Varansi, Guwahati, and Bangalore. “We will also be actively getting school children involved and make sure they come visit the exhibits and learn about this part of history,” she said.

As the curators point out: “Although they were a common sight, the Africans who were an integral part of the history and culture of the Indian sub-continent have not received, in the present, the recognition they deserve.” And, this exhibition hopes to provide just that.

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