Bombay Showcase

In search of a forgotten people

Starting afresh:Juje Jackie Harnodkar Siddi, whose narrative drives the nine-minute docu-film, with a new batch of Siddi athletes.  

India’s socio-cultural diversity is rife with marginalisation and oppression. Many minority groups are persecuted relentlessly at the behest of existing power structures. If not victimised, they are ignored; left to exist on the fringes of society.

The Siddis are one such group. They are believed to have originated from the Bantu people of East Africa. Academician D. Bhattacharya’s book Indians of African Origin traces the first documented record of the Siddis in the country to 1100 AD, when the tribe settled in Western India. Now these folk mostly inhabit parts of Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

As a part of a new project, ‘101 Traces’, the online video content portal has made a documentary film, Siddis: In it for the long run, on the community. The docu-film, directed by Avijit Pathak and produced by the web portal company, launched online yesterday.

Creative head at, Cyrus Oshidar says, “101 Traces is a project we have undertaken to document the remnants of different parts of Indian culture: either through a people, or through cultural artefacts. Siddis: In it for the long run is the second documentary film in the series.”

Parallel narratives

The film features two parallel narratives: one is about the remaining Siddis settled in Karwar, North Karnataka; the other that reflects upon the link between the Siddis and the Special Area Games (SAG) scheme. Spearheaded by then-Sports Minister Margaret Alva, the scheme was set up in the late 1980s by the Sports Authority of India (SAI). During a hunt for indigenous talent in 1988, the authorities travelled to Gujarat’s Gir forests. Here, they identified the Siddis as potential athletes, believing that the community was genetically athletic.

The SAG’s sudden closure in 1993 left many of these Siddi athletes unemployed and distressed. This fact is highlighted in the nine-minute docu-film, through the narrative of a Mumbai-based Siddi, 44-year-old Juje Jackie Harnodkar Siddi.

Working with the Provident Fund Organisation in Mumbai since 1998, Harnodkar is excited to be a part of the film. “I was taken to my native place in the coastal town of Karwar, North Karnataka for a two-to-three-day shoot for the film. Going back to my roots, and that too with the purpose of bringing my community into the limelight was a very happy moment for me.” Before moving to Mumbai with his wife and son, Harnodkar used to train the Siddi children in his village in athletics.

“Our people were very disappointed when the SAG scheme was abruptly shut down,” says Harnodkar. “We didn’t know what to do. Now, there is hope of the scheme’s revival, but it will take time.” However, reports online suggest there is a probability of the SAG’s revival. We’ll have to wait and watch.

In the film, Harnodkar also sheds light on the racism that the Siddi community is subjected to. “When I am travelling in a Mumbai local, I am often treated as a foreigner and have landed in trouble with the police a few times, each time, having to prove my identity as an Indian,” he says.

Ironically, Harnodkar’s patriotism and desire to train young Siddis to represent India at international sporting events is more poignant. With the supposed revival of the SAG in the offing, the Mumbai gent now has newfound hope. “I have heard that athlete Philip Anthony will be coming back from the Border Security Forces [where he is currently posted] to train the Siddi children in Karwar, around August this year.” Siddis: In it for the long run also includes footage showing Siddi athletes Kamala Babbu and Philip Anthony from the 1987 documentary film Quest for Gold , by filmmaker Virendra Saini.

Despite their East African roots, the Siddis have long forgotten their native tongue, Swahili, and culture. Now, they embrace the Indian regional languages of the villages and forests they belong to. In fact, they participate in the local culture. Other than the Siddi’s appearance, the only other cultural thread they have held on to is African music, which can be traced back to the Bantu people’s Ngoma music. Plus, many of their musical instruments are African-derived, like the musindo drum which resembles the Indian dhol. In the same vein, the docu-film’s background score comprises the poly-rhythmic music of the Siddis, lending authenticity to the visual narrative.

An exploration of the isolation and pathos of the Siddis, this documentary film comes at a time when instances of racism continue to defy the message of diversity and tolerance that India stands for.

To watch Siddis: In it for the long run log onto

The writer is an intern at The Hindu

The film comes at a time when instances of racism defy the message of tolerance India stands for

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 3:40:49 AM |

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