History & Culture

How the Siddi community has been thriving through music and dance

Tribal dancers from Karnataka performing Siddi dance during the Pongal festival celebration at Thiruvalluvar Nagar in Besant Nagar   | Photo Credit: B_VELANKANNI RAJ

Elliot’s beach buzzes with activity courtesy the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha 2020. The main crowd puller? The Siddi Dhamal dancers; a troupe with a story.

How often do you see a crowd relishing every moment of a performance in a language they don’t understand, set to tunes they have never heard, using instruments they have never seen? Very rarely, unless, they are as energetic as the Siddi Dhamal dancers from the Siddi community of North Karnataka.

At the Thiruvalluvar Nagar Pongal Theru Vizha, the crowd does not miss a chance to whistle, clap and encourage these vivacious dancers, for whom this art-form is an identity; something unique to their ethnicity.

Living in harmony

The Siddis of Karnataka, are an ethnic group who descended from the Bantu-speaking people of Southeast Africa.

They were brought to India by Portuguese merchants about 400 years ago. “I have heard from the elders that our ancestors were brought to India blindfolded with their hands tied,” says Lily Jaki Siddi, a member of the Siddi community, who was one among the performers.

Today, about 50,000 Siddi people live all over India, of which, more than a third live in the northern parts of Karnataka. They speak their own language called Siddi Basha, and having lived in Karnataka for generations, they are also fluent in Kannada.

Trival dancers during a performance at Thiruvalluvar Nagar

Trival dancers during a performance at Thiruvalluvar Nagar   | Photo Credit: B_VELANKANNI RAJ

Largely settled in suburbs and forests, Siddis often work as coolies and unskilled labourers on plantations They were recognised as a Scheduled Tribe (ST) in 2004, by the Government of Karnataka.

Dance and music are integral to their cultural identity. They are widely known for their expressive dance form Siddi Dhamal, which portrays their community life.

Dhamal was originally performed as a celebratory dance, when members of the community returned from a successful hunt. Today, the Siddis dance on any occasion — they also sing and dance to cheer themselves up following the death of a community member. While women sing a repetitive song pattern, the men usually play the dammam — a percussive instrument which looks similar to a mridangam, but is made of wood and deerskin on the sides — and set the rhythm. While a singer leads with a phrase, others repeat in unison, in a refrain-like manner.

The dancers are colourfully dressed and adorned with leaves, with their faces painted. The language is predominantly Kannada, and though they are influenced by the Indian culture and language, their ancestral dress code still retains it’s unique identity.

Tracing their roots

The Siddis live in tune with Nature and depend on it for survival. And so, their music and dance are inspired by anything that happens around them.

At Elliots beach, they perform a song called ‘Fish’, which narrates how the elders from their community cook fish, while the younger ones ask how they are harming the ecosystem.

“We sing about fishing, how ants eat and anything that is around us. Nature is our only inspiration,” says Lily, before she and her group break into a a song calledChicken Saadam.’ It talks of how the Siddis can hunt down a chicken easily, but are often not able to buy rice to eat with it.

Having lived in India for more than 400 years, are they curious about their roots? Lily says that her friends recently visited their ancestral town in Africa and the results were very different from their expectations.

“They found that the language they speak is different and the community had a different lifestyle,” says Lily. She explains that though many of them are curious about their origins, they have mixed feelings about returning to Africa for good.

She says, “What if things have changed completely and they don’t accept us?”

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 8:23:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/tunes-and-sounds-from-the-woods/article30607717.ece

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