Meeting in the cradle of culture

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Two lands separated by an ocean, yet brought together by ties of common culture, geopolitics, cricket and just a bit more...

It may be a stretch to say that the link between India and Africa goes back to a proto-geological era when both the landmasses were cradled within Gondwanaland.

But a legacy, which took birth when traders from Kutch latched on to the trade in East Africa, has over generations become reinforced by a shared uprising against colonialism and imperialism; broad potential for trade; and culturally rich heritages. And of course, Mahatma Gandhi.

India is among the top five trade partners of Africa, and is responsible for numerous business mergers in the large continent. Even as bilateral trade has pole-vaulted above $60 billion, leaders are eyeing the $100 billion mark by end of year.

But beyond the material commodities — gold, copper, working expatriates — that link the two regions, we dig here for the less-touted commonalities they share. With the colourful India-Africa Forum Summit for a backdrop...


... we sight and cite some interesting cultural similarities.

First off, doesn't this look like a rudimentary version of dandiya raas to you?


A Tavil and Nadaswaram performance in progress in Rameswaram. ~ Photo: L. Balachandar

And is that the traditional South African rawhide bata drum, a sacred instrument that usually accompanies religious events, being played by the South African dance troupe? Or is it a misshapen version of the tavil (right), a south Indian percussion instrument played in temples to tales of Hindu gods?

Or is it the dhol's African cousin making an appearance here? The dhol too is a very loud instrument played in religio-cultural events in north India. Music and religiosity seem to have as much of a symbiosis in the African musical conventions as they do in Indian tradition.

Moving as one

Kalaripayattu — combat plus art. ~ Photo: L. Balachandar

And that groin-tearing leap from the South African dancer in the foreground! That has to take just as much toll on the body as does Kalaripayattu, an amalgam of combat moves and artistic body contortions.

Originally a martially artform from Kerala — involving high-intensity strikes, kicks, grapples and weapons — Kalari has evolved into a dance form. African dance forms too are often based on virility, vitality and a feel of urgency, as is expected of an artform that derives its origins in the movements of tribal warfare.

Yoweri Museveni at the IAF summit in New Delhi. ~ Photo: AP

Is that a dainty little jig? Don't be surprised if Uganda President Yoweri Museveni actually did break into dance to mark the occasion. A unique highlight of African dance forms is that they are tailored into every social event and category. There are dances for births, naming ceremonies, coming-of-age, courtships, weddings, deaths, burials, and even appeasing evil spirits. Why not one for a bicultural symposium such as the IAF summit, wonders Mr. Museveni?

Doople is a feature of nearly every African dance form. It is performed by hunching low with your weight on bent knees, getting low enough to connect with the "life-giving" ground. This technique is elaborated in Ivory Coast-based French choreographer and dance theorist Alphonse Tierou's book titled Doople, loi eternelle de la danse Africaine [Doople, the eternal law of African dance].

On the Indian side too, Bharatanatyam dancers focus on the aramandi, the bending of the knees to fix the body at a low centre of gravity. Both the doople and the aramandi seem to be built on the idea of stability and humility. Mr. Museveni is not quite there, but he must have tried!

Wear and bear


India and parts of tropical Africa share similar climes and, therefore, similar attire. Above, we see King of Morocco Mohammed VI wearing a striped Dashiki suit not very different in material and design from an Indian kurta.

Perhaps Prime Minister Narendra Modi felt left out of all the turban-related festivity. So, plans were made... ~ Photo: PTI

In Africa, the headgear is a sign of exclusivity and status.

In the Horn of Africa, turbans are sported by Muslim clerics as well as Christian priests. In North Africa, the colour of the turban can signify a tribe.

Indian history and tradition too is replete with donning of headgear — be it ornate crowns, the Mughal Taj-i-Izzat (literally, "hat of honour") or the Sikh turban.

Black sufis of Gujarat

Now we've hit close to Gujarat, did you know that Africans are among the oldest settlers in the land of our Prime Minister?


A Sidi performer wields the Malunga, a single-stringed musical bow, during a performance in Chennai. ~ Photo: N. Sridharan

Known as the black sufis of Gujarat, the Sidis are a tribal community that hail from East Africa and made the west coast of India their home in the 13th Century. That's just a few hundred years after the Parsis landed.

As an offshoot of their spiritual bent, they possess a rich musical tradition and are traditionally known to perform sacred music dedicated to their black Sufi saint, Bava Gor, as wandering fakirs. And they use a huge bow called Malunga for musical accompaniment. Kind of like Villupayattu from down south (where they tell stories with a giant bow), right?

Having led an itinerant lifestyle for centuries, the Sidis make a livelihood on the alms and charity of their patrons. Their music has intermingled with Indian influences and forms the perfect symbol of African-Indianness.

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