Intending to do ‘field work’ for a documentary film on the Siddhi community, on 28, 29 and 30 of December 2009, friends Manjunath Bhat, Shishira K.V., Shrisha Bhat, Vijay Kumar and I travelled quite a bit in and around Manchikere and Yellapura meeting Siddhi people and people who have been working and interacting with the Siddhi community in those areas.
Those three days were memorable not because we managed to do the required ‘field work’ nor for the unexpected rain which added a different charm to our travel in the forest areas and on the mud roads or for the no-internet and no-mobile network area which made life more peaceful. Those three days were memorable because it opened a new world before us- A world which unfolded before us in fragments, though not completely, to reveal the complexities of life and also the struggles of life.
What that world taught me is something which I am yet to understand completely because that world is still unfolding within me. Hence I am writing down only about the things that I saw, the words, silence and music that I heard and not what I saw through it, though my teacher and senior friend Rahmat Tarikere insisted that I write about it, following my discussion about the same with him. May be I can write of it sometime later, after couple of more visits and more intense interaction with the Siddhi people.
So here I have sincerely attempted to write just a report, quite a lengthy one though, on what I along with my friends saw and heard in the three days with the Siddhi people.
It would be a kind gesture to give me your feedback, which will help me learn, unlearn and thus grow. Thank you.
05 January 10
Remembrance and Forgetfulness
“I don’t remember the complete song. Possibly Kusuma (Siddhi) would remember,” said G.T. Bhat, former Head Master of Rajarajeshwari High School, Manchikere (Uttar Kannada district, Karnataka). The two lines that G.T. Bhat recollected from his memory were:
Devancha naaun kaadun-nakago
Avvancha naaun kaadun-nakago
The lines were like a double edged sword. It meant, “Do not spoil/erase the name of the God, Do not spoil/erase the name of the mother,” and it also meant “Do not take the name of the God. Do not take the name of the mother.” The two possible meanings appeared to have two opposing meanings. The earlier wants to remember the creator (God and mother) while the latter silently, by asking not to bring up the matter, suggests the loss of memory regarding the creator (God and mother) and hence tries to avoid the issue of the creator (God and mother)
As the flickering flame of the kerosene lamp threw light and shadow on us, Kusuma, at he place near G.T. Bhat’s house, sang the Pugudi song (A Siddhi folk song). As silence was settling down after the song G.T. Bhat broke the silence with his voice saying, “There were these lines saying Devancha naaun and Avvancha naaun too isn’t it?” To this, politely and honestly, Kusuma said, “Yes. But you see even we don’t remember these songs completely nowadays.” She added to it, “There are so many things that we have forgotten and so many things that have got erased.”
The two lines that G.T. Bhat and which Kusuma couldn’t recollect, at once and at the same time, reflected the struggle between remembrance and forgetfulness. This remembrance and forgetfulness were in reference to the God and mother- who are the roots of existence. The demand, in the womb of the song, to remember the creator and the demand, again in the womb of the song, not to bring up the issue of the creator (dreading the exposure of forgetfulness?) both reflect the partial memory and partial forgetfulness. The song being partially remembered and partially forgotten by G.T. Bhat and Kusuma Siddhi reflects the partial memory and partial forgetfulness of the Siddhi roots both in the Siddhi collective memory and that of the world outside or the non-Siddhi world.
“Uprooted from its own soil and replanted in an alien soil.”
Few kilometers away from Manchikere is Kodse, a village where quite a few Siddhi families reside. One of them is Kalaar Siddhi. When asked to narrate some folk tales of the Siddhi community, Kalaar Siddhi asked if we knew Marathi. When we said we don’t, she said, “Most of our tales and songs are in Marathi. Our language is a mixture of Konkani and Marathi. We don’t speak Kannada though we live in a Kannada speaking area.” This statement of Kalaar Siddhi tempted us to ask her about the ‘roots’ of their community.
When asked, Kalaar Siddhi said that their forefathers, centuries ago, lived on the “other side of Dubai” in a country named “African.” The forefathers came to India “in search of work” for livelihood with “Two Hindus” in a “Lorry.” The Hindus went back leaving behind her forefathers; she said and added to it, “Our forefathers couldn’t go back as they did not have the passport to gave back, so they stayed back in India.”
A similar myth, of Siddhi people coming to India from Africa in a “lorry”, was presented before Chidambara Rao Jambe, who 25 years ago (1984) staged a play based on Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, with Siddhi actors at Manchikere.
Though the same myth continues to exist among some Siddhi people, after the world noticed the Siddhi community, following the staging of the play Kappu Janaa Kempu Neralu by C.R. Jambe, based on the novel Things Fall Apart, the intervention of many researchers and Government officials into the Siddhi world seem to have given a different angel to their perception of their history.
A neighbor of Kalaar Siddhi said that a team of researchers that came from Africa, couple of yeas ago, told them about a village named Abasi in Africa and a temple there named Siddhi Nyaas, which could have been the original place of the Siddhi people. Her belief in this is further strengthened by the folk song she has been hearing since her childhood which sings: “Abasiyella Bagabaindu Kaisa Chembela…” to mean “Men from Abasi have come down, do you know how they look?”
Winner of the Konkani Academy Award of the year 2001, Mingel Siddhi, tracing the Marathi elements in the language the Siddhi people speak, said that he if of the belief that the Siddhi people were “parceled” to Maharashtra from Africa. He in a tone of concern said, “People here did not have people who could do manual work, so they got us here,” and says that these “parceled” people later migrated to the Uttar Kannada district of Karnataka.
Lawrence Siddhi and John Siddhi of Yellapura say that the Siddhi people were brought to India from Africa by the Portuguese to Goa, for the purpose of “massage” some “400 years ago”. “Later when the battle between the British and the Portuguese broke, the Siddhi people migrated within India and reached the Uttar Kannada district in Karnataka.
Rahmat Tarikere mentions of the Siddhi army in the Bijapur and Bidar area by the Adil Shahi kings. These soldiers later, ran into the forests of the Western Ghats to liberate themselves from the Kings, opines Rahmat Taikere. So, it appears that not all the Siddhi people in the Uttar Kannada district of Karnataka have migrated from Goa and Maharashtra seeking liberation from the Portuguese and the Bristish. Rahmat also opines that the Muslim Siddhis found in the Uttar Kannada region could be the descendants the soldiers who “ran away” from the Adil Shahis.
Ramakishna Bhat alias Dundi Bhat, remembering the belief of K.V. Subbanna that the Siddhi people originally belonged to Moroco in Africa said “One thing of which we can be sure is that they are like a plant which has been uprooted from its own soil and then replanted in an alien soil.”
Culture and Religion
The Muslim Siddhi, who Rahmat Tarikere believes to have migrated from the Adil Shahis, is believed, by Hindu and Chistian Siddhi and also by the non-Siddhi people in the district, to have not “opened up” with the outside world much. But still the Muslim Siddhi does share the common identity of being Siddhi.
One can find, in the district of Uttar Kannada, Hindu Siddhi, Muslim Siddhi and Christian Siddhi. The religious identity can be seen as a prefix to the Siddhi identity or the Siddhi identity can be seen as an affix to the religious identity, but it appears like two identities are operating parallely here.
John Siddhi of Yellapura states that when the Siddhi people migrated to the U.K. district, they needed “shelter” and when they found a shelter they adopted the religion of the master. But, Siddhi people, despite of the religion they have “chosen” have continued the rituals such as ‘nema’ and ‘rock worship’ which is a Siddhi culture basically. When asked if the rituals do not clash against each other with the religious rituals he answers politely, “Culture is different and religion is different.”
Lawrence Siddhi mentions about the marriages that take place between the Hindu Siddhi and Muslim Siddhi, Muslim Siddhi and Chrstian Siddhi, Christian Siddhi and Hindu Siddhi. There exists a “healthy give and take relationship” amongst the Siddhi people, said Lawrence Siddhi.
But do the non-Siddhi Hindu Muslims and Christians share the same kind of relationship with the Siddhi people? “No,” says Lawrence Siddhi and John Siddhi. But he mentions of some exceptions and states that the “religious set up” doesn’t approve of such marriages indicating the non-equal status of the Siddhi people within any religion.
“No Religion, No Freedom”
Parashuram Siddhi, who played the role of Okonkwo in the play directed by C.R. Jambe 25 years ago makes the statement, “Originally Siddhi people had no religion nor they have had any freedom.”
“We (Siddhi) are treated like equals only in the Churches and the Mosques but not outside,” said John Siddhi. “The Hindu Siddhi people are not allowed to enter the temple,” said Gopal Siddhi.
But the Havyaka Brahmins who are the land lords in the U.K. districts claim to have “well treated” the Siddhi people. “We have never treated the Siddhi people as untouchables,” declares Dundi Bhat and so does G.T. Bhat who further adds, “We would not let other lower caste people inside our house but the Siddhi people were free to enter our living place and were treated as equals. I don’t know how and why, but yes, they were not treated as untouchables.”
Parashuram Siddhi gives his explanation as to why the upper caste Brahmins treated the Siddhi people different from other lower caste people and not as untouchables. “We Siddhi people would do all of their work so they had to treat us well,” he says and adds to it, “See this is forest area. Wild animals keep entering the human space. To safeguard themselves from these wild animals the upper caste Brahmins would keep us near them and for no other reason. Just because that they let us near them it does not mean that they treated us as equals.” Explaining how the Siddhi people were dependent on the upper caste landlords for money for survival Parashuram Siddhi says, “If we asked them for some money, in the form of loan, for the education of our children, they (upper caste Brahmins) would discourage us and not give us money.”
Parashuram Siddhi himself had to discontinue his studies after class six. He could not appear for his class seven exam as he could not pay the examination fees that year. He also recollects the days of his childhood when the parents of the upper caste students would “pressurize” the teachers not to let a Siddhi student to give speech on “Holy people” like Gandhi and Vivkenananda. The same parents would ask their children to stay away from the Siddhi children, he remembers.
Girish Siddhi son of Parashuram Siddhi says the conversion level among the Siddhi people as Christian Siddhi is increasing because of the raising level of the awareness among the Siddhi people about the importance of education. “The missionary people provide them education which the Hindu temples and Hindu organizations do not. And our people need education, so they convert.”
But these conversions are “coercive” to Shantaram Siddhi, known as the first Siddhi to have completed his graduation. An active member of Vanavaasi Kalyaana Sangha, which happens to be a part of the Sangh Parivar, Shantaram Siddhi, who greets people saying “Hari Om,” is of the belief that the Christian missionaries speak about Hindu Gods in a disrespectful manner and “attract” the Hindu Siddhi people into Chrstiantity.
Looking through the eyes of Shantaram Siddhi it appears like converting to Christianity is an easy affair. But Farnwina Siddhi, wife of Mingel Siddhi, whose son is in the process of becoming a “priest” in a pride filled voice, says that it isn’t easy to convert to Christianity. “Our culture,” she says, “needs to be learnt and it is not easy.”
Parashuram Siddhi remembers his parents and grandparents being Christians. “Christianity and Islam, I found to be quite rigid and to liberate myself from all those rigidities I converted as a Hindu,” he explains.
With the Hindu people the Siddhi people shared a “close” relationship, for existential purposes. According to G.T. Bhat the Siddhi people were allowed to enter the living space of the upper caste Hindu people “But when the upper caste people went to the house of Siddhi people the host would feel uncomfortable,” and hence the upper caste Hindu people “rarely” paid visits to the Siddhi houses.
“I Think I Can Make The Other Dance, Therefore I Am.”
Depiction of such visits by the upper caste Brahmins to the houses of the Siddhi in the play ‘Sattavara Kateyalla’ written and directed by Raghunanadan triggered a “controversy” remembers Dundi Bhat. The play which Raghunandan wrote based on his personal interaction with the Siddhi people during his stay with the Siddhi people for months showed upper caste Brahmins visiting the house of the Siddhi people to have a taste of the alcohol and meat, remembers Dundi Bhat, which invited opposition from the upper caste people to the play. G.T. Bhat recollecting the controversy around the play commented, “Raghunandan in his play projected us (Havyak Brahmins) as their (Siddhi) enemy and that spoiled the impression the Siddhi people had about us and also the outer world had about us.”
Raghunandan’s play, alleges G.T. Bhat, had a negative impact on the social image of the Havyak Brahmins while it intended to speak of the Siddhi world. But the play which made a great impact on the Siddhi people happens to be the play Kappu Janara Kempu Neralu based on the Chinua Achebe novel Things Fall Apart by Chidambara Rao Jambe.
Rustom Barucha writes in his essay ‘Neensam: A Cultural Alternative’ writes that the world outside and the Karnataka Government recognized the Siddhi community and following this they were given the status of “Scheduled Caste.” But the play did more than just Government benefits for the Siddhi people.
Parashuram Siddhi says, “It was only after we staged the play directed by Jambe Sir that the outside world saw us as human beings. The play constructed a bridge between us and the outer world. Outside people accepted us after the play. Earlier we too had inferiority complex inside us but with the staging of the play and the love that we got after the play, erased the inferiority complex and made way for a more free interaction with the outside world.”
Recollecting the days of Kappu Janara Kempu Neralu, Kusuma Siddhi says, “People said Jambe Sir that we Siddhi people will take more than a year to learn the play. But we learnt the play in just 19 days and staged the play on the 22 day before the then D.C. of the district Sanjay Dasgupta at Masti-Jedthi.” She underlines the point that the D.C. also did not know that a community of this sort lived in the district.
While Parashuram Siddhi holds the opinion that the play taught him “how to live,” Kusuma Siddhi opines, “Art was inside the Siddhi people always. But it was Jambe who brought it out from us and made us realize the existence of art within us,” and adds to it, “Earlier we used to sing and dance only inside our house and only among the Siddhi people, once we did the play we started performing our dance and songs even outside our house and also to non-Siddhi audiences.
Kusuma Siddhi happens to be the first Siddhi who is supposed to have spoken in public addressing a gathering. She was asked to voice her experience of being a part of the play, after staging the play and she did. That is believed to be the first time a Siddhi addressed a gathering in public.
The success of Kappu Janara Kepmu Neralu not just brought recognition for the Siddhi tribe, it also raised their self esteem and come forward and present their folk songs and folk tales before the world.
Girish Siddhi and his sister Girija Siddhi say that their father Parashuram Siddhi, after the success of Kappu Janara Kempu Neralu thought of taking on stage the Pugudi and Damaami dance which is an integral part of the Siddhi community. “Pugudi dance did not have a form and a structure as such earlier. People danced as their heart made them dance. But dad gave it a form and a structure and asked people to dance in co-ordination and thus prepared our dance for the stage,” Girish Siddhi and Girija Siddhi say.
Speaking proudly of the Damaami dance Lawrence Siddhi says, “Our music has such power that if anyone is to listen to it then he would not be able to resist himself from dancing,” almost reminding one of the popular statement of Leopold Senghor, “I think I can make the other dance, therefore I am.”
Things Fall Apart; The Centre Cannot Hold
It appears like Mingel Siddhi started a group of his own in the early nineties and Kusuma Siddhi started her own group of Pugudi and Damaami dance soon after the success of Kappu Janara Kempu Neralu.
Mingel Siddhi says he got the idea of forming a cultural group of Siddhi people when he was a part of the Akhila Karnataka Vikasa Sangha where people from various communities would perform their traditional dance and performances. So to showcase the Siddhi culture he started a cultural group in the year 1991. His active participation as a cultural leader got him the membership of the Konkani Academy for nine years and finally Konkani Academy Award in the year 2002.
Farnwina Siddhi, wife of Mingel Siddi remembers the days when her husband would be invited from various villages to sing all through the night. “Now with the coming of picture (to mean cinema) he has forgotten our folktales and songs.”
From the past seven years, Mingel Siddhi has not been actively participating in the cultural group that he started. And the people who are carrying forward the group, under the leadership of Kalaar Siddhi, say, “Mingel is not in our culture nowadays. He has left our culture,” which makes it clear that these people have taken the word ‘culture’ for their cultural group. It is the same matter which comes to light when they say, “Our culture has gone also to Delhi.”
Kusuma Siddhi speaks of her group getting divided further. “Ours was the first and the main group. Once we became less active Suresh Siddhi started his group. Now there are several groups. Now, even if we want to stage a play it is impossible because there is no proper understanding between our own people. I don’t think we can think of staging a play once again in our village.”
Hunting and Crime
G.T. Bhat though says that all the instruments and music that the Siddhi people play have “The same rhythm” he says that the Siddhi people are “naturally rhythmic.” Praising the voice of the Siddhi people G.T. Bhat says, “They are naturally good in music and pick up instruments very easily.” He says that the Siddhi people learn other labor works also very quickly, but says that “They are very lazy by nature.” Yet another common belief among the upper caste people of the region is that the Siddhi people are liars.
Countering these “ideas” Girish Siddhi says, “We are basically hunters and artists. We worked as agricultural laborers for our livelihood. Our people go work in the landlords field for four to five days but on the fifth of the sixth day they are unable to control their hunting instincts so they take leave, without informing the landlord, and go for hunting. The absence without prior notice made the landlords believe that our people are lazy. And when our people returned to work they could not say that they went for hunting or fishing because most of the landlords were Brahmins. So our people would come with some lie which got us branded as liars.”
Girija Siddhi says that the Siddhi people do not have the required strength to speak the truth leave alone lies and speaks of the several incidents where the Siddhi people have been “booked” in “false criminal cases,” where they did not have the courage to speak the truth that they were not a part of the crime.
She recollects the famous “Nagesh Siddhi Theif” who was a household name ten fifteen years ago. A thief wearing a wig matching the hair of the Siddhi people would steal things from farms and houses and then while running away would scream out loud, “I am Nagesh, a Siddhi theif.” Girija Siddhi asks, “Will any thief announce his name?” and says that it was an attempt to strengthen the wrong impression the people had that the Siddhi people were also criminals.
John Siddhi and Lawrence Siddhi recollect many cases where the Siddhi people were used by the “anti-social elements” for criminal purposes without informing them that the work they are being assigned off if an illegal work. Parashuram Siddhi says that the Siddhi people were being used as “vehicles” for criminal activities and would be caught by the police when the actual criminals would escape and be safe, behind the screen.
“If our people plot a crime then they would know how to escape but when they have not scripted it they don’t know how to come out of the trap. So these people who are being caught by the police are more or less innocent people. We indulge in hunting and we indulge in such a way that the police cannot catch us,” says Girish Siddhi and smiles.
Land and Organizations
There have been incidents of taking thumb impression from the illiterate Siddhi people and thus “swallowing” the little bit land that the Siddhi people possess, says Lawrence Siddhi. He gives a rough statistics that in the taluk of Haliyaala 40 per cent of Siddhi people own small piece of lands while in Mundugod taluk 25 per cent people do own land and 10 per cent people in Yellapura taluk. Some of the Siddhi lands are encroached lands. Mingel Siddhi says that his one and half acres of land are encroached land. But the Government neither chases him nor grants him the land. Girish Siddhi says that the list of the Siddhi names for the legalization of encroached land in 1972 was not sent to the central Government by the district administration.
John Siddhi mentions that there have also been incidents where non-Siddhi people, to take benefit of the Government facilities available to the Siddhi people, have issued “false caste certificates.” To stop such happenings now to get a Siddhi caste certificate one has to take a letter from the Siddhi Abhivruddhi Sangha, says Lawrence Siddhi who is currently the President of the Siddi Abhivruddhi Sangha and Siddhi Janajagruthi Mattu Abhivruddhi Trust, Yellapura. These two organizations, he says, works in the direction of tapping the Government schemes for which the Siddhi people qualify, creating awareness about the importance of education and conducting awareness camps with the help of Self Help Groups.
Girish Siddhi mentions of a Siddhi Trust at Manchikere which conducts a summer vacation art camp every year in the month of April for both Siddhi and non-Siddhi children. “This camp brings together the Siddhi and non-Siddhi world and enables them to know each other better.” The trust has also been taking initiative in staging a play every year with both Siddhi and non-Siddhi actors. Some of the recent plays have been Three Penny Opera and Chor Charan Das.
Recognizing the potential of the Siddhi people in the realm of sports Margret Alva set up the Special Area games where the Siddhi children were being trained for sports in Bangalore in a special hostel, recollects Girish Siddhi, who happens to be a national level athlete. But due to “politics” the Special Area Games was turned into Sports Authority of India where no Siddhi people were directly selected for the games. “Many of us were in our late teens when this development took place. It was too late for us to continue our studies then and too early to get a job. We were all in a fix,” remembers Girish Siddhi.
Dundi Bhat mentions of one Jaya Siddhi and his sister Maala Siddhi who found a job under the sports quota after being a part of the national sports team, but faced trauma in their working space.
Ghara Waina Vimana Gaile…
The very same Dundi Bhat, in a critical tone says, “Earlier they were simple agricultural laborers but these days you must see their style,” and mentions about the “cooling glass” and the “jeans pant” that the Siddhi people have been wearing off late. G.T. Bhat saying “Modernity has had great influence on their life,” says that the major investment of Siddhi people these days has been on “fashion and mobile.” He says that the Siddhi people dress themselves in such a way that they have to be recognized as Siddhi people only by their hair.
These statements make it evident that the Siddhi people have welcomed modernity and have interacted with it. This element can also be seen in some of their folk songs too. Kusuma Siddhi sings the song Aag’na Gaadi which means the vehicle which runs on fire referring to the train and also the song Ghara Waina Vimaana Gaile Baguvaa Yavange where the description of the wings and fans of the plane that is flying above the house is given.
When Kusuma Siddhi completed singing the song Ghara Waina Vimaana Gaile, G.T. Bhat tried to explain to Kusuma Siddhi that one among them must have seen the aero plane in the air port and that the wings and the fans of the aero plane is not visible to naked eyes when they fly above the house. Taking this offensively Kusuma Siddhi said, “No Bhat Sir, it is these days that the aero plane flies at such a height. Earlier they flew close to the ground and all the described wings and fans were visible to the naked eyes.”
When C.R. Jambe was staging Kappu Janara Kempu Neralu a lady refused to wear the costume that was designed for her, mentions Rustom Barucha in his essay. G.T. Bhat recollecting that incident says, “She felt that the costume she was being made to wear was quite revealing hence she objected to such a costume.”
Following the play by C.R. Jambe the Siddhi community has attracted many researchers. Dundi Bhat says that the researchers started paying the Siddhi people for having spoken to them and this “Spoiled” the environment. Ganapathi Siddhi had warned us that we might be asked to pay for having spoken to us.
Kalaar Siddhi mentioned about a team of African researchers who had come to meet them couple of years ago. But Kusuma Siddhi who stays around 25-30 kilometers away did not know about any such research team. “That is how it is. If the researchers come to the other side of our people they do not guide them to us and if they come to us first we don’t mention to them about our people living in the next village,” says Kusuma Siddhi.
Kalaar Siddhi narrates of the telephonic conversation she had with the African researcher who had come down couple of years ago. The researcher is said to have given his phone number to Kalaar Siddhi and asked to contact him for any help. “I rang him and I said that I was Kalaar Siddhi and I don’t know what he was speaking from the other side. He kept saying ‘Danku Kalaara Danku,’ ‘Hoke Hoke’ and ‘Bye Bye’ as I kept telling him, in Kannada, that I do not follow his language. But he could not follow Kannada and I couldn’t follow English,” and adds “Now I have even lost his number.”
Dundi Bhat mentions that the Siddhi people feeling betrayed by every researcher for none of the researches have helped them in their day to day life. Girija Siddhi says “The Siddhi people are so tired of being looted that fearing that their information will also be looted; they do not give away the deepest of their information to the researchers. They will open up completely to people like our Jambe and our Raghunandan who live with us for months and live like us, with us.”