Soulful Stitching: Background

Introduction – History and Culture

There are many African communities with rich artistic traditions scattered across this planet. We may be familiar with the history and artistry of African peoples and their descendants in the Americas, but we know little or nothing about Africans in other parts of the world, especially those in South Asia who may have been part of ancient Dravidian civilization, and those of India, known as Siddis.

Africans, probably from the Horn of Africa (Nubia, Ethiopia, and Somalia), traveled to South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) early in the first millennium CE as merchants and sailors. Later (ca.twelfth century) they went as professional soldiers, sailors, and administrators for the Mughals and Arabs. These early immigrants settled in Northwestern, Northern, and Central India (the Deccan) and are mostly Muslim. Some rose through the ranks to become rulers, prime ministers, admirals, generals, and religious leaders.

Europeans — first the Portuguese followed by the Dutch, British, and French – arrived in the Indian Ocean and South Asia in the late 15th century. Beginning in the 16th century, they enslaved Africans and carried them to India. Those brought by the Portuguese to Goa on the western coast of India gradually escaped bondage and moved southward into the remote and generally inaccessible Western Ghatt mountains of Northern Karantaka in order to create free, independent African diaspora communities, much like the quilombos of Brazil, palenques of Colombia, the cimarrones of Panama and Mexico, or the Maroons of Jamaica, Surinam and Guyana. Others left the service of Muslim and Hindu rulers and migrated into the area from various directions at different times.

Quilters meeting, Gunjavati village

Today the Siddis, descendants of these Africans, live scattered in the thick forests and high plains south of Goa and number about 20,000. Those who fled Portuguese Goa are generally Catholics. Most speak a dialect called Siddi-Konkanni, but the younger generation now also speaks Kannada or English. Their African origins are probably in the region of Mozambique and Eastern Africa. Another segment of the population, which may have come from Hyderabad or the Deccan, is Muslim and speaks Urdu or other local Indian languages. A very small percentage of Karnataka Siddis are Hindu and speak Hindi.

While they have adopted, adapted, and integrated many cultural aspects of the Indian peoples with whom they have lived for generations, Siddis have also retained and transformed certain cultural and artistic traditions from Africa. The performing arts are the strongest, especially certain music (drumming and song) and dance traditions such as damam. In the visual arts, one tradition stands out – the art of patchwork quilts known as kawandi.

Siddi kawandi/quilts

Walking through a Siddi village one sees a colorful array of quilts draped over fences, hung on lines or spread on low roofs to be aired and dried in the sun. Some are bright and newly sewn. Others show the effects of regular use. These wonderful textiles are the traditional beds and covers of the people, made with love by women, especially the elderly, for their progeny – children and grandchildren. This textile tradition is not unique to the Siddis – other neighboring cultural groups create similar work. Yet Siddi quilts have a distinctive style that sets them apart from those of other groups. It is to these creations that we now turn, a textile tradition that is known only in Northern Karnataka, and is being seen for the first time outside of India.