Winter 2000
Volume 4 Number 4


Street Theater

Although a minority people, the African Indians of the Yellapur district in Karnataka have joined forces with other Indians of lower caste, including the local Gawlis (herders) and the Dalits, to organize rallies, demonstrations, and street plays to urge the government to give land rights to the African Indians.

The African Indians thus align themselves with other culturally and economically "displaced" Indians to protest their exploitation. As they restructure their levels of affiliation based on the structures and symbols of the caste system, the African Indians, the Gawlis, and the Dalits simultaneously promote new identities apart from the caste system. Labels that were imposed to limit their level of participation or to predict what should be expected from them — where they should live, how they should raise their children — are turned around as they use street theater, dance, and song to dramatize their grievances against the state government and the landowner Brahmins. These strategies puncture and perforate previously circumscribed behaviors.

For instance, on January 19, 1999, 3,000 African Indians marched to the government offices in Yellapur and Mundgod staging plays. Using such street plays, they have succeeded in preventing the forest department from arbitrarily evicting them from their habitat. Local police officers have also stopped harassing African Indians who decide to put down roots in places they have lived since they were born. These descendants of Africans can now collect forest produce like pepper, spices, amblica, and acacia. Such demonstrations and street theater have helped them build self-confidence as well as join in solidarity with other less-privileged people in Karnataka. According to Poojary, the local politicians have begun to recognize the Siddis as a formidable group even though they are a minority group.

Religion, Self-Perception, and Identity Formation

In interview upon interview, it was evident to me that African Indians do not like to be called simply "Siddis." The name, as some pointed out, is a caste label that typecasts them. Balsar Mosa Kawal, 36, of Kendalgeri, said, "A stranger may call me Siddi for the first time, but after I have told him my name, I don’t expect that person to refer to me as Siddi." This farm laborer’s sentiments are shared by most of the African Indians I interviewed, although some add "Siddi" to their names to enable them to qualify for specific government aid. After four hundred years, some people need to add a label of race or ethnicity to their names to warrant their being considered for assistance.

Religion, too, becomes a label. When apparently powerful and sometimes dominant religions are employed as badges of identification, it isPashington Obeng (far right) at Cherigerri with, from left, Sister Alice, a Catholic social worker, Thunga, a Hindu social worker, and Father Francis, the superior general of Jesuits necessary to investigate how those religions are experienced and expressed. Moreover, it is important to ask if the bearers of those religious identification badges have their own religious traditions that defy the classification.

After traveling within the Yellapur and Mundgod talukas (districts), especially in Bilki, Kuchagaon, Kirwatti, and Haliyal, I discovered that there are African Indians who practice folk religions. Apart from those who use herbal medicine to cure diseases, there are "god-men/women" who are consulted by other African Indians. In addition to what I heard in Mainelli from a Siddi about the efficacy of folk medicine, I learned from the project director of the Siddi Development Program in North Kanara that he witnessed a healing event in Gutti administered by "a Siddi god-man."

Some of these religious specialists use divination and herbal medicines to heal their clients. Kumar Prasad of Haliyal and others like him venerate their ancestors and seek sources of spiritual lifestyles other than Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. In fact, when four or five other religious specialists visit Kumar during their annual festivals of dance, music, and spirit possession, they do not see themselves as practitioners of the three major religions often used to categorize them.

There are some African Indians who belong to two or more religious systems. Sadeka goes to a Pentecostal church on Sundays, attends prayer meetings on Fridays, and is also a devotee of Ellama (a Hindu deity). Her multiple membership defies definition as one who belongs to either Christianity or Hinduism. Yet that is who she is.

Copyright 2000 Princeton Theological Seminary
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