Shared History, Convergent Cultures

Neeti Sethi Bose and Fakir Hassen

Shared histories, kindred values and intertwined cultures. Traces of India and Indian cultural influence can be seen across Africa. From Marrakesh to Maputo, from Dakar to Durban, Bollywood songs and films enthrall and enchant Africans. Say “India” in Sudan, and the Sudanese are likely to hum their favourite Hindi film song. Chapatis are served for Christmas and biryani is a must for wedding receptions in various East African countries. And samosas are forever.  

Indian-origin words and expressions like duka, kachumbari and harambee are firmly embedded in the warp and weft of Kiswahili.  A troupe of blind musicians from Egypt and devi dancers from Burkina Faso cast their spell on Indian audiences in New Delhi. India’s Nizami Brothers’ Qawwali group and classical vocalists such as Pandit Jasraj and flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia send audiences into raptures in African towns.

Indian and African writers share the stage and discuss profound ideas at the ‘Shared History: The Indian Experience’ festival that provides a platform for dialogue and collaborative work between Indian and South African musicians, literary figures and dancers. This cultural connectedness and transfusion between the people of India and Africa is not accidental. It is rooted in history and tradition.

Indian traders set sail in wooden dhows centuries ago to African countries circling the Indian Ocean. In his travelogue, the legendary Marco Polo writes of seeing merchants from Gujarat and Saurashtra on Africa’s East Coast and praised them as “the best and the most honourable that can be found in the world”. Subsequently, Indian trade with East Africa expanded so much that the rupee replaced the Maria Theresa thalers as the principal currency in the region. The construction of the railway line between Mombasa and Kampala in late 19th century was another milestone in the history of India’s tryst with Africa that brought in around 34,000 Indian indentured labourers and led to greater cultural inter-penetration.

In fact, Indian contacts with Africa date back to prehistoric times. Often attributed to the early ancient trade links directed by strong monsoon currents that led seafaring traders to traverse the Arabian Sea and establish profitable economic connections, the links between the Indian subcontinent and the African continent can be traced back deeper into time, to the shifting of landmass, commonly known as Gondwanaland.

The connection between India and Africa, home to an over-two-million-strong Indian diaspora, has been a continuous process of socio-cultural and economic exchange.

Contact between Africa and India during early and ancient civilisations is reflected in the knobbed pottery vases that came to Sumer from India and the cotton. In the Akkadian language Indian cotton was called vegetable cloth. It seems that Assurbanipal (668-626 B.C) cultivated Indian plants, including the wool-bearing trees of India. The period from the middle of the second millennium BCE to the beginning of the Christian era saw societies in the Indian subcontinent develop major transportation networks for long-distance trade with Western Asia and the Mediterranean and through there into Africa, facilitated by the domestication of beasts of burden.

The Silk Route, the Amber road and the trans-Saharan trade route were instrumental in establishing links between Africa, India and beyond. By the second millennium BC, organised caravans could carry goods across on camels which allowed Arabian traders control of the long-distance trade of spices, silks and other luxury goods. The writings of the early Greek and Roman historians and travellers perhaps give us the first reference to these links. The Greco-Roman maritime trade contact with India was established via the Red Sea ports and saw a vast increase following the Roman annexation of Egypt. With an increase in Greco-Roman trade, spices became the main import from India to the Western world, bypassing silk and other commodities. The presence of African sailors, known as Siddis, stands out as a unique example of Indo-African relations. “The Siddis were a tightly knit group, highly aggressive, and even ferocious in battles, who were employed largely as security forces for Muslim fleets in the Indian Ocean. They retained this position for centuries and became revered commanders and were titled Admirals of the Mughal Empire.” (Runoko Rashidi in The African Presence in India).

Those regions in Africa that the British colonised saw the advent of the first Indian settlers in Africa who were taken or lured there as labourers, administrators or traders. The descendents of these people of Indian origin in Africa today find themselves deeply involved in the social, cultural, economic and political fabric of their countries of residence. Over the years, close interaction between the Indian diaspora and their adopted homelands has spawned a rich tapestry of shared culture, cuisine and worldviews. The Wot and Alicha, staple side dishes in any Ethiopian home, are very similar to Indian curries, as is an Ethiopian appetiser called sambusa, consisting of ground spiced vegetables or meat in a deep-fried triangle of dough, similar to the Indian samosa much savoured across the continent.  

In South Africa, the first Indians to arrive as sugarcane plantation indentured labourers invented a quick and nutritious meal called bunny chhow to save time as they toiled away on the fields. Legend has it that the bunny chow was named after Gujarati traders who launched businesses after arriving in Durban and created the dish. Today the bunny chow — a hollowed-out quarter or half loaf of bread filled with a curry of choice — is a popular dish among all communities in the country. The traditional Indian mango achar (pickle) brought to Africa by the first Indian settlers has been adapted to cater to local tastes with a variety of indigenous fruits and vegetables being used in innovative versions of the popular pickle.

The Indian influence on education, small trade and cuisine is as real as the influence of Bollywood. Canoeists in Cairo belting out Raj Kapoor film songs for Indian visitors, or street kids in Ethiopia singing the popular Bollywood song “I love my India” when they see an Indian, are common phenomena. Starting from the official screening of the classic ‘Mother India’ in many African countries to the huge success of ‘Disco Dancer’ starring Mithun Chakravorty in the 1980s to the popularity of contemporary Bollywood icons like Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai, Bollywood has created  a powerful fan following cutting across all age groups. One can pick up DVDs of Indian films in most African towns. In some places, it has led to the mushrooming of sidewalk video shows like the video-baets in Ethiopia where live interpreters translate the movie to the audience squatting around a TV set.

Africa’s love affair with Indian cinema goes back a long way and can be divided into two distinct categories — the pioneering Indian businessmen of South and East Africa who started the first cinemas to show Indian movies as far back as the 1930s, and local communities, black, white and Arab, across the continent who could relate to the similarities of the morals and values of Indian culture as reflected in Indian films. In North and West Africa, many communities such as the Hausa see Indian culture as being similar to their own in terms of the value systems. They cite examples of how the men in Indian films often wear ornate coats, similar to the Hausa dogon riga, and waistcoats, much like the Hausa palmaran. The popularity of qawwali performances by artists from India in South African rural towns, the remarkable resemblance of many traditional African traditional shirts worn by men to the kurtas used in India and the wraps of African women and the Indian dupatta or sari and the popularity of the Indian salwar kameez in Africa are all examples of this shared reality.

Cultural interaction has found patronage from institutions like the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), which has taken an eclectic range of Indian dance and music groups to various African capitals. It’s an uplifting sight to see Africans swaying to spiritually stirring performance by Delhi’s Nizami Brothers’ Qawwali group. African audiences, probably familiar with the sitar and tabla, have also experienced the music of such traditional Indian instruments as the sarod and sarangi. Performances by classical music exponents are as popular as Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor and Sonu Nigam.

The historical ties between India and Africa and their shared heritage have created unique dance forms where stylised movements of bharatanatyam and kathak fuse with the traditional rhythms of the African gumboot dance of miners and the dances of Zulu warriors in traditional leopard skins. Dr Vinod Hassel, a fourth-generation dancer from India, pioneered the teaching of Indian dance to African youth in townships nearly 15 years ago. Blending traditional African percussion instruments and dance steps with flowing kathak and modern Indian dance forms, Hassel’s innovative example was soon to inspire a whole generation.

Beyond the world of music and dance, what brings India and Africa together is a shared value system. Says eminent scholar Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yai:  “I am no Orientalist, but I know that African cultures and the cultures of India are convergent. The two cultures are based on very similar weltanschauung. For millennia, they have emphasised the oneness of existence, the harmony between gods, nature and human beings. They both believe in the formula: I am because we are.”

It is this sense of cultural affinity and kinship that led South African President Jacob Zuma to underline the historic and unique relations between India and Africa that hark back to the struggle against apartheid. “We have been together through difficult times as well as happy times. I enjoy the (Indian) music and the food. We are at home in India,” says the charismatic African leader.

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