Rise of African slaves as rulers, generals shows India’s tradition of ‘openness’. India was the only society where slavery was not a barrier to social ascendancy of Africans and it was an inspiration to the diaspora… writes Arul Louis from New York
The history of Africans who came to India as slaves and rose to lofty heights as princes and generals shows the country’s tradition of openness, India’s UN Permanent Representative Syed Akbaruddin said.
Speaking at the inauguration of an exhibition, “Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals,” he said India may have shortcomings, but it has always been and strives to be an open and welcoming society overcoming prejudice.
Akbaruddin, who was the chief coordinator of last year’s India-Africa Summit in New Delhi, said that the continent’s leaders at the meeting who visited the exhibition in India “were as surprised as us” to see how those Africans had achieved positions of power and influence. Opportunities for the African diaspora to excel continued in India today, he said mentioning Ugochi Latoya Igwilo, a Nigerian who is among India’s top models.
The exhibition’s curator, Sylviane A. Diouf, said it illustrates the richness and diversity of the African diaspora and their contribution around the world to language, culture, literature, diplomacy and the military.
India was the only society where slavery was not a barrier to social ascendancy of Africans and it was an inspiration to the diaspora, she said. When the exhibition was shown in Harlem in New York, she recounted that the African-American visitors identified with it and said. “We are so grateful to learn about our ancestors.”
School students from the Bronx who saw the exhibition were inspired to go to India for a class trip instead of to Paris, she said. In India they met the Sidhis, the descendants of the Africans who came from the eastern part of the continent as slaves and achieved powerful positions. They figure in the exhibition.
Diouf said the exhibition would travel around the world to 25 countries, where it would be shown at UN information centres, and the texts accompanying the exhibits were being translated into Arabic, French, Portuguese and Spanish.
UN Undersecretary General for Communications, Cristina Gallach, called the exhibition “extraordinary” and a “celebration of the culture of the African diaspora.” She said their experience was a “tribute to their courage and to the open-mindedness of Indian society at that time.”
The exhibition is cosponsored by the Indian Mission to the UN and the UN’s Department of Public Information in association with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Along with Diouf, the director of the the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery, the exhibition is co-curated by Kenneth X. Robbins, an expert in the history of the Africans in India and co-editor of “Africans Elites in India: Habshi Amarat.”
The exhibition features paintings of Africans in India and photographs of their architectural heritage. Some of the remarkable people, whose story is told in the exhibition, include Malik Ambar, an Abyssinian who rose to become the regent of the Nizamshahi dynasty of Ahmednagar in the 17th century; Ikhlas Khan, another Abyssinian who was the regent of the Deccan sultanate of Bijapur in the 16th century, and Sidi Haider Khan, the last ruler of the princely state of Sachin founded by African Sufi Sidis in Gujarat.