Jazmin Graves, AM’15, who plans to graduate with a PhD in South Asian Languages and Civilizations in June, focuses on the Sidis of western India, whose ancestors came from East Africa over the centuries as merchants, sailors, soldiers, saints, and enslaved captives. In her dissertation, “Songs to the African Saints of India,” Graves combines ethnographic and archival research with analysis of Sidi devotional songs. This year she is a Thurgood Marshall Predoctoral Fellow in African and African American Studies at Dartmouth College; next year she will teach in the African American and African Diaspora Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

How did you get interested in India?

In middle school, my best friend was Indian American, and she taught me some Hindi phrases. I was just hooked. I found myself at the public library with Rupert Snell’s Teach Yourself Hindi. That turned out to be the course book I used at Columbia as an undergrad.

I had planned to do my PhD research on Indian Sufi literature from the sixteenth century. But when I was studying for my oral exams, I came across a footnote. It explained that one of the regional kingdoms in premodern India that patronized the composition of Sufi romance poetry may have been founded by an African military slave. That was remarkable to me.

In the summer of 2016, when I was in India studying Urdu, I visited the shrine of Bava Gor, one of the primary ancestor-saints of the Sidis, who are African Indians living in the state of Gujarat and the city of Mumbai. The Sidis who were maintaining the shrine connected with me on the basis of our shared African heritage. So that was the beginning of my new dissertation plan.

A former slave ruled a kingdom?

Slavery in India at this time was very different from our picture of American chattel slavery. It was not limited to Africans—in fact, Africans were rare. If you procured an African to work in your household, it showed your status.

Africans enslaved in India often occupied elite statuses. They were generals and political elites who protected and governed regional kingdoms. They held a lot of political power, as strange as that sounds.

What was it like inside the shrine?

I was standing outside with a friend from the Urdu program, really hesitant about going in. All of a sudden, a black rooster came out of nowhere. It locked eyes with me—out of all of the people who were milling around outside the shrine—and started chasing me and pecking me, until my friend took my hand and brought me inside to get away from it.

The shrine was filled with frankincense smoke, so thick that you couldn’t see. Some people, who were not Sidis, were in the throes of spirit possession. It was a shocking scene. That’s when I learned that many people in India who are experiencing either spiritual or physical suffering visit the shrines of Sufi saints, to ask for blessings and receive healing.

Later the shrine keeper spoke with me and gave me some chai. I asked him, “Why did that rooster single me out?” He said the spirits of the African Sufi saints were ushering me in. He showed me the faces of the Sidis in the shrine and said, “Look at the face of your sister. You’re home.”

That was my first summer in India, and I had experienced a lot of attention as a Black woman. Everywhere I went, I was stared at. People would take photographs of me. Little kids would laugh at me, laugh at my hair. So to find a space in India where there were other Afrodescendants, who received me warmly and acknowledged my physical features as a source of pride—that was definitely healing.

“Afrodescendant” seems like a really useful term.

I borrow that terminology from Sheila Walker, who made the documentary Familiar Faces/Unexpected Places: A Global African Diaspora [2018]. It encapsulates the fact that we are people of African ancestry, but our national identities are defined by the places of our birth.

If there are Afrodescendants in India, why were people so curious about you?

The Sidi community is very marginalized, financially and socially. When I did my field research in Ahmedabad for my dissertation, some of the citizens were shocked to learn there was an African heritage community just a few kilometers away. Sidis tend to remain among themselves—maybe to protect themselves from the things that I experienced.

How do you deal with that kind of unwanted attention?

It’s important to speak up when it’s safe to do so. As one example, I was at a mall with fellow Urdu students in Lucknow when a mother and daughter approached us and asked to take a picture of me. At that point I was fed up with being stared at and whispered about in public, so I calmly said in Hindi, “I am not a spectacle. I am a human being.” They apologized and walked away.

Had you traveled much before this study trip?

I had gone to London for a conference and visited extended family in Jamaica. But this was my first time in India.

During your research, did you live in the Sidi community?

I lived with a Hindu host family in Ahmedabad for most of the time. One of my advisers recommended that. I was able to see how the Sidis’ devotional tradition does not stand alone. It’s not isolated from the larger religious culture in Gujarat.

For example, certain aspects of the ways that Hindus worship their goddesses were adapted by Sidis in the veneration of their ancestor-saint Mai Misra, sister of Bava Gor. I was able to see how African heritage communities in Gujarat acculturated to their environment and produced an Islamic devotional tradition that, as my dissertation chair Muzaffar Alam [George V. Bobrinsky Professor in South Asian Languages and Civilizations] observes, likely would not have been born outside of India. Their tradition is uniquely Indian and African diasporic.

Have you been to Africa?

Not yet! I’m planning to conduct research in East Africa in the future.

As you did your research, were you able to build connections with the Sidi community?

Absolutely. I built close friendships and was informally adopted by an elder in the community. By virtue of my being an African American woman, I was invited to participate in rituals usually reserved for Sidi women. That gave me a lens on religious life that hadn’t been explored in academic literature, prior to my research.

It’s important to remain mindful that highlighting one aspect of Sidi identity may unfortunately undermine another. For example, emphasizing their African heritage or Muslim identity to an audience that is influenced by racist, xenophobic, or Islamophobic tropes may “delegitimize” Sidis as Indian citizens, which can have drastic consequences for their safety and security.

With ethnographic research, it’s important for scholars to be sensitive to the needs and expectations of the communities where they work. Many Sidis have told me, “Researchers have come and gone, but we never see what they produce about us. They’re rarely interested in what we need as a community. They build big careers off researching us, but we remain where we are.”

But you took a different approach.

In the footsteps of one of my dissertation committee members, Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy (UCLA), and my mentor, Beheroze Shroff (UC Irvine), I made efforts to support the Sidi community’s needs as they supported my research project.

The Sidi people I was interviewing told me they needed money for their children’s education. So I worked with two young men from the community, who took me door to door to every household to collect data on the number of children and their school fees. I’m hoping to raise donations to support this community-led initiative.

Another aspect of responsible engagement with research communities is taking the initiative to translate published research into the languages these communities speak or read so they can also access what is published about them.

In your research, do you ever use a translator? The list of languages on your CV is truly humbling.

I’ve never used a translator. In the field, I speak with my interlocutors in Hindi-Urdu. I have professional proficiency in Gujarati for the sake of interacting with those Sidis who don’t speak Hindi-Urdu.

Persian is more of a literary language that I use, because there are historical documents in India that were written in Persian. I’ve been studying French since middle school. And Haitian Kreyol is something I picked up because my partner is Haitian American.

Did the pandemic disrupt your research? Had you planned a trip to India?

I was on the fence. I knew I needed to focus on writing my dissertation with the information I already had. I have a wonderful mentor, R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy at NYU, who told me there comes a time when you have to close the field site. There will always be an opportunity to go back.

What was the biggest surprise of your fieldwork?

That a sense of family and community can be found abroad. Even in a place where you’re out of place, you can still belong.

Photo Creds: 
Photo courtesy of Jazmin Graves