Winter has come late to Hyderabad this year. The mid-November chill is not sharp enough to bring out jackets, sweaters and mufflers; but the light fades by six and there is an unaccustomed briskness in the feet of people returning home. Some men step out of a mosque after evening prayers in AC Gardens, an area named after the famed African Cavalry Guards of the Nizams. The AC Guards were a special military unit raised from the Sidis, a community of migrants from Africa, to serve as bodyguards to the Nizam. Africans have come to India as early as the 9th century as slaves, traders or soldiers in Arab armies. The Sidis who served in the army of Maratha chieftains came to Hyderabad in 1818 after the British defeated the Marathas in the third Anglo-Maratha war. Further migration swelled their ranks and by the middle of the century some of them had become opulently wealthy, lending money to locals at exorbitant rates, and keeping private armies to enforce collection. None of that remains now. Even in their corner of the city, they are no longer a force. There are no signs in AC Gardens that show the presence of the Sidis, who have been living there since memory serves.

Through a narrow passage lined by tall buildings on either side, I find Afsar Bin Moshin in his one-room office. A swarthy man with broad shoulders and a large bullet-shaped head, Moshin is watching TV. Another man is seated near him. At the back of the room, a shrivelled old man sleeps on a bench. A Siddi whose family has lived in the area for generations, Moshin runs a marfa troupe for a living. The marfa, a drum of African origin, is the only cultural marker of Siddi presence in the life of Hyderabad. In weddings, festivals and celebrations of all religions, marfa performances have become a staple of sorts. “Lots of people like you come here. They take photos and write about us too. But it changes nothing for us,” Afsar almost spits out.

He is reluctant to speak further, but his companion eggs him to make a go of it. He rises, shakes off his irritability with a shrug of his shoulders, and wakes up the old man. Afsar’s father Khaji Bin Moshin was born too late to know much of the glory days, except from the tales of the “bade log”. But as a teenager living in the last days of the princely state, he recalls that the annual procession on the Nizam’s birthday started from AC Gardens. He doesn’t know much about his African ancestry either, except that his ancestors came to India from Yemen. The marfa was always around though.

“They used to play it in marriages and celebrations in Africa,” Afsar chimes in. Khaji learned to play the marfa from his father; so did Afsar. The marfa is as popular as ever, says Afsar. He gets gigs from several places outside the city—districts like Nizamabad, Karimnagar, Adilabad, as well as Nagpur and Bangalore. It is usually for marriages. Every year, by invitation, the troupe travels to Ajmer, to play at the Khwaja Garib Nawaz dargah. Marfa players from everywhere come there, but the connoisseurs gather around the marfa troupes from AC Gardens, he claims. The hint of pride is almost invisible.

The conversation wheels around to the hardships of life. The costs are too high, and the work irregular. A tall thin boy of about 15 enters the room. Afsar’s eyes light up as he introduces his first-born: “He is in tenth standard. He studies at the Maulana Azad Memorial high school.” His father tells him, “Go on. Talk to him. Speak to him in English.”

Hamare bacchon ko kabhi bajane nahi dega (I will never let the children play),” declares Afsar. He says that he wants his son to go to college, and get a job that will give him money and respect. Afsar believes his parents ruined his future by welding it to the marfa. “I studied till fifth and then dropped out. I had no choice but to take up the marfa. Aur phir bajata hi rah gaya (And have kept on playing since).”

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