We may be familiar with the history and artistry of African peoples and their descendants in the Americas, but we know little about Africans in other parts of the world, especially those in India, known as Siddis.
Africans have traveled and lived as merchants and sailors in South Asia for at least 1500 years. Others came as soldiers with the spread of Islam since about the 11th century. The Siddis living today in Karnataka-India are mostly the descendants of enslaved Africans brought to Goa on India’s west coast by the Portuguese between the 16th – 19th centuries. These people gradually escaped bondage and moved southward into the remote Western Ghatt mountains of Northern Karnataka where they created independent, African Diaspora communities not unlike the cimarron (maroon) communities of the Caribbean or the quilombos of Brazil. Today, the Siddi descendants of those Africans live in small villages scattered in the forests and high plains and number about 20,000 to 25,000.
Siddis have adopted many aspects of the cultures of their Indian neighbors but they have also retained various artistic traditions from Africa, like the performing arts of drumming, song, and dance. In the visual arts, one tradition stands out – the art of patchwork quilts known as kawandi.
Traditionally, quilts are created for family members and used as sleeping mattresses in warm weather or as covers during the cool, damp Monsoon season. Small, baby-sized kawandi, often decorated with small, brightly colored patches known as tikeli, fill wooden cribs suspended from the rafters of Siddi homes. Larger quilts come in sizes to accommodate one, two or more family members. A quilt for three or more persons is seen as auspicious as it implies a growing family with children.
Many quilters are older women who can no longer work in the fields, but younger women also make quilts. Sometimes several women will work together to create a quilt. At other times they may work alone whenever they have a free moment during their long, labor-filled days.
Kawandi consist of pieces of old, worn-out clothing gathered by the quilters from family, friends, or purchased in the local used-clothing market. When the women have enough to make a quilt, they purchase a cotton sari, the traditional dress of Indian women, which is used as the backing for the quilt. Starting at one corner of the sari, they begin to work their way around, fixing the patches with a running back stitch that eventually covers the entire quilt, both patchwork top and sari bottom. The stitches exhibit a distinctive rhythm that is part of the “visual signature” of the artist along with the colors, sizes, shapes, and designs of the cloth patches. Some women incorporate parts of garments uncut, like the neckline of a child’s blouse, or an old shirt with some of its buttons still attached. Others cut small square or rectangular patches of brightly colored cloth (tikeli) to place on top of other larger patches in contrasting colors. The final decorative step is to sew at each corner of the quilt one or more folded square patches that form a multi-layered triangle called phula, or “flower.” These serve no specific function, yet they are essential to a properly finished or “dressed” Siddi quilt. As one Siddi quilter explained to me, “they must be there, if not, the quilt would be naked!”
A Catholic order founded in Switzerland and active throughout India, The Sisters of the Holy Cross, has been working with Siddis and other marginalized groups in Karnataka for more than eleven years. With the enthusiastic support of these Indian Sisters, the leadership of many Siddi women in three communities, as well as assistance from Loyola Vikras Kendra (a Jesuit Catholic service organization), we created the Siddi Women’s Quilting Cooperative. All profits from quilt sales go to the Cooperative and are used for needs determined by its members (school fees, books, medicine, seeds, livestock, etc.).
Henry Drewel has curated a traveling exhibition of the quilts that is now available (see www.henrydrewal.com). Anyone interested in hosting the exhibition, supporting this non-profit project, or obtaining more information about Siddis and their quilts can consult his website or contact him at: email@example.com, Department of Art History, 229 Elvehjem, UW-Madison, 800 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706.