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XIII. The Sidis of Bombay: An African Reel

Among the most curious of the modern portions of Bombay City one may reckon Madanpura, which lies off Ripon Road and is commonly known as the home of the Julhais or Muhammadan weavers from Northern India. It is a rapidly growing quarter, for new chals and new shops spring up every year and quickly find a full complement of tenants from among the lower classes of the population. Amongst those who like the Julhais have moved northward from the older urban area are the Sidis or Musulmans of African descent, who supply the steamship companies with stokers, firemen and engine-room assistants, and the dockyards and workshops with fitters and mechanics. A hardy race they are, with their muscular frames, thick lips and crisp black hair--the very last men you would wish to meet in a rough-and-tumble, and yet withal a jovial people, well-disposed and hospitable to anyone whom they regard as a friend. If they trust you fully they will give you carte blanche to witness one of their periodical dances, in which both sexes participate and, which commencing about 10-30 p.m., usually last until 3 or 4 o'clock the following morning. They are worth seeing once, if only for the sake of learning how the Sidis amuse themselves when the spirit moves them.

Imagine a bare white-washed room, opening directly upon the street, the walls of which boast of no ornament save a row of tom-toms, and the sides and window ledges of which are lined with an expectant crowd of Sidis of varying age, from the small boy of eight years to the elderly headman or patel, who is responsible for the good behaviour of the community and is the general arbiter of their internal disputes. This is the Sidi Jamatkhana or caste-hall: and long before you reach the door threading your way through a crowd of squatting hawkers, your ears are assailed by the most deafening noise, reminding you forcibly of the coppersmith's bazaar with an accompaniment of rythmic drumming. The cause is not far to seek. In the centre of the room two Sidis are sitting, in cock-horse fashion, astride what appear to be wooden imitations of a cannon and beating the parchment- covered mouths of their pseudo-steeds with their hands; at their feet a third Sidi is playing a kind of reveille upon a flattened kerosine oil-tin; and in the corner, with his back to the audience, an immense African--an ebony Pan blowing frenzy through his wide lips--is forcing the whole weight of his lungs into a narrow reed pipe. The noise is phenomenal, overpowering, but is plainly attractive to Sidi ears; for the room is rapidly filling, and more than one of the spectators suddenly leaps from his seat and circles round the drummers, keeping time to the rythm with queer movements of his body and feet and whirling a "lathi" round his head in much the same fashion as the proverbial Irishman at Donneybrook Fair.

Meanwhile there is some movement toward in the half-light of the inner room. From time to time you catch a glimpse of the black sphinx-faces, immobile and heavy-eyed, framed in scarves bearing a bold pattern of red monkeys and blue palm-trees: and as the din increases the owners of those inscrutable faces creep out and sink down upon a strip of china matting on the far side of the room. They are the wives and daughters of the community--some of them young and, from the Sidi point of view, good to look upon, others emulating the elephant in bulk, but all preternaturally solemn and immovable. Here and there among the faces you miss the well- known type. The thick prominent lips yield place to more delicate mouths, the shapeless nose to the slightly aquiline, for there are half-breeds here, who take more after their Indian fathers than their African mothers, and who serve as a living example of the tricks that Nature can play in the intermingling of races.

And now the piper in the corner sets up a wilder strain; the drummers work till their muscles crack, now looking as if they were undergoing torture, now turning half-round to have a joke with a fresh arrival, until the tension reaches breaking-point and with a shout some ten men dash forward and forming a ring round the musicians commence the wild "Bomo" dance, even as their savage ancestors were wont to do in past ages round the camp-fires of Africa. Watch them as they move round. They are obviously inspired by the noise and are bent heart and soul upon encouraging the laggards to join in, One of them, as he passes, shouts out that he sails by the P. and O. "Dindigul" the next day and intends to make a night of it; another is wearing the South African medal and says he earned it as fireman-serang on a troopship from these shores; while a third, in deference to the English guest, gives vent at intervals to a resonant "Hip, hip, Hurrah," which almost drowns the unmelodious efforts of the "maestro" with the kerosine-tin. The "Bomo" dance is followed with scarce a pause by the "Lewa," a kind of festal revel, in which the dancers move inwards and outwards as they circle round; and this in turn yields place to the "Bondogaya" and two religious figures, the "Damali" and "Chinughi," which are said when properly performed to give men the power of divination.

Long ere the "Lewa" draws to a close, the women have joined in. First two of the younger women move from the corner, one of them with eyes half- closed and preserving a curious rigidity of body even while her feet are rythmically tapping the floor: then two more join and so on, until the circumference of the dancing-circle is expanded as far as the size of the room will allow and not a single woman is left on the china matting. Some of them are as completely under the spell of the music as the men, but they exhibit little sign of pleasure or excitement on their faces; and were it not for an occasional smile or the weird shriek they raise at intervals, one might suppose them all to be in a state of hypnotism. Perchance they are. The most vivacious of them all is the old Patelni, who since the death of Queen Sophie has been in almost complete control of the female portion of the Sidi community. She has no place in the chain of dancing fanatics but stands in the centre near the drummers, now breaking into a "pas seul" on her own account, now urging a laggard with all the force of a powerful vocabulary, beating time the while upon the shoulder of the nearest drummer.

So the revel progresses, sometimes dying down into a slow movement in which only the hoarse breathing of the men, the tap-tap of female heels, is heard; and anon breaking into a kind of gallop, punctuated with shouts of "Bravo" "Hip, hip, Hurrah" and the queer dental shriek, which our friendly serang tells us is the peculiar note of the African reveller. But at length Nature asserts her sway; and after the dancing has lasted almost without interruption for three hours, the Sidi Patel, Hassan, gives permission for a brief recess, during which he introduces to the spectators the son of the Sidi chief Makanda,--a fine specimen of manhood whose six-foot stature belies the fact that he is still according to Sidi views a minor incapable of looking after his own interests. At this juncture too an itinerant coffee-seller limps into the room with his tin can and cups and is straightway pounced upon by the breathless performers, who apparently find coffee better dancing-powder than any other beverage.

"How much" you ask him "do you charge per cup?"

"Saheb," comes the answer, "for two rupees you can treat the whole gathering, men, women and children to a cup apiece; for this coffee is of the best!" So we pay our footing in kind and bid adieu to the dancers who are prepared to continue the revels till the early hours of the morning. As we turn the corner into Ripon Road, we catch a final glimpse of our bemedalled serang executing a fandango on the door-step, and of the Sidi Patel with a cup of hot coffee in his hand shouting in broken English, "Good-night, God Save the King!"