Panel Three

Cultures in Circulation: Religion, Music & Film in Diasporic Contexts

Reserve your seat at the colloquium here.


Panel Chair: Dr. Michael Nwanze, Department of Political Science, Howard University

Sidis at the Crossroads: Faqirs or Cosmopolitans? On Joining the United Nations’ “International Decade of People of African Descent”

Dr. Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy, University of California, Los Angeles 

Hamid Sidi, Community Member of the Sidis of Ratanpur, Gujarat

Most Sidi African-Indians live on the ever-blurring margins of world knowledge, but within their own unique worlds of understanding, including that of their own African diasporic heritage. Creating the possibility of an intersection between these two worlds, of world knowledge and Sidi diasporic knowledge, the United Nations resolution proclaimed January 2015 as the beginning of the “International Decade of People of African Descent.” Sidi knowledge and practice of African-rooted performative traditions of sacred music and dance provide these people with their deepest source of community pride, identity, and belonging, within the secular – but deeply spiritual, and religiously divided – nation that is called India.


African Indian (Siddi) Pentecostals: Identity Formations in South Asia

Dr. Pashington Obeng, Wellesley College

This study elucidates the historical context and the significant, yet understudied ways in which Siddis deploy Pentecostalism to articulate their notions of spiritual liberation and security in India.

This discussion 1. Assesses the historical background of pentecostalism in Karnataka, 2. Analyzes how Siddis use their religious identity to create alternative spaces to reinterpret Christianity, and to retrieve and reposition their membership in the Indian subcontinent, and 3. Uses the insights to formulate a framework for understanding African diasporic social memory recovery as Siddis deploy their agency within Indian religious ideals.


Black, Brown and Blue: Race, Color and Identity in South Asia

Dr. Kenneth X. Robbins, Collector-Archivist

This paper is an exploratory historical examination of South Asian attitudes and concepts of race, color, and identity utilizing visual artifacts of both high culture and mass culture. Identification of “Africans” in South Asia by skin color, physiognomy, and dress is problematic. The categories of “African” and “Indian” are sometimes conflated. Pictorial representations are used to illustrate multiple and confusing concepts of race and color in South Asia as well as to raise suggestions for areas of further research.


A Desi Love Supreme: Musicking Afro-South Asian Politics with John Coltrane

Dr. Elliott H. Powell, University of Minnesota 

From the mid-1950s until his death in 1967, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane dedicated much of his career and life to the study of African, Afro-diasporic, and Indian music and religions. Jazz scholarship has overwhelmingly posited that many of his recordings during this period, like “Reverend King,” articulated with the long civil rights movement and anticolonial protests in Africa. Yet, much of this same scholarship has curiously argued that songs like “India” were apolitical sonic texts that simply expressed Coltrane’s personal interest in Indian music and spirituality. Thus, this paper asks: what happens when we see Coltrane’s engagements with Indian spirituality and music in the same light as his musical and political connections to Africa and the African diaspora? This paper aims to put Coltrane’s sonic and spiritual visions of Africa/African diaspora and India in conversation with one another, not as disparate passions, but rather mutually constitutive and interlocking investments. I argue that Coltrane used music during this particular period as an Afro-Asian political tool. In particular, I contend that John Coltrane, much like the political leaders attending the 1955 Bandung Conference, sought to bridge African, Indian, and Afro-diasporic communities in order enact a cross-cultural and transnational vision of social justice.


Representing African American Artistry: Black Musicians and Cabaret Culture in 1930s Bombay

Dr. Bradley Shope, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi

In August 1936, the proprietors of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Bombay reconfigured the Universal Pictures film Show Boat (1936) into a successful cabaret titled “Show Boat Dance.” Debuting shortly after the film’s release in the Bombay, the cabaret included black spirituals from the film that were performed by African American jazz musicians living in India at the time. Audiences for these shows in Bombay were composed largely of British, Europeans, and wealthy Indians (including Anglo-Indians). Advertisements for the cabaret featured so-called “darky” iconographies that emphasized racist images of African Americans, including large red lips, balloonish heads, and cartoonish body postures. This presentation will suggest that these images essentialized and idealized these musicians through imagined referents to a more innately artistic culture seen among black Americans in the southern United States. It will more specifically claim that through these marketing images, the proprietors of the cabaret sought to convey that the performances showcased a deeper musicality that only African American musicians in India could successfully achieve.


MR. INDIA (2015) and Other Lives of “Bollywood” in Africa

Dr. Samhita Sunya, University of Virginia

INDIA (Richard Boateng, 2015), a Ghana-India co-production, recently debuted as the first Ghana-India (and indeed, Africa – South Asia) coproduction that was, furthermore, prominently billed as such. Starring a mixed Ghanaian and Indian cast and likewise shot in both Accra and Chandigarh, the narrative of the film itself dramatizes themes of travel, friendship, and love, between Africa(ns) and South Asia(ns). At the same time, the film depicts issues of racial (and class) difference between Ghanaians and Indians, ultimately placing its faith – both within the narrative and in its very endeavor as a co-production – in cinema itself, as a shared domain of pleasure and romance for Africans and South Asians alike. Ultimately, such a reading of MR. INDIA points to larger histories of travel and migration, of both Bollywood films and South Asian communities, to and within Africa.


Goddess Crossing the Dark Waters: Kalimai Worship in the Americas

Rupa Pillai, PhD Candidate, University of Oregon

She is a goddess to be feared. She is a goddess that nurtures. The contradictions inherent in Mother Kali enable Her to adapt to suit the needs of Her devotees in Kalimai worship. Transcending the boundaries of the Indian subcontinent, Her devotees transport Her across the dark waters of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans to their new homelands in the Caribbean and North America. In Her migration, She adapts and reacts to the many forces that act upon Her devotees and morphs from a marginalized goddess within the Hindu tradition to a goddess that is a Universal Mother. In this presentation, I will discuss the adaptations of Kalimai worship in the Americas and how migration has expanded her devotees beyond descendants of Indian indentured laborers to include Afro-Caribbeans, Sikhs, and other multiracial and multiethnic devotees.