INDENTURED UNITY IN DIVERSITY by Selvan Naidoo & Kiru Naidoo

From the Ganges to the Kaveri and no matter where we travel in the marvelous land of our Indian ancestry, our African identity is never in doubt. In the words of Kwame Nkrumah, “home for us is Africa not because we were born in Africa but because Africa was born in us.” In a year that commemorates 160 years since the first Indian Indentured workers arrived to our African shores in 1860, we are happy call ourselves African “in the knowledge that none dares contest that assertion.”

In a month that celebrates the rich diversity that makes up our rich South African heritage, and for the purpose of this article, we narrow our focus on the arts and culture that was brought here aboard 384 ships by 152 184 indentured workers.  A people so beautifully defined by former President Thabo Mbeki when he said “I come of those who were transported from India and China, whose being resided in the fact, solely, that they were able to provide physical labour, who taught me that we could both be at home and be foreign, who taught me that human existence itself demanded that freedom was a necessary condition for that human existence.”

Indian culture, its festivals, rituals and food have left an indelible mark on the diverse ethnic identity of South Africa. Can you imagine life without a bunny chow? Even with our differences, our cultural diversity has strengthened us as a community twenty-six years into a robust, constitutional democracy. Our South African cultural diversity has been lauded world over that today sees people merrily dancing to the tune of Jerusalema.  

Beans Bunny by Riason Naidoo, Enamel Paint on Pegboard, 1997

Our indentured ancestry brought with it a vibrant heritage that sought to elevate art and cultural traditions in seeking expression. During the period of indenture, ‘free’ indentured workers found time for creative expression that manifested as a cathartic process to the oppressive plantation life. The late Professor Fatima Meer’s seminal study on Indians in South Africa called ‘Portrait of Indian South Africans’ foregrounds creative expression as a critical part of South African Indian life. She wrote,“ They began as the improvised expressions of the poor indentured workers….

The first lot of free Indians had among them a few musicians, storytellers and dancers who improvised in creating entertainment. Their meager talents and instruments provided for the little Indian communities, settled in rural and virgin environs of the city, the basis of all their entertainment.”

From the early years of indenture during 19th Century Colonial Natal, the construction of a South Africa Indian identity was dynamic and multi-faceted. The complex constructions of religion and caste identity that bedevil modern India were not evident on the plantations of the indentured. The bondage of togetherness when the indentured arrived at the port cities of embarkation in India as well as their camaraderie onboard indentured ships saw the development of a hybrid art, culture and language that cast aside social hierarchies of class and caste consciousness. This closeness saw Hindus, Christians and Muslims all coming together in the festival called Muharram, a festival that mourned the death of a Muslim martyr. The joint participation developed into a fusion of Muslim and Hindu cultural traditions that foregrounded cultural and artistic expression.

Muslim worshipper walking on a bed of hot coals, early 1900s. Fire walking called ‘Poo Kulithal’ or walking on a bed of ‘flowers’, spiritually exhilarates devotees who are physically unaffected by the hot coals. This ritualistic practice is generally associated with the Hindu worship Marriamman, a village deity of South India. The confluence of ritualistic practice between religions was very much a part of life in the early years of indenture. Picture credit: Local History Museum

 Years later, this fusion of hybridity developed into artistic explorations that have been lauded world over. The confluence of African and Indian art forms have forged ahead to create wonderful forms of artistic expression that have a powerful voice of social cohesion in our democratic dispensation. Professor Suria Govender’s Surialanga Dance Company pioneered an unexplored landscape of artistic endeavors that has enormous potential in suturing our fractured past.

Professor Govender’s dance explorations were proudly debuted at Tata Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. Inspired by Mandela’s vision of intercultural harmony with the Zulu culture of KwaZulu-Natal, Surialanga has created a uniquely South African version of Indian classical Bharatanatyam that incorporates Zulu dance and culture to boldly venture where no one chose to go to. Today Jasperi Moopen’s Tribhangi Dance Theatre continues with the tradition of marrying bharatnatyam, African and contemporary dance traditions that challenge notions of what Indian dance is.

In an arena of cultural proprietorship that is closely guarded by a Brahmanistic world circle of Indian classical carnatic music, Patrick Ngcobo obviated old world hegemonies. Ngcobo was born in an Indian/African neighbourhood of Gillitts in Kloof, Durban.  Ngcobo initially sang traditional Zulu songs yet chose to specialise in Carnatic music and could sing songs in seven languages including Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu and Malayalam languages. His teacher was the famous Indian singer Dr. K. J. Yesudas.

Ngcobo hosted a regular show on Carnatic music on the South African radio station Lotus FM, the first Black South African to do so. He was an ambassador for South Africa’s cross cultural diversity, and he expressed himself fully through his love of classical Indian musical arts. Sadly Ngcobo died 2015 and is sorely missed for mastering a craft that was foreign to indenture.

In the field of fashion and in 2019, renowned Bharatanatyam, Dancer, Verushka Pather from Ballito has made great inroads into evolving the traditional Indian saree into a contemporary African fashion statement. With her fashion label, Khanya, Pather uses Sheshwe fabric in the creation of traditional Indian garments that are much sought after.

Khanya by Verushka Pather combines Zulu and Sheshwe patterns into the surface patterns of the traditional Indian Saree and Bharatanatyam Dance costumes. Picture Credit: Joaquim Pedro

In the field of visual art, Faiza Galdhari, a master’s graduate from the University of Durban Westville explores issues of location and dislocation, together with representation and the empowerment of Muslim women. In this series of four mixed media prints titled Conversations in my Mind, Then and now, Galdhari challenges of “a place called home” and a yearning for her roots are articulated. The moniker of being labeled ‘mixed descent’, she has the distasteful distinction of being called a ‘coloured’. As a result of this, her family was forced by the Apartheid’s Group Areas Act to live in a ‘coloured area’, which she maps out in this artwork. In these Coloured townships she had little access to Muslim people, since most Muslims in Durban are Indian and would therefore reside in Indian areas. Due to circumstance outside her control, she thus experienced an alienation from a ‘community’ with which she desired a relationship.

Artwork by Faiza Galdhari titled Conversations in my mind then and now, 2004, mixed media, each panel approx. 84 x 60cm Picture Credit: Professor Nalini Moodley

The sociocultural influence of the Indian people on South Africa’s cultural landscape has been considerable. The architecture, food, colourful clothing and customs of South African Indians have made South Africa a rich, vibrant country where confluent identity and diversity are celebrated. Religious celebrations, like Eid al-Fitr and Deepavali have been woven into the rich social tapestry of our democratic nation. Creative expressions that combine different cultural traditions of our rainbow nation make our post-democratic South African Heritage dynamic and exciting, celebrated world over.    

Jasperi Moopen’s, Tribhangi Dance Theatre dancers in a show titled, Tribhangi Dance Festival, One Spirit held at the Sibaya Theatre in 2019. Picture Credit:

Selvan Naidoo is the curator of the 1860 Heritage Centre and Kiru Naidoo serves on the Advisory Board of the Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre at UKZN.  These are their personal views.

As Published by the Mercury 23 September 2020

1 Comment

  1. I have always been very interested in my Heritage as South African Indian and read whatever I can lay my hands on.
    However, as both my Grandfathers came to South Africa as “Passenger Indians” from Mauritius, in the late 80s, information about them is scant.
    Could you, please direct me to the best source of information about them.
    Please continue the work you do to keep future generations informed.


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