Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers

Sylvia Rohr (Director, UAG) speaks to high-school teachers from the Pittsburgh area on including the Africans in India exhibition in their curriculum.

 

Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers

Authors:

Mrinalini Rajagopalan, Associate Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture

Neepa Majumdar, Associate Professor, Department of English and Film and Media Studies Program

A seventeenth-century painting shows the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) standing on a globe as two angels hover above in the clouds. His bow is stretched taught, about to release an arrow at its target: the decapitated head of an African man. The darkness of this man’s skin, his hollow eyes, and the owls (symbolizing evil) that circle him contrast with the pale almost radiant skin of the Mughal emperor, his stately crimson robes, and his opulent crown. In this painting Jahangir is shown vanquishing his archenemy Malik Ambār—an Abyssinian who arrived in India as a slave, rose to the rank of general and later ruled a principality that challenged Mughal imperial domination and expansion. Like so many court paintings of the time, this representation of Malik Ambar was a fiction, one that reduced him to a powerless African slave at the mercy of an omnipotent Indian emperor.

Compare this image of Malik Ambār to another from the same period that shows him dressed in simple yet stately white clothes. His profile shows his African features clearly—the color of his skin and his full lips. Unlike the above-mentioned painting, however, the regal dignity of Malik Ambār cannot be ignored here. Symbols of nobility—a long sword with an ornate handle and sheath, embroidered cummerbund and belt, and vibrant red shoes are combined with the sartorial effects of a devout Muslim—the plain white tunic and simple turban without ornament. He holds out a finger on his right hand—possibly indicating that he is uttering the two testimonies of the Islamic faith. In this image Malik Ambār is both pious Muslim and nobleman; unmistakably African while also Indian Muslim; simple devotee as well as formidable warrior. 

These paintings are only two examples of the rich corpus of images that make up the Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers exhibition. Between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, many Africans came to India as military slaves and some, like Malik Ambār, rose to become generals and rulers. Yet others were musicians, architects, wives, and traders and became an integral part of India’s courtly culture.The rich and long-standing contributions of Africans to Indian history, however, have been marginalized and woefully understudied. An initiative of the Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library, Africans in India showed at the UAG from February 15th to March 21st. The exhibition loan and related programming were organized by Pitt professors Mrinalini Rajagopalan (History of Art and Architecture) and Neepa Majumdar (English and Film and Media Studies). Their goals with this exhibition were to bring attention to the long histories of connection and exchange between Africa and India; to highlight the contributions of the African diaspora beyond the Americas and the Atlantic world; and to raise discussions around racial difference, migration, borders, and asylum—exigent topics in the contemporary world.

Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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