Restoring the Indian experience

After school I would while away the time at my father’s small stall in the Victoria Street Indian Market, playing draughts on the chequerboards of flattened paper bags until the shutters to the main entrances were rolled down.

The market was known for its street fighters and its links to underworld gangs, as well as for its connection with some of the biggest football clubs in Durban. It was also a spot where runners from the big gangs could dispose illicitly of expensive American and English imported goods for a fraction of the store price.

It was here that I encountered many of the “Indian” gangsters and football players of the day and heard about the legendary times of the Victoria Picture Palace and the Goodwill Lounge. Names such as the Dutchenes, the Crimson League and the Salots cropped up consistently in the talk about gangs in Durban.

Dharam Mohan and Links Padayachee are remembered still as two of the most gifted footballers of their era, at the time when Aces United and Avalon Athletic football clubs filled the Curries Fountain stadium to the brim. And even now in recollections of the days when the Dukes Combo played at dance clubs near the Durban harbour, Runga Naidoo is remembered as one of the best ballroom dancers around.

These vibrant characters barely coincide with the image of the Indian that generally has been presented in popular South Africa culture. The more prevalent idea of “the Indian” — constructed first under colonialism and later under apartheid — is dominated by other stereotypes. There’s the image of the “wealthy Indian”, often in the form of the shopkeeper looking to extort the customer and exploit the worker; the “traditional Indian”, one who follows the cultural traditions of arranged marriage, caste and religious practices that are largely incomprehensible to the West; or the “weak Indian” who will avoid physical confrontation at all costs.

These formulaic impressions of what it means to be “Indian” have been at odds with much of my own experience and with the stories I heard as a youth. Within my family there were ballroom dancers, professional footballers, street fighters and political activists. The anecdotes I grew up with were so rich and populated with colourful characters that at times I wondered if these recollections were not romanticised versions, exaggerated to compensate for the dehumanising effects of apartheid.

Recently, filled with a desire to know things for myself, I began to search for evidence of the life that was so vividly evoked at the nostalgic Sunday lunches where my extended family gathered in shifts around the table presided over by my grandfather.

I started my search by looking for family photos. After visiting one family member after another I was disappointed to discover that the bulk of their old photographs had been lost in the moves from one place to the next after my grandparents passed away.

This process of looking for photographs to show evidence of a past experience revealed for me the reliance on the photo as uncontested proof of an experience. Without photos how could I reveal this rich and modern “Indian” experience about so much I had heard? If only I could find photos from other collections — The search was becoming frustrating and the intention of paying tribute to this bygone era through photography was beginning to seem like a far-fetched daydream.

Then one day, quite by accident, I came across some 1955 copies of Drum magazine as I was browsing through old journals in the basement of a university library. As I continued to page through the yellowed pages of the magazine, edition after edition, month after month, a thread emerged: intimate stories of “Indian” life illustrated with exquisite photographs unlike anything I had encountered before.

Here was a legendary archive of images and texts that spoke of other “Indian” identities which, to my great surprise, no one had cared to mention in relation to Drum.

It is only when looking at the original Drum copies and noticing the extent to which the “Indian” is represented in areas such as sport, politics, culture, social and underworld activities that one gets an idea that Drum‘s focus extended beyond Sophiatown to include spaces like Fietas and Newclare in Johannesburg, Cato Manor and Victoria Street in the Durban vicinity and District Six in Cape Town. In a further indication of its geographical coverage Drum did not confine itself to The Americans gang from Sophiatown, but included extensive exposure of the Durban-based gangs, the Salots and the Crimson League.

It did not focus exclusively on the notorious Sophiatown gangster, Kortboy, but gave detailed portrayals of Durban’s Sheriff Khan throughout the 1950s. With reports and pictures of the great footballer Steve “Kalamazoo” Mokone were tributes paid to the coloured cricketer Basil d’Oliviera and the Indian boxer and promoter Benny Singh. It meant that with images of the Sophiatown-based African singers Miriam Makeba and Dolly Rathebe conveying ideas of bohemian jazz, there were depictions of Indian musicians such as Sonny Pillay and jazz promoter Pumpy Naidoo at Durban’s Goodwill Lounge. The overall result was that Drum carried notions of a cosmopolitan black South African identity to people across the African continent.

The articles in Drum provide a primary source for insight into Indian experience. The intention of the new book, The Indian in Drum Magazine in the 1950s, is to use the material of articles and photos from the 1950s as a basis to present alternative perspectives to some of the “official” and stereotypical depictions of the “Indian” that have been left unchallenged for so long.

The book focuses on the 1950s because it is the era intrinsically linked to the legend of Drum magazine. It is the decade that in many ways marked what has since been recognised as a highlight of modern black life in the country predominantly seen through images of life in Sophiatown. The 1950s were a time of optimism on the continent. With Ghana gaining independence in 1957, there was hope that countries all over Africa would shortly follow suit. In South Africa the optimism of the decade ended with forced removals and violent killings, marked by the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960. Brutal enforcement of racist legislation was to epitomise the next 30 years.

The challenge of articulating a more multifaceted “Indian” self through the prism of the 1950s in Drum is an ambitious task, especially since the terrain necessarily includes discussion around the broader politics of race, identity, class and gender; all of which are in turn associated with interpretations of history, memory and representation.

My overriding intention is that, through this inquiry, richer and more differentiated notions of the “Indian” will emerge, which can in turn be elaborated on. While the images in this book reflect only a fraction of the “Indian” reality of the time, I hope they will go some way towards restoring memories and recovering, as Edward Said called it, a “history hitherto either misrepresented or rendered invisible.”

About the author
Author and curator Riason Naidoo was born in Chatsworth, Durban, in 1970. He holds a masters in fine art and, among other occupations, has worked as an education officer for the Durban Art Gallery and as a university lecturer. He has been on exchanges to the University of Baroda in India (1997) and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Bordeaux in France (2001).

On his return he coordinated cultural projects for the French Institute of South Africa and in 2004 curated veteran photographer Ranjith Kally’s first solo exhibition in Johannesburg, Durban and abroad. In 2006 he curated The Indian in Drum in the Fifties from Bailey’s African History Archive.

He is director of the South Africa-Mali project, Timbuktu Manuscripts, for the Presidency and the department of arts and culture.

The Indian in Drum Magazine in the 1950s is published by Bell-Roberts Publishing. The photographs are showing at the Market Photo Workshop, 2 President Street, Newtown, until October 19

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