Over the next seven years she traveled to remote towns and villages, mostly in Gujarat and Karnataka, taking pictures of the Siddi, an ethnic group from east Africa that came to India more than 400 years ago.
Ms. Sheth’s work culminates in a book of black and white photographs, “A Certain Grace: The Sidi, Indians of African Descent,” which went on sale Friday.
On her first visit to Jambur, a Siddi village in the northwest Indian state of Gujarat, she saw three boys playing carom outside a store selling beedis, or hand-rolled cigarettes. She says they gave her a look of condescension that confirmed her fears of being perceived as another typical tourist, even though she didn’t have her camera.
She continued to visit Jambur and Sirwan, the village where she’d first encountered the Siddi, and gradually developed relationships with the people who lived there.
Using a 30-year-old medium format film camera, a Mamiya 6, Ms. Sheth pays close attention to the personality traits and circumstances of the people she photographs. The delicate details of the landscape, the cracked paint of whitewashed walls and shadows of overhanging trees, don’t detract from their stories.
“When I told her we have to chase the light, she must have thought I was nuts, but she did it anyway,” says Mumbai-based Ms. Sheth.
After photographing the Siddi over the years, from Gujarat to the Manchikeri forests of Karnataka, Ms. Sheth knew she wanted to publish a book.
Along with portraits and scenes of daily life, Ms. Sheth’s pictures depict how the Siddi community has embraced Indian Sufism while retaining some of the song and dance traditions of its African heritage. Her work tackles complex questions of diaspora and belonging, not least in how the Siddi differ from Africans of Indian origin.
“Celebrating Urs, Jambur, 2006,” captures a group of children at an annual festival to commemorate an ancestral Sufi saint. Two of the children smile shyly into the camera, but the rest seem blissfully unaware that they are being photographed, and continue to dance and clap.
Ramzamma emerges from the page, confident and good-natured in spite of the challenges that she will likely face raising a fourth child in a relatively poor Indian village. Ms. Sheth captures this story of motherhood with a compassion that resonates across cultures.
These are portraits that speak to a common humanity.
“A Certain Grace: The Sidi, Indians of African Descent,” photographs by Ketaki Sheth with essays by Mahmood Mamdani and Rory Bester, costs 1,500 rupees ($28).