Artists like Gitanjali Kalro and Sapna Bhavnani are doing extremely important work while re-discovering their own Sindhi identity; Since the release of the documentary, Sindhustan, Pakistani Sindhis had started an online campaign to invite Sapna to Sindh so she could visit the land herself
Sindhis are a socio-ethnic group of people originating from Sindh, a land that is part of Pakistan now. The settlers around the river Sindhu (Indus) worshipped the river God they personified: Muslims would call him Khawaja Khizar, ZindaPir, and Sheikh Tahir, while Hindus would evoke him by the names like Uderolal, Amar Lal, Uday Chand, and Jhulay Lal.Jhulelal continues to be the unifying force and the centre of the cultural activities of the Sindhi community.
While Hindu Sindhis migrated to India post Partition and form the majority of Sindhi population here, Muslim Sindhis and Sindhi Sikhs also live in India, making the population of Sindhi speakers almost 28 lakhs according to the 2011 census. Sindhis have also settled in different parts of the world and adapted into the native cultures. For contemporary Sindhis, the re-discovery of their identity and heritage has found its way through art. Sabrang India decided to profile two such artists from India who are leading the way.
Sapna Bhavnani, celebrity stylist, spent 7 years researching and filming the documentary “Sindhustan”, a feature-length film which premièred at the New York Indian Film Festival on May 9th this year. When asked what inspired her to make the documentary, she told Sabrang India, “I think it was 2010 when I heard a group of Sindh Fakirs perform at a Susheela Raman concert at Bandra Fort. It was very late by the time they arrived and the sound system had been wrapped up, but they played without mics and the entire audience sat arrested. It was incredible, I had goosebumps. I couldn’t believe this beautiful music had come from Sindh, I had never witnessed anything like it before. I actually went home and googled ‘Sindh’ for the first time after that concert. I also learned that day that the Pakistani Sufi singer Abida Parveen was also a Sindhi. I was that naïve that I didn’t even know there were Muslim Sindhis! I was puzzled as to why I had never been exposed to Sindhi music before, why it never made it here. The arts had kind of got left behind. I couldn’t find any film or documentary on Sindh, there were books, but no films. It was the music that led me to start on this quest. I didn’t want to make a documentary about Sindh that felt like a history lesson, I wanted to make it from my heart and I ideated for 2 years before starting the documentary.”
During this time, Sapna went out on a lunch with her grandmother, “I was trying to hide my tattoos, but she smiled and showed me a big Krishna tattoo on her forearm! She even told me I was ‘old-fashioned’ and told me it was a tradition to have ‘family markings’ when the communities lived in extended tribal families.”
Listening to this anecdote, it became clearer why Sapna chose to trace her Sindhi history through tattoo art on her legs. Her grandmother was delighted to see her tattoos and said it made her happy to see her going back to her roots. In contrast to the perception that tattoos are a western import and signify rebellion or “bad girls”, rural Indians have long understood what tattoos stand for. Sapna told us, “The women I meet from rural Rajasthan, Gujarat, they all understand why I have tattoos. They know it’s an old tradition. They understand that I have a deep love for something, which is why I have put it on my body.”
Even the art forms Sapna has used in her tattoos have a cultural significance. She has used Ajrak which is from Sindh and Madhubani art from India. She says, “I want somebody sitting in America getting Madhubani or Ajrak on their skin because they find it beautiful and inspiring. Our traditional art forms are slowly dying away, and something so beautiful needs to be showcased.”
Since the release of the documentary, Pakistani Sindhis had started an online campaign to invite Sapna to Sindh so she could visit the land herself. When Sabrang India asked Sapna how important it is for her to connect to her land, she answered, “I just want to see where my father was born. He never told me any stories from Sindh and I was never exposed to the culture first hand. We don’t have a ‘homeland’ here, or official recognition for our language, I worry how the language is going to sustain to the next generation. We Sindhis have spread out and settled all over the world, there is no single thread that holds them together, which is why I made this film, to start a conversation. Never before had ‘Sindh’ been searched and spoken about on the internet, as much as it has since the film started doing the festival rounds. This is why movie theatres are so important, because you share that watching experience with a community, unlike reading a book or watching movies on OTT platforms. This film is my Sindh, it may not be every Sindhi’s Sindh, and I hope that people watching it will go back and try to find their own Sindh.”
On being asked if she had discovered and adopted any Sindhi practices in the course of making her film, Sapna said, “Sindh was already in-built in me. The roots of Sufism come from Sindh and it explains a lot about why Sindhis have had a non-violent history. Even during Partition, the stories from Sindh didn’t come up because there was no violence, Sufism was so inherent in the people, as it is in me.”
Art has always been an effective way to engage diverse audiences. Giving it the form of adocumentary which explores Sindhi history through tattoo art, can definitely appeal to younger audiences and possibly inspire millennial and Gen Z Sindhis to connect with their history through creativity.
Sindhustan, the documentary, will be releasing in India at the MAMI Film Festival next week.
Gitanjali Kalro is a performing artist who has been writing poetry in Sindhi and runs a Sindhi language podcast called SindhiBoondi, which is available on SoundCloud and explores diverse topics and stories. Gitanjali talked to Sabrang India about her late arrival into writing in Sindhi language, “As cosmopolitan people, we are conditioned to write in English by default. It always seemed like such hard work to express myself when I was writing in English, but when I started writing in Sindhi I realized how easily my inner feelings could translate on paper. It took me such a long time to start writing in my mother tongue and now that I have, I aim to create as much literature as possible in the Sindhi language.”
She contemplates the Sindhi identity as she tells Sabrang India, “In the world today, to be a Sindhi is like being here but not here, we’re like sugar in water, wherever we go, we become a part of the culture and the local people. It’s the way we are, if you go to Hong Kong, Sindhis speak in Mandarin;if you go to Spain, they speak in Spanish. But this cultural assimilation can often come at the cost of losing sight of our own language. The best metaphor for Sindhiswould be the ‘Pallo’ fish that Jhulelal is depicted to sit upon. The ‘Pallo’ fish swims upstream, and that is how we Sindhistoo make our way in the world. We honour our ancestors by including our father’s and grandfather’s names in our names, some families have names from 7 generations back! We’re proud of our lineage and family businesses. We celebrate our Sindhi festivals of Chaliho Saheb, Teejadi and cosmopolitan Sindhis have also adopted other festivals like Diwali, Holi, in our own way.”
On being asked why she chose performance poetry and podcasts to promote Sindhi language, she says, “A language revival is now happening for Sindhi language which I majorly credit to the internet. There have been amazing books written in the past, but the reach of say, a YouTube video is far more in today’s world.”
Sindhi language was originally written in Gurmukhi, Hindi, and Persian scripts. It was the British who regulated it and the formal script was formatted to Persian. Gitanjali elaborated on her love for the Sindhi language by saying, “Writing in Sindhi has helped me create strong ties with my Sindhi identity and I have been able to create 22 podcasts entirely in Sindhi with ease. We need to create art centred in our culture, be it the patchwork that our grandmothers did, crochet art, paintings, poetry, or plays.”
On being separated from their land, contemporary Indian Sindhiscan and do feel a dissociation from their community and identity. Sabrang India asked Gitanjali how she connects to Sindh on a personal level, to which she replied,“I feel very connected, visually, with Jhulelal’s idol, the colours, what his symbolism stands for. I have even modelled my logo using red colour. Now I understand the power of the Jhulelal idol, the power of having a unified God.It is our story; like Christians have Jesus, Hindus have Lord Ram; we have one unifying chant of ‘Jai Jhulelal’ when we greet each other as Sindhis. It is where we meet on common ground even without access to our homeland.”
Artists like Gitanjali Kalro and Sapna Bhavnani are doing extremely important work while re-discovering their own Sindhi identity and in the process, inspiring thousands of Sindhis to stay connected to their roots. As Gitanjali says, “We’re good people because of our stories, that’s how our moral compass develops. Now that more and more Sindhis are connecting with each other and their language, it is time to take the next step and create legacies of Sindhi art for the next generation.”
- Poet, rebel, political adviser: Meet the Sufi saints on the Pakistan shrine trail
- Clash Between Two Notions of Purity: India’s Partition
- History in South Asia