Stylist Sapna Bhavnani on her documentary, Sindhustan

Nine years ago, Sapna Bhavnani heard a group of fakirs perform at a Susheela Raman concert and was “blown away” by the fact that they were from Sindh. “I hadn’t witnessed anything like that my entire life,” she shares, and says that the first thing she did after returning home was to Google: ‘What is Sindh?’. She spent the following years looking for the answer, and the journey culminated in her film Sindhustan, a feature-length documentary which premièred at the New York Indian Film Festival on May 9.

Growing up Sindhi

Born and raised in Mumbai, Bhavnani moved to the US at 18 and lived there for 14 years. For most of her life, being Sindhi didn’t mean much beyond a title. Her Pune-born, Sindhi-medium educated mother, embarrassed about being unable to talk to her daughter in English, trained herself to communicate in the language. Her father — who owned Blue Nile, Bombay’s famous cabaret bar — reserved Sindhi only for his friends.

The only person who spoke to her in her native tongue was her grandmother, who proved to be another catalyst for the 60-minute Sindhustan. She, too, was inked. “A pretty big Krishna on her forearm,” recalls Bhavnani, 48, who got her tattoos done in the early 90s in America. Her grandmother was initially “shocked” at the efforts Bhavnani had taken to cover herself with Sindhi-inspired work. But she was also delighted that she was going back to her roots. (Originally, the community lived in extended tribal families, where everyone had “markings”.)

Sindhustan is an effort to put two dying art forms — Ajrak from Sindh and Kutch, and Madhubani from India — on the global tattoo scene. [Imagine] someone sitting in the US getting these. That is my goal. Art transcends, and can send a message like nothing else. If you don’t take risks with your art, then you aren’t really making art,” she says.

Breaking barriers

The documentary opens with her aunt, Sundri Keswani, cooking and talking about Bhavnani’s childhood. You’ll see her a few more times during the film, making traditional dishes such as Sindhi kadhi, aloo tuk and dahi vada. She also shares her experiences during the Partition, when she lived in Ludhiana, close to what became the border.

Stylist Sapna Bhavnani on her documentary, Sindhustan

“The film is called Sindhustan because that is the correct name,” says Bhavnani, explaining that when the Persians came, they couldn’t pronounce the ‘sa’ in the river Sindhu, so it became Indu. The people who lived around the river Indu became Hindus. “Muslim Sindhis are now reaching out to invite me as a speaker. You have to break these boundaries, and I know this film will do that. I am very optimistic,” she says, adding, “We need to understand how much love there was before this line was drawn,” reiterating that the Sindhi migration was the “largest of a culture in history”.

The language of ink

Bhavnani spent two years just thinking about the story’s format, which is when she remembered the interaction with her grandmother. Although this wasn’t her primary motivation, she thought that the youth would pay attention to a language they could relate to, which was ink. She started interviewing people who had witnessed the Partition, and took these stories to tattoo artist Yogesh Waghmare. Based on these interactions, they designed tattoos for her legs, with corresponding visual and typographical representations.

In Sindhustan, Bhavnani consciously avoids showing her face and is largely present on screen through her tattooed legs. Tattooing her legs in a matter of 10 days was “insane and unheard of”, but Bhavnani managed it. Apart from considerations of budgets and schedules, she “didn’t want to walk around like an incomplete piece of art”. In the film’s seven-year journey, they filmed actively for about three-and-a-half years, with the final shooting schedule as late as December 2018.

While she was part of the New York Film Academy’s first batch in Mumbai, and has directed short films and music videos, she says they were “never really public, and way ahead of their time, something that has always been a problem with me.” She continues, “I didn’t want [the film] to be about ‘Sapna the stylist’. If you even are a little well-known in one field, it’s become very common to ‘branch out’, which I didn’t want. Instead of cutting hair, I wanted to cut film. And even though they are connected, I didn’t want one to merge into the other.”

For Bhavnani, getting inked is “embracing art in its truest form. I don’t believe art should be placed in museums or in expensive frames, so you can see it once and forget about it,” she says. “When it is on somebody’s body, it’s free. Everywhere you walk, people can appreciate it.”

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 8:58:22 AM |

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