Communities Society

How the Sindhi community is fighting to keep its rich cross-border culture alive

Sindhi women carry earthen pots during the Jhulelal Chaliha procession in Ahmedabad in 2010.   | Photo Credit: PTI

The streets of Shikarpur city in Sindh were washed every day and then given a final rose water rinse with an aroma so heady you did not need perfume. Or so the lore goes. Rose water fountains, havelis, hospitals and colleges spread over 50 acres — this was pre-Partition Sindh. If you dig deep into an elderly Sindhi’s heart, you will hear more stories: of the lanes of Khairpur, of that mithai waro (sweet shop) round the corner, the joys of eating palla (hilsa fish) by the River Sindhu (Indus). The Sufi song ‘Duma dum mast kalandar’ still gives every living Sindhi goosebumps.

Every young Sindhi has heard stories from their grandparents about growing up in Sindh in undivided India, and the difficult journey across the border and the loss of life during Partition when Hindu Sindhis had to journey over the border and look for suitable land all over India where they could settle down, often in the face of resistance.

A Sindhi musician.

A Sindhi musician.   | Photo Credit: Khalid Mahmood

And, for many Sindhis, the yearning to reconnect with their original home by the Indus, the place of their ancestors, is powerful.

Aruna Madnani, 62, is the founder and trustee of the Sindhi Culture Foundation. She says she always longed to walk the streets where her father grew up, visit the hospital where her grandfather practised, and see the place they called their own. She finally made a trip to Sindh in Pakistan last December. Her journey began in Karachi, took her up the River Indus to Mohenjo-daro. At the recent event ‘Journey through Sindh: A Lost Homeland’, held at the Partition Museum in Amritsar, Madnani spoke about this emotional voyage to Pakistan.

A map of the Sindh province.

A map of the Sindh province.   | Photo Credit: Saqib

For Henna Kalro, 50, who handles events for the Sindhi Council of India (SCI) and who is the author of two books, Flavours of Sindh on food and Glimpses of Sindhiyat on Sindhi culture, the journey was internal: to find meaning and pride in her ethnicity.

Initially, says Kalro, she was not particularly proud of her roots. “It pained me that my classmates’ parents in Chennai were heading banks or were scientists and I had to tell them my family were financiers. Was it even a profession?” All this changed when an aunt, who is president of the ladies wing of SCI, urged her to ‘ask not what your community has done for you, but what you can do for the community’. Her journey to ‘Sindhiyat’ began with guidance from her aunt. Kalro organised a food festival. “And it was then that I realised the power of community. We managed to organise a brilliant event at SCI’s Bengaluru Ladies Chapter (an organisation that tries to revive Sindhi culture). Several dignitaries attended and it culminated in my first book, Flavours of Sindh. And that’s when I started asking myself about my culture.”

A child at Mohenjo-daro.

A child at Mohenjo-daro.   | Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Sceptic to champion

Her existential quest behind her, she not only embraced Sindhi culture, but also turned into its champion. “Language as a tool to commemorate Sindhi culture is not enough. There are very few pockets where people speak in Sindhi. How do you make it desirable for youngsters? I think we must promote culture through food and experiential activities. Think food tours of Chembur, Ulhasnagar and Kalyan in Mumbai, think celebrating festivals in an authentic way. How many Sindhis know about Teejri, the Sindhi Karva Chauth?” she asks. .

Kalro is now particularly interested in the experiences of displacement — the routes taken — rail, road, water — by the Sindhis, their initial settlements and livelihoods.

Three young women at the Chaliho Sahib festival in Ahmedabad last month.

Three young women at the Chaliho Sahib festival in Ahmedabad last month.   | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

“It is widely known that Sindhis adapted to and imbibed everything their new environments had to offer.” Gujarat’s Gandhidham, for instance, was once the ‘land of scorpions and snakes’ until Sindhis breathed life into it, transforming it into the thriving city it is today, she says.

Madnani initially worked with the hotel industry in Mumbai and then with the textile industry for more than a decade in the U.S. The stories her grandmother had told her always played in the back of her mind, but the turning point was her meeting with Gita Simoes. “During my training with Taj Hotels, I was asked to go to Gita for uniforms. I have always been interested in textiles and weaves, so I told her to give me a sari from each State. But I didn’t know the weaves that represented Sindh. That is when she asked me to sit down for a chat and gave me a peek into Sindhi culture and the beauty of ajrakh.” Simoes’ illustrated large-format photo essay book, Sindhnamah, is an exhaustive work on the rich culture and history of Sindh and Sindhis, from its origins till Partition. Madnani’s Sindhi Culture Foundation now curates activities such as a talk on ajrakh dyeing by renowned textile designer Noorjehan Bilgrami, and Sufi music programmes, to promote the craft and culture of Sindh.

The traditional Sindhi topi in Ajrakh work.

The traditional Sindhi topi in Ajrakh work.   | Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Madnani is now a powerhouse of information. “When the principal of Sindh National Arts College Hyderabad fled to Bombay, he sold his wife’s jewellery to start the R. D. National College. Sindhis are known for their vision in education and healthcare. In the 40s and 50s, even when we did not have much, Sindhis started these institutions that stand tall even today,” says Madnani.

Syncretic shrine

Madnani’s visit to Pakistan brought blazingly alive the lives that were lived in Sindh pre-Partition. “I started my journey in Karachi and travelled upstream along the Indus, all the way up to Sukkur, Shikarpur and Multan. I visited Shah Abdul Latif’s tomb in Bhit where the waee singers (fakirs) were engrossed in a soulful performance. I visited indigo farms in Hala; our Kutchi Khatris do something similar.” Madnani visited the shrine at Odero Lal, where both Hindus and Muslims worship. “There are several stories about the two saints worshipped here, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and Udero Lal. Were they friends, student-teacher? I don’t know, but the connecting link between the two is the Indus”. In Sehwan, Madnani visited Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s dargah, where they perform a Dhamal (a dance that takes one into a trance) popularised by the ‘Duma Dum Mast Kalandar’ song.

The shrine of Sufi scholar and saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai in Sindh.

The shrine of Sufi scholar and saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai in Sindh.   | Photo Credit: Shahbaz Saf

She travelled to Khatwari Dharamsal in Shikarpur, where the guru sits on a khaat (bed); Kot Diji, an ancient fort, probably older than Mohenjo-daro; Sachal Sarmast’s dargah, and the cities of Jamshoro, Shikarpur, Khairpur, and Harappa. She dined on palla, also called the ‘salmon of the Indus,’ dhim dal (moong dal cooked in an earthenware pot all night), and kunne ja bhee (slow-cooked lotus stem). She spoke in Sindhi to people she met — shopkeepers, drivers, cooks.

And yes, she visited the hospital where her grandfather practised. “It still stands tall 70 years later.” But, says Madnani: “It is heartbreaking to see the city of Shikarpur decaying. The houses are in disrepair and the rich heritage crumbling.”

In August, at the launch of the Sindhi Gallery at the Partition Museum in Amritsar, several representatives from the Sindhi community spoke about the importance of keeping these stories alive. “It was heart-warming to see young people in the audience too,” says Kalro, who spoke about Sindhi food and traditions, the importance of having women in leading roles, and making Sindhiyat relevant to young people. Madnani loaned The Partition Museum her 100-year-old nose ring and a 1903 vanity box of Bhagchand Gahimull Ramandas, a Sindwarki trader from Manila. “It’s a little trunk covered in velvet with silver handles. Inside, there is a photograph of Ramandas with a collar made in the same velvet fabric. I also got his Bukhara carpet, traced and sourced from an antique dealer,” she says.

A 100-year-old nosepin.

A 100-year-old nosepin.   | Photo Credit: Henna Kalro

Kalro believes the gallery’s launch is at the very least a great start. There were ladas (folk songs) by Kajal Chandiramani and Sindhi kadhi cooked by someone else. “After 72 years, there are now 10 women on the managing committee of Sindhi Sewa Samiti in Bengaluru. I hope to see more women in leadership roles,” she says.

Hazy homeland

She wishes Gandhidham’s Sindhi museum could be refurbished, but finds it heartening that Indore has granted land that can be used to promote Sindhi culture. “There is so much happening, imagine if these forces consolidated and created something big?” she asks.

With no physical connection to Sindh, their heritage becomes foggier for every new generation, a hazy idea of an original homeland. The only links that remain are music, food, stories, and material history. Madnani and Kalro are delighted to see young people actively keeping the collective memory alive.“I saw a play called In Search of Dariya Sagar by a young man called Gerish Khemani, who has given an edgy spin to the identity crisis and reached out to youth in Mumbai,” says Madnani. In Bengaluru, Kalro talks animatedly about a group called Nayi Soch for people between 18 and 27. “These young people want a cause,” says Kalro.

And what better cause than bringing back to life a rich chapter of history.

The writer is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist and former qualitative researcher.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2020 10:18:37 PM |

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