“All I knew about my culture was Sindhi kadhi,” pronounces celebrity hairstylist and filmmaker in her documentary Sindhustan and on that note, she sets the tone of a poignant tale spread over the last few decades before and after partition to retrace her Sindhi roots. The ubiquitous flavour of vegetable-rich kadhi makes Sindhustan a delectable watch as it meanders through the lanes and bylanes of Sindhis’ memories, whose quintessential identity is synonymous with their kadhi that’s like no other.
The kadhi also becomes the documentary’s access point; Bhavnani’s aunt Kamla Thakur’s kitchen conversation and verses by the renowned 18th-century Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif becomes a crucial cinematic tool for the filmmaker. The unobtrusive camera captures her cooking, from start to finish, and the tedious kadhi-making process serves as a metaphor for Sindhis in general and Bhavnani in particular. It manages to create a steady simmer in the storyline, from the moment her aunt places tur dal in a cooker on the stove to painstakingly following the rigours, till it is ready to be served on a carefully laid out table filled with other Sindhi delicacies. The brilliant move not only adds a rich flavour to her storytelling, but the shots, panning in and out the kitchen, and shifting focus on the lives and times of other Sindhis, then and now, takes the story forward. “Food is something big for us, and so it made sense to weave the story around it. Kadhi is my favourite, and it was my only choice because it is also our identity in a way. Also, so many stories happen in the kitchen and around the fire, so it was my best bet,” tells Bhavnani.
The entire process of making a Sindhi kadhi takes about three hours, and Thakur, a chef herself, gives us a sneak-peek into the Sindhi household and tells us how Sindhi kadhi is different from other kadhis in the course of the filming. “It is made from toor daal. We boil it with tomatoes in a cooker, then seave and use the soup, cooking it on slow fire much like a mithai. It is nutritious as we put lots of vegetables in it,” says Thakur.
Another thing that stands out in Bhavnani’s maiden project is the story that her legs carry – the fusion of two dying art forms, one from Sindh and another one from Bihar in the tattoos; while her feet reflect her rootlessness with an image of fish on each to show how the waves have given them a sense of fleeting sand, lashing it with memories, time and again. The use of alta (red liquid dye) to decorate her feet and fingers is another fusion of culture that Bhavnani has used to her advantage in the documentary, and the ease with which she has used ink to tell the story of the largest migration of a culture in history is truly commendable .
“My one leg has motifs from Ajrak, a predominantly Sindhi art form. Here the cloth was first washed in a solution of water and ajrak berries. It was then steamed and stamped with wooden blocks injected with dyes. The printed cloth was then dipped in a solution of indigo and washed in water so that colours came out sparkingly bright. The other leg reflects the popular Madhubani art form from Bihar. The only common thing between the two cultures is fish. It is predominant in Madhubani paintings and also in ours because it is believed that our presiding deity Jhulelal rode a fish,” she recounts. The beauty of this amalgamation in her passion project makes Sindhustan a mini piece of art in itself.
The pain and trauma of those who lived and survived the painful partition echoes louder in each person’s account. Their sense of longing and belonging and connection with the land of their origin – Sindh – where they or their ancestors once lived tugs at the audience’s heartstrings.
Sindhustan is a must watch if you are a Sindhi because it has high nostalgic value.
It is even more important to watch Sindhustan if you are a non-Sindhi because it is a ready reckoner to understand a community that has been dispossessed and displaced but still retains its enterprising, industrious, zealous, benevolent and cosmopolitan nature transcending barriers of castes, race and religion.
Thakur is the go-to person for Bhavnani for food, and she loves to feast on her “Teevan, Sai Bhaji, Seyal Beeh Patata, and, of course, Kadhi on Sundays.” Also, don’t forget to feast on Sindhi kadhi that Thakur’s French neighbours in Paris referred as the water of gods. Bon appétit!
(Text by Shillpi A Singh; pictures from Sindhustan; the film is streaming on https://www.moviesaints.com/movie/sindhustan; it is also the official selection at the upcoming Wench Film Festival https://wenchfilms.com/)