'Who am I?' and 'Where do I come from?' are questions that most of us inevitably ask ourselves at some point in our lives. Some of us learn about our roots by talking to our relatives, some of us read about history, some go on solo trips to better understand themselves. Sapna Bhavnani decided to make a documentary, and to represent her identity on her skin -- through tattoos.
Bhavnani is a Bandra resident who has also spent a considerable part of her life in the US, but she traces her roots back to Sindh. Growing up, Sindhi culture for her was kadhi, and a mention in the national anthem. What puzzled her was that despite having a place in the anthem, this region wasn't represented in the geography of the country. "We Sindhis are like magic, hum hai bhi, hum nahi bhi hai!"
The motivation to delve deeper into the subject, in her 40s, came from more than one person. She watched a late night performance by a group of Sindhi fakirs, which was unexpectedly moving -- she remembers that the sound system was cut off, but that she was still mesmerised by their music. Soon after, she realised that her favourite singer, Abida Parveen, is also Sindhi, and that unknowingly, she had always loved music made by the people of her region.
The other factor which pushed her to discover more was a candid conversation with her own grandmother. On a visit to India from America, she found herself feeling awkward about the fact that her body was tattoo-ed considerably. "You're so old-fashioned," her grandmother remarked. "That one sentence killed my revolution," says Bhavnani, who for years tried to break free from the mould of what a woman 'should look like'. She recounts how her grandmother spoke about a time when humans lived in tribes, when concepts such as borders and countries didn't exist, when they wore their piercings and markings with pride. "She was happy to see me going back to my roots, which is why I decided to tell this story through ink," says Bhavnani.
Her identity is spilled over what is now two different countries, and the aspect of migration is inextricably linked to it. She was insistent on shooting footage from Sindh to show perspectives from the other side of the border. "I'm not going to tell a one-sided story, because that's not a good documentary," she explains.
After being denied a visa and finding that using social media was not helping her case, Bhavnani was offered help by her friends in Pakistan, who produce Coke Studio. They put her in touch with a music director, who was initially supposed to take care of the sound of the film, but was willing to shoot the footage she needed from Sindh. Watching this footage was, in a sense, a homecoming for her, because she saw for the first time what her father's place of birth, looked like. "My uncle told me my father was born in this area called Hajampara in Hathidar... The director who shot the footage took me home. I was crying when I saw the footage," she says. Interestingly, Nepal also has a place in the making of the documentary. Because of the unavailability of visas, Bhavnani and the director chose to meet in this country. "Thank God for Nepal!" she exclaimed.
The documentary is titled Sindhustan, and Bhavnani excitedly pieces together the story of how India came to be known as Hindustan, because the Persians but could not pronounce the 'S' sound when they wanted to refer to the river Sindhu. "The river plays a big role in both the tattoo and the documentary. You follow the river, and you discover beautiful things!" she says. After having spent two years trying to figure out how to tell the story, she went about filming it for another year, and is now in the process of editing it.
Bhavnani was insistent on going beyond books and online sources; she points out that it is very likely that the facts in them may not be entirely accurate. Instead, she chose to speak to people who lived through history. "There is no filter, you're hearing history as it happened," she says. She put together all these findings and perspectives, and turned it into tattoo ideas which she would get inked on her legs. "It's not even tattoos -- it's body alteration! You have to be crazy to do something like this," she exclaims.
Over a span of 10 days of non-stop pain, she says she turned into a human map of Partition, a museum of memory.
She says it took her a while to get used to how her legs looked. Despite going to a pain specialist and trying to best prepare to deal with what was coming her way, Bhavnani found that she would have to go to a hospital. "But maybe this is one percent of the pain my ancestors went through?" she asks. The choice of the location of her tattoo, too, has a significance. She says that her legs signify a journey, and her feet the lack of roots, which is reflective of the migration that the Sindhi community undertook in the 20th century.
When she was interviewing people, what struck her the most was that even when they were telling heart-breaking stories, they seemed to be speaking from a place of love. "This was what moved me the most and taught me that Sindhustan is about love, not hate," she says.
Bhavnani talks about the resilience of Sindh and about how it can never die out. "You can't kill Sindh because it constantly gives birth to a new one. My grandfather's Sindh is different from my father's, which is different from mine. But Sindh it is!"
Watch the video interview with Sapna Bhavnani:
Sindhustan is now streaming on Movie Saints.