The concept of ink or tattoos or Gudna in some regional languages, has been an integral part of India for ages, especially among tribal communities. The tattoo subculture in India has grown massively in the last few years but tattoos as a form of self-expression have existed in the nation for centuries. Many Indian tribal communities use various methods to create their ink and every tattoo has a meaning behind it to signify their identities, covering their caste, gender, rank, and ethnicity. The Dhanuks tribe in Bihar covers their women with tattoos to make them appear ugly so as to not attract the eyes of sexual slayers. The Santhal Tribe of Bengal and Jharkhand tattoo their women as they believe that the excruciating pain prepares them for maternity and the strength to face further adversities in life. Each tribe has its own story behind the tradition of ink.
Even the urban folks of the nation are no strangers to tattoos. Starting from their favorite band logo, a portrait of their favorite movie star, or a deeply personal quote, thousands of people get inked every day. Unlike the tribal communities, the city dwellers sometime do it more out of personal choice than tradition. However, tattoos, tradition, urbanity, and personal histories all interweave when we come to the story behind a beautiful documentary by Sapna Bhavnani, called Sindhustan, which is a film told through ink.
The director was like any urban girl but at the age of 36, she realized what it meant to be a daughter of a refugee. She was at a concert in Mumbai and was watching some Sufi Fakirs from Sindh perform. She was so mesmerized by the performance that she ran home and googled ‘Sindh’ for the first time. When she found out Sindhi migration was the largest migration of culture in history and how being a Sindhi she had no idea. It was her moment of inspiration.
There are lots of history books and information online about Sindh but Bhavnani did not want her film to be just a lesson in history. It took her a couple of years to figure out how to tell her story. She recalled an important anecdote that had inspired her creative process.
"I had just started getting inked and remember covering myself to meet my grandmother for lunch one day. She looked at me and called me “old-fashioned”. I couldn't believe a 70-year-old woman was calling me “old-fashioned”. She told me, "When we first came to this planet we lived in tribes and did not have borders and governments or countries. We had extended families and all had their own markings. Now, when I see you going back to your roots, it makes me very happy."
It was at this moment in time that she decided that ink (tattoos) was going to be the ink she would write the stories of the Sindh migration. She figured that the best way to tell this story was to become the story.
Her documentary includes many stories entwined — some are from India and some from Sindh (which now lies in Pakistan), illustrating the journey of those stories on her skin. For the film, she inks her legs using an art form from Sindh (Ajrak) and one from India (Madhubani) to tell the story of a land carried on the shoulders of its people and not rooted in any soil.
"My legs symbolize our journey, and my feet, the lack of our roots."
The movie has found its way into prestigious international and national film festivals. Its worldwide release was on May 20, 2020. You can watch it on OTT platforms such as Amazon Prime and IndiePix. Here is the trailer of Sindhustan.
You can watch the full film here.