The film reimagines mapmaking as a self-reflective and relational drawing practice manifesting in myriad narratives on the filmmaker’s skin. Bhavnani initiates a participatory process as she situates her tattooed designs in the foreground of different outdoor sites, composing an embodied itinerant geography.
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On July 8, 1947, five weeks before the ill-planned temerarious retreat of the British colonial administration from the Indian subcontinent, Cyril Radcliffe, a well-regarded judge, came to India in his maiden visit to execute the cartographic division between India and Pakistan. Jointly appointed as the chairman by the Boundary Commissions of Punjab and Bengal, he stayed in a maximum-security bungalow round the clock, committed to the task of drawing a 3,800-mile partition without ever visiting the concerned areas (Khan, 105). Quite infamously, he had little to no knowledge about the cultural, geographic, and historical complexities of the disputed territories. His reference sources were mostly six-year-old land reports and a 30-minute briefing about his role before leaving England (Nawaz, 111). Meanwhile, newspapers and popular information sources added to the confusion by peddling speculations about the course of the Radcliffe Line. On August 17, two days after the transference of power, the territorial divisions based on religious demographics were eventually confirmed on the map and publicly relayed on radio.
The entire episode and its outcome were premised on unrelenting misapprehension, leading to one of the largest forced migrations in modern history, one million recorded deaths, countless accounts of abduction and rape, and an ensuing legacy of religious communalism across the borders. The Radcliffe Line remains an exemplar of cartographic fallacy, rendered infallible by imperial authority. Therefore, exposing this untenable foundation of partition can become a decolonial method to situate its traumatic persistence and iniquitous repercussions in the subcontinent. Sapna Moti Bhavnani’s documentary Sindhustan (2019) treads this path while aesthetically confronting the unfounded dimensions of colonial cartography. The film attends to the partitioned identity of the Sindh region (in Pakistan) and its intimate ties to the filmmaker’s lineage and cultural heritage. By employing distinct formal and thematic devices, Bhavnani takes on a counteractive mapmaking project that critiques the fictional inflexibility of the Radcliffe Line.
A hairstylist by profession, Bhavnani once encountered a performance by a group of Sindhi Sufi fakirs that profoundly stirred her senses and reminded her of her ethnic roots in Sindh. Consequently, she realised how her sensibilities have always unwittingly inclined toward Sindhi cultural undertones, including the songs of Sufi Abida Parveen. In an auto-ethnographic journey traversing the cultural history of Sindh, Bhavnani records conversations with her grandparents, relatives, and associated individuals who had migrated from the region to India following the partition. Throughout the film, she focuses on the motifs and elements of these oral narratives and tattoos them on her legs using Ajrak (from Pakistan) and Madhubani (from India) etching styles. As Bhavnani’s journey unfolds, strewn with familial recollections of migration, local myths and songs from Sindh, Shah Abdul Latif’s poetic reflections, and culinary preparations, a subjective landscape of partition progressively figures on her legs. The tattoo designs feature human figures, architecture, territorial depictions, ethnic patterns, and symbols.
While the filmmaking process archives a self-reflective method of remapping partition history in a counter-cartographic gesture, it is equally relevant to note the work of its cinematic form. A critical challenge that emerges in artistic engagements with India’s partition history concerns its fluid spatial and temporal notations. Partition studies scholars have often referred to a more dynamic, longue durée articulation of the subcontinental catastrophe, in which the decisive event of 1947 is a singular symptom. Here, one must address the recursive patterns of administrative delay, uncertainty, rallying demands, violent eruptions, and speculations that led to the Radcliffe Line. Similarly, the post-independence legacy of the partition remains haunted by ongoing communal tensions, border conflicts, nuclear war anxiety, and citizenship crises. Art historian Saloni Mathur notes how contemporary visual artists respond to this complexity by treating partition as a method. They do not merely focus on the event or outcome of the partition but conceive it as an optics of cultural enquiries in the region (207).
The technical possibilities of film and moving images enable this method for Sapna Moti Bhavnani in Sindhusthan. She adopts the tropes of movement and mobility as creative methods in her journey, mapping the processual dynamics of listening to the accounts of partition survivors and inking stories. The testimonial narrations appear interspersed with multi-sited close shots of her tattooed legs in performative guises. These frames with playful focal lengths conjure a dismembered image of Bhavnani intercepting commonplace scenes or interviews. In a further ritualistic invocation, she walks along extended shadows, meanders inside an ancient cave, or stands still before a bonfire, symbolically enunciating her-story in the making. The persistently fragmented iteration of her body-as-canvas materialises the metaphor of partition, displacement, and migration informing her roots. These visual cues assemble a relational mapmaking project on the film’s semiotic surface. The mnemic landscapes of Bhavnani’s family fold into Sindhi cultural forms to conjure a hybrid, intertextual tale of Sindh migration following the partition.
Though emerging from a subjective mode of enquiry, the film’s thematic questions capture the plurivocal identity of Sindh. During the partition, the Sindhi Hindus were the religious minority in the region with considerable wealth and power. But the fear of religious persecution soon forced them to migrate to India, treading unfamiliar land, language, and culture. The film, however, does not harp on concrete historical references. Undercutting the insularity of evidential records, Bhavnani draws a composite picture of the region by weaving heterogenous and disjointed sources. Traumatic recollections of migration are accompanied by local tales from Shikarpur, childhood memories, mythological stories around the Sindhi deity Julelal, or Sufi poems. The film’s creative direction unites these disparate sources by incorporating a range of mediums, from recordings of visual art and staged performances to oral recitations.
The sequential tattooing of partition stories on Bhavnani’s legs underlines the film’s narrative movement. There is a keen observation of the process as performance, which reworks the violent history of tattooing during the period. In the frenzy of revenge killing, people marked themselves with religious symbols to prevent getting killed by their community. As abductions of children and women became prevalent, families also bore unique tattoos on their arms to claim abducted members. Women were often forcefully converted by the abductors and married off to strangers. To protect their birth identity, families tattooed young girls with nationalist slogans like “Pakistan Zindabad” or “Jai Hind.” On both sides of the Radcliffe Line, identities often became binarily reduced to inked identifiers. In Sindhustan, Bhavnani’s extended tattooing performance rewrites the border as a perforable membrane, navigating a hybrid, cross-generational story of Sindh.
The exercise of tattooing in this film does not serve to designate a stable hereditary identity; it maps the striated configurations of belonging as generations sever from their land to settle elsewhere. While Bhavnani appears to document her generational past, she is equally concerned with the lived present of partitioned identity and its implications in contemporary India. When she initially started envisaging the documentary, she wanted to visit Sindh but never got a Pakistani visa. In turn, she says, “I became the land. My legs carry the stories of their journey and my feet the lack of our roots.” Straddling the lack of access to the land of her ancestors develops into a novel storytelling form. Instead of documenting Sindh, she archives its interdisciplinary telling through the relocated optics of partition survivors.
The creative documentary form equips Bhavnani to work with the graded layers of her story in an open-ended, transformative manner, constantly alternating between different narrative threads and forms. The matter of drawing resides at the heart of Sindhustan, playing on the historical connotations of the cartographic calamity in the subcontinent. The film reimagines mapmaking as a self-reflective and relational drawing practice manifesting in myriad narratives on the filmmaker’s skin. Bhavnani initiates a participatory process as she situates her tattooed designs in the foreground of different outdoor sites, composing an embodied itinerant geography. While her on-screen presence throughout the documentary maintains a fragmented image, her gaze confronts the viewer in an extended scene at the end. As a method, the film’s trajectory is coeval with Bhavnani’s performative exploration of her displaced roots. Signing off this dramatic arc, Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “at the stroke of midnight hour” independence speech suffuses the epilogue accompanying her slow-moving gesticulations.
While the film’s modest 61-minute runtime boasts no ostentatious setup or difficult access points, it took almost seven years to bring it to fruition. Initially, Bhavnani did not plan to include herself in the documentary and was more interested in gathering divergent perspectives on the region’s history. But throughout shooting and reshooting the film multiple times, she became convinced of placing herself as a reflexive locus of the documentary exercise. She bears what cultural theorist Marianne Hirsch calls the “postmemory” of partition. Hirsch conceptualises the term to denote the experiences of the “generation after” who have grown up amid stories, images, and behavioural settings of their predecessors’ experiences of personal or sociocultural trauma. As a result, the successor generations navigate generational trauma not by recall but by “imaginative investment, projection, and creation” (5). Somewhere between the partitions of history and memory, past and present, and fact and fiction, she strives to situate the story of her generational identity.
Bhavnani, Sapna Moti. Sindhusthan, 2019, https://www.moviesaints.com/movie/sindhustan
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, Columbia University Press, 2012.
Khan, Yasmin. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, Yale University Press, 2017.
Mathur, Saloni. “Partition and the Visual Arts: Reflections on Method,” Third Text, 2017, Vol. 31, No. 2-3, pp. 205-212.
Nawaz, Ghazala. “The British Plan of the Partition of the Punjab in 1947,” Pakistan Journal of History and Culture, 2013, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp 95-120.