Explore the Kachchi community that is striving to preserve the legacy of the Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, which celebrates diversity and resists cultural politics, through the lens of Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayashankar.
Professors at Mumbai’s School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), the duo visited Kachch twice or thrice a year between 2008 and 2011 to document the work of grassroots musicians along with the everyday life of various communities.
Of these interactions came out films such as Do Din Ka Mela (on the Dalit Meghwal community of Kachch) and So Heddan So Hoddan. The latter recently won the Basil Wright Prize 2013 at the 13th Royal Anthropological International Festival of Ethnographic Film, Edinburgh; several silver awards at the Indian Documentary Producers’ Association (IDPA) as well as the Best Film at the International Folk Music Film Festival in Kathmandu. This week, the film will be screened at Alliance Francaise, in collaboration with The Root Reel.
The film focuses on the Maldhari (pastoralist) Jatts who used to move freely pre-Partition across the Rann of Kutch, between Sindh and Kutch. With the coming of settlements and borders, the older generation is struggling to keep alive their multi-cultural legacy, including that of the ancient Sufi poet Shah Bhitai from Sindh who’s works celebrated diversity.One such person is Umar Haji Suleiman, a self-taught Sufi scholar from the Fakrani Jat community, a cattle herder-turned-farmer who spends his life reciting Bhitai’s poetry. The film documents Suleiman and his cousins who accompany him on the Surando, a peacock-shaped, five-stringed instrument from Sindh (the family owns one of the last surviving Surandos in the region).
Speaking about the film, Monteiro says, “We developed a sense of respect for the wisdom and good humour of these people for whom survival is precarious. Literacy levels are low and it is interesting to observe indigenous modes of learning and passing on of collective wisdom, of improvising to create beauty, whether it is in music, painting or embroidery.”
Jayashankar adds that they see their work as a collaborative project, “The communities’ social and economic deprivation co-exists with a rich cultural heritage. Our film attempts to celebrate the dignity of their everyday lives without exoticising them or ignoring their difficulties,” he states.
Monteiro explains that the film is also an attempt to reclaim alternative versions of ‘tradition’ and to counter rigid narratives of history and tradition promoted by the Hindu right wing, particularly in Gujarat. “The Gujarati ‘asmita’ is a recent invention which omits centuries of migration, mobility, composite traditions and fluid borders and that communities in Kachchh, be they Hindu or Muslim, share common Sufi and folk traditions.”
The production involved collaborative discussions with the subjects on what they would like documented and sharing the film with them before it was released. Monteiro and Jayashankar are still in touch with the protagonists and plan to go back to complete some more films.