A Delicate Tissue (Jhini Bini Chadariya), a documentary set in Kachchh, Gujarat in the West Indies, follows four different musical journeys, all of which converge in the ways in which their religious diversity, syncretism (mixing of religions and cultures) and love for others in a country where religious politics also affirms often divides communities.
Using the poetic and musical traditions of poet-mystics Saint Kabir of Benaras (c. 1500) and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai of Sindh (1689–1752), as well as the folk traditions of the region, these remarkable musicians and singers bear witness to how these oral traditions of compassion are passed from one generation to the next.
It can take several forms. In Bhujodi, a village near the city of Bhuj, in Gujarat, a group of young men gather every night to sing sacred songs. They are all weavers and feel a special bond with Kabir, who was also a weaver. They are mentored by Naranbhai Siju, a fellow weaver by profession and a remarkable self-taught community archivist, who spends his free time recording and annotating this collection of sacred music.
The women of Lakhpat, an ancient port near the border between India and Pakistan, quietly undermine gender roles through their folk music performances. They are the first group of women in Kachchh to perform in public – and that has changed their lives.
Noor Mohammad Sodha is a master flutist from Bhuj who has been playing the today lining or double flute for over 25 years, performing in India and also overseas. He recently began teaching three young people his skills, hoping that this tradition would live on.
Jiant Khan (60) lives in the Banni grasslands of the area. On two evenings each week, he meets people traveling from remote villages to sing the verses of Sufi poet Shah Bhitai in the musical Waee form, a style from the northwest of India and beyond, performed with string instruments. Five years ago there were only three people in India left who sang this rare and ethereal form – now the number has risen to eight.
All of these passionate musicians keep this delicate fabric alive, dedicated to the project of what Naranbhai calls “breaking down the walls” – walls built by the politics of hatred and intolerance that characterize present times.
Pastoralists live in harmony
Since 2008, our team from the School of Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai has been creating video documentary films of the music of pastoral communities in the Kachchh region of Gujarat. This led to the making of our three films – Do Din Ka Mela (A Two-Day Fair), So Heddan So Hoddan (Like Here Like There) and A Delicate Weave.
Gujarat witnessed ethnic violence against the state’s Muslim minorities in 2002, in which an estimated 2,000 people were killed. Kachchh, though a part of Gujarat, remained untouched by this outbreak of violence. We were inspired to explore the socio-cultural structure that makes Kachchh an island of peace in a sea of intolerance and began a process of documenting the Sufi traditions of music, storytelling and poetry that are an integral part is of the lives of the pastoralists who live there.
This region has a long tradition of nomadic pastoralism, with many different communities moving from Kachchh, across the salt desert known as the Great Rann of Kachchh, to Sindh, now in Pakistan, with their herds of cattle and camels in search of pastures, in a process of rotational migration.
This movement over millennia led to strong kinship and trade ties between Hindu and Muslim pastoral or Maldhari communities in Kachchh with their counterparts in Sindh and Tharparkar opposite the Rann of Kachchh.
In earlier times, their religious identities were somewhat unimportant and vague. Many of these groups were nomadic people, with their own beliefs and practices, and there were also strong fraternal relationships between different communities, across religious beliefs, supported by stories about these ties from mythology and folklore.
The 1947 partition of India changed the lives of these communities forever, emphasizing distinct and mutually exclusive religious identities – the new frontier became a fault line for divisions that had never existed. The shepherds were now confined to recently imagined nations, which continued to re-establish the tension brought into play by Partition, limiting their movements forever.
After 1947, the border was somewhat porous until the Indo-Pakistan conflict of 1965, after which the crossing became increasingly difficult and the Rann became a militarized zone.
The emergence of hard borders, fenced and fortified, is not the only threat to the semi-nomadic pastoralism of the Maldharis. The past few decades have witnessed a slow and steady destruction of these lifestyles, through the state’s environmental policies, the promotion of industrialization, the spread of ecologically insensitive tourism and the bureaucracy’s condescending and impoverished attitude towards these communities.
Fragility of life
Sindh and Kachchh share a common heritage, based on Sufism and other syncretic practices, as well as a shared repertoire of poetry, folklore, embroidery, architectural practices and visual culture.
The Bhakti poetry of Kabir, the 15th-century mystical weaver poet, is sung and recited across communities and religions. Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai the Sindhi Sufi poet has the Shah jo Risalo in the late 17th century, a remarkable collection of poems still sung by communities throughout Kachchh and Sindh.
Many of these poems draw from legendary love stories, which speak of the fragility and finitude of life, the inevitability of sadness and an eventual surrender to and union with the infinite.
Our documentation work at the School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, was often in collaboration with the organization Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghatan (KMVS) which spreads the belief that culture, music, language and lived traditions form an important component of empowerment initiatives since 1988.
One of these initiatives brought together musicians from various communities, initially through community radio. The musicians now have their own association that helps organize programs, mentor younger musicians and keep these musical traditions alive and robust.
Over the years, but especially after the 2001 earthquake, which killed more than 12,000 people, there were many changes in Kachchh’s social structure.
The earthquake brought major intervention largely, in terms of reconstruction and rehabilitation, both by the state and non-governmental organizations. Today, Kachchh has also become a tourist destination, sponsored by the state Rann Utsav (Desert Festival) which takes place between November and February and brings in thousands of tourists, with obvious effects on the fragile ecologies of the Rann and the grasslands.
The consequences of these changes are complex. While tourism and external markets on the one hand have boosted local arts, crafts and artisans, on the other hand, the ways in which they change relationships within communities can cause problems for community life. What exacerbates these changes is the shift to parties on the political right in Gujarat, including Kachchh, that threaten the traditionally fraternal and symbiotic relations between diverse communities.
This is the background against which A Delicate Weave explores efforts to teach and teach these endangered musical traditions and to sustain the utopian energies that characterize Sufi and other syncretic ways of being. These traditions confirm ideas of diversity and peaceful coexistence within this uncertain yet resilient social structure.