The Sufi poetry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai wove together folk tales from his native Sindh in the 1700s and gave them philosophical weight. He explored the challenges of love, struggles against corruption and courage to overcome society. He fought orthodoxy by celebrating people of different faiths in Sindh in the simple language of the masses. He is the most celebrated poet of Sindh, a province in Pakistan that traces history back to the Indus Valley civilization, among the oldest and at the time, most advanced in known history. He celebrated musicians, ascetics, lovers, nature and a passion for life. His words form a large piece of that tapestry of Sindhi culture that brought together Muslims, Hindus and all people of Sindh into a collective identity.
The partition of India in 1947 changed that. It created a violent mass migration in India and newly formed Pakistan. Sindh ended up in Pakistan and lost a great deal of its Hindu population, as Muslims from all over India left their homes in India for Sindh and other parts of Pakistan. Generations of people in both countries are separated today by a militarized border, politically motivated history lessons and deep, unhealed wounds of separation. People, who lived in Sindh for thousands of years were separated from their sites of worship, pilgrimage, institutions and their fellow Sindhis.
Prior to the partition, Sindhis lived in the same land. Regardless of individual political leanings, they knew and celebrated the same historical figures, literature and music. Shah Latif was not only known to all, his tomb and the annual celebration there were accessible to everyone. With separation, the identity of Sindhis has inevitably altered. While there are people, chiefly academics who have continued to study, preserve and share the collective Sindhi identity, their work does not reach the masses. Stories of unifying figures such as Shah Latif begin to disappear for Indian Sindhis with that direct connection lost. When people live together, there is some sense of connection and belonging under a broader umbrella. Once they are split across borders with great political animosity, that connection declines with each generation. Art has the power to remind people of their shared heritage, strengthen that bond by showcasing a shared past and give a glimpse of values that can be shared not just by Sindhis, but by all people. This is why I feel the message of perseverance, love and humanity in Shah Latif’s work is relevant today.
Latif was a man of the people, deeply a part of everyday people, rather than aristocrats and royalty. He spent his days with wandering mystics in song and poetry. It seemed only fitting to me that his words be set to puppetry. Countless lessons on morality, history and the glorification of kings have been conveyed by the artists of this millennia old art. I met puppeteers in Rajasthan, who brought to life their wood and paper mache creations with skill, but many are no longer storytellers. Their art stopped developing due to financial needs. Many find it difficult to continue their art as they cater to tourists with trinkets to make a living, and relegate the art of their puppetry to short variety programs that showcase the inventiveness of their puppets, but not their stories.
As an animator, I work in a melting pot of artistic disciplines. Coming from Pakistan and the US helps me bridge cultures as an insider. Using that, I have created an animated film using the latest digital techniques with desert snake charming musicians whose traditions span eight generations. I created a music album to benefit these musicians, the Girnari Jogi Group, a gallery show of paintings and a presence on the internet to remind the world that they exist. These are grassroots efforts to do interesting work with Pakistani culture and bring it to the world while benefitting the musicians involved.
Risalo is the next step in this process of artistic development for me.
Risalo is a puppet film with Rajasthani puppetry from India, Sindhi folk music from Pakistan and the poetry by Shah Latif. This is a project that I am raising funds for with the help of a Kickstarter campaign.
There is one question I have asked myself when beginning work on Risalo: How can a film with puppets reconnect people and support disappearing art forms?
Art forms need an infusion of fresh ideas and financial support in order to sustain. Creating a fair trade collaboration with these puppeteers and musicians is the key to preserving their art as it exists today, but to and give it a chance to grow in the future. As an artist, it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to work with such masterful artists. In my experience with musicians, once you get past middlemen who are the gate keepers of culture it is very possible to make a real difference in the lives of these artists through collaboration, proper pay and genuine exposure. Film is very much a medium of today, and it allows us to connect beyond political, social and financial boundaries. Once people see the potential in this puppetry and music to come together and express Latif’s poetry, I hope others will feel encouraged to lend their talent to more projects that enrich and encourage traditional artists. These artists embody the perseverance celebrated in Shah Latif’s poetry. It seems appropriate that it be the vehicle to bring their work to the world. This is how we bridge cultures, connect people and support disappearing art forms.
Art in Context is a continuing column on the usage and impact of art, artists, and the business of art in building, and sometimes exploiting, communities around the world. Edited and curated by Chiwan Choi.