July 07, 2019


Elaborate dome and minarets of Sachal Sarmast’s dargah
Elaborate dome and minarets of Sachal Sarmast’s dargah

The most exhaustive book on Sindhi culture and heritage in recent years — in English, at least — has, strangely enough, come out from Mumbai, a city nearly 900 kilometres away from the province. Sindhnamah has been published by the Hecar Foundation, which does painstaking work in conserving culture and architecture. Headed by architect and conservationist Brinda Somaya, a non-Sindhi, Hecar has come out with some exciting books on the subject. The institution was jointly founded by Gita Simoes who is the co-author of Sindhnamah. Sadly, the Karachi-born scholar passed away a couple of years before the launch of what is more than a coffee-table book. It is a tome, richly illustrated and flawlessly written. What is no less important is that its printing leaves nothing to be desired and the binding — a Herculean task for a volume of this size — is commendable too.

The younger co-author of Sindhnamah, anthropologist Nandita Bhavnani, is not unknown to well-read Sindhis in and outside the province. She is the author of the much-acclaimed The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and Partition of India. This was the debut book of the Mumbai-based Bhavnani, who has made quite a few trips to the land of her parents and grandparents. Bhavnani is also acquainted with the Perso-Arabic script; how else would she have enjoyed the exquisite kalaam of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and Sachal Sarmast?

The book commences with a two-page ‘Timeline of Sindhi History’ that begins from the Lower Palaeolithic period — otherwise known as the Early Stone Age which spanned from 2,500,000 BCE to 50,000 BCE — and ends with the dissolution of the One Unit geopolitical programme in 1970, when Sindh regained its status as a province.

Richly illustrated and flawlessly written, the Mumbai-based Hecar Foundation’s Sindhnamah is a treasure trove on Sindhi culture

Sindhnamah portrays the landscapes, wildlife, arts, crafts, textile, jewellery, architecture, history, legends, sports, music and even the local cuisine of the region. As for wildlife, there are peacocks and deer in the desert and dolphins in the Indus, a mighty river which rightly occupies an entire chapter. To say that the camel is to be found everywhere is to state the obvious.

There is not much about sports except for the Sindhi style of wrestling called the malakhra. Contrary to what the caption of one photograph claims, the sport is confined to rural and semi-urban areas. Sindhis, it would seem, are not that vested in the sports more popular in the subcontinent, such as cricket and hockey, and only some older parts of Karachi can boast of football fans. Sindhis are, however, very enthusiastic about music and their muse is wedded to Sufism, a subject which would need at least a full-fledged article to be touched upon briefly. By the way, the volume under review is interspersed with classical Sindhi poetry and not much seems to have been lost in translation. A case in point is Bhittai’s poem on rain, which amply reflects the poet’s universal approach.

Faiz Mahal, the royal residence of Sohrabani Talpurs, built in Khairpur Mirs in early 20th century. It is also known as Lakhi Mahal for it cost the owners what was then a colossal amount of one lakh rupees | Photos from the book
Faiz Mahal, the royal residence of Sohrabani Talpurs, built in Khairpur Mirs in early 20th century. It is also known as Lakhi Mahal for it cost the owners what was then a colossal amount of one lakh rupees | Photos from the book

Architecture is the bastion of the book and there are many fascinating photographs within the pages. One of the most scintillating pictures is the study of a dome and its team of minarets that adorn the dargah [tomb] of Sachal Sarmast. Likewise, the intricate carvings and designing of other palaces and tombs are truly captivating. One example, if example be needed, is the breathtakingly beautiful interior of the Shahi Mahal, also known as the Sheesh Mahal, at Kot Diji.

More recent specimens of charming architecture include the Indo-Gothic style building of Frere Hall (1865) and the Mughal Revival style facade of the Hindu Gymkhana (1925), which was designed by a Muslim and is now occupied by the National Academy of Performing Arts.

There are a number of Sindhis and non-Sindhis whose contribution to the culture and/or politics of Sindh is immense and the authors give them full-page coverage. Starting with Englishman Sir Bartle Frere, the personalities covered include Mir Sher Mohammad Khan Talpur — who was called the Lion of Sindh — and the Pir Pagaras, Dayaram Gidumal Shahani and the Bhuttos of Larkana. The only living legend covered in the book is the inimitable singer Abida Perveen. However, the one glaring omission is of Karachi-born Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who was instrumental in making his native town the capital of the country he carved out of the subcontinent.

Sindhnamah is dotted with true stories and legends. The story of the birth of a great emperor in the small town called Umerkot, when the Mughal empire was in doldrums, is dramatic and can be turned into the script of a film. Legendary love stories such as those of Sassui Punhu and Umar Marvi also find space in the book, along with Laila and Majnu who, like the two banks of a river, do not meet.

Not many people know that apart from Hindus and Muslims, Buddhists and Jains once inhabited Sindh as well. We get to see photographs of the not-so-well preserved Jain temple in Tharparkar and then there are also images of some relics from the Buddhist periods.

While on the subject of photographs, one may note that Simoes, who had been impressed with the images of Lahore-based photographer Nadeem Khawar on the internet, commissioned him to take pictures for her pet project and he certainly didn’t disappoint his difficult-to-please client. The Karachi-based photography outfit White Star also provided, on a complimentary basis, some invaluable images. Sindhnamah is further visually supported by lithographs and photographs from family albums and from museums in and outside the subcontinent.

In the list of acknowledgements, Bhavnani makes a special mention of Hameed Haroon “for his liberal help, guidance and encouragement.” One must, however, say in all earnestness that the enthusiasm of the authors and the founder-trustee of the Hecar Foundation was contagious, which is why they got help from different sources.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books including Tales of Two Cities

By Nandita Bhavnani and Gita Simoes
The Hecar Foundation, India
ISBN: 978-8192819020

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 7th, 2019