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About the Satpanth Bandhni

by Sultan Somjee સુલતાન સોમજી - author of "Bead Bai"

Special to Khojawiki


Sometimes at readings of Bead Bai, someone would ask me: Why did you choose to write on the bandhani?


My reply. For a long time, maybe even for forty years, I have been fascinated by the feelings that the bandhani has for the Khoja, especially the women. I often asked myself: What made our mothers and grandmothers, aunts and great aunts, carry the bandhni with them like a precious piece of history, if not an identity, of who they were as they moved from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic? This was during the difficult years of the great migration and early settlement in Africa along the Equator. They preserved this piece of cloth carefully wrapped in cotton cloth for a hundred or more years living in mud houses and tin shanties. The Uganda refugee put the bandhni in the only one suitcase she was allowed to take with her and she brought it to Canada (and the western Diaspora) so she may use it to wed her children as had been the ancestral custom. So they may know where they come from.


It has been our tradition that the bandhni covered the bride in a shine as she crossed over the threshold from her birth home to her marriage home. The shawl held the dignity of a woman living in a patriarchy. And it used to be that the woman would leave the world at her death covered in her bandhni. She would be crossing over the threshold with dignity the second time, this time to meet her Lord. The two crossings were rites of passage in the Satpanth feminine life cycle. Sometimes in Canada, one sees a bandhani spread over the white winding cloth. But this is rare nowadays, and it happens when the woman has specifically requested for it. Otherwise, it is a sari with a shine like a wedding sari – never a plain sari. This is a remnant of a practice of our mothers and a feminine heritage that demanded attention to respect. The symbolism of the shine has survived though the cloth itself has not.


I have come to understand that to a Satpanth woman – whether a Khoja (i.e of Lohana descent), a Punjabi or a Momna, and often also to her daughters, the bandhani carries a feeling of a connection that they know in their hearts but something that modernity cannot explain. So I felt Bead Bai, a book about a Khoja woman at a bead shop in Africa, should carry the story of an artifact that gave her an anchor to her heritage and dignity of a woman standing at a threshold.


Hence I wrote a chapter on the bandhani at the mehndi (henna) night that started the process of a girl’s transformation to womanhood in the Satpanth tradition.


If you click on the Bead Bai Blog below, you will see more pictures of the Satpanth bandhani.


Will you also share pictures of your family bandhani by posting them on www.khojawiki.org and make this a collective community contribution?


http://thebeadbai.blogspot.com/

Extract from "Bead Bai" (2012)Pages 230 -242

“And also bring your dancing girls from the lodge to sing the chorus. At Sakina’s henna night, I want Nairobi’s nightingale to celebrate the Satpanth bandhani. That will choke the bazaar’s gossip in the throat,” says Ma Gor Bai. The look in her eyes suddenly turns stern.


“With all my heart I shall sing 'Evi ruri che mari rehsham bandhani Saheb-jine' - 'so soft is the silken tie, my binding with Saheb',” replies Meethi Bai, stressing the pun on bandhani meaning the wedding shawl and a spiritual tie with Saheb, the bridegroom. “The bandhani ties colours like how my heart ties my love for Saheb. He will be my groom when they take me covered in my bandhani to him waiting at the threshold of his house in heaven.” It was this love for Saheb that created a hidden wall of silence from those who did not know him and spoke in khus-khus whispers of his Krishna-gopi-mischief in the English world.


“I will send a message to Devdasi Rupa Bai to come and be your accompaniment. She is an old grandmother but her voice is young like a girl’s. She sings in colours of Sam Veda,” says Ma Gor Bai. “Did this Veda not birth Satpanth melodies?” asks Meethi Bai. She is thinking aloud, asking questions to pose doubts, seeking answers from herself, the singer, not Ma Gor Bai .


My story is a song.


Song of Satpanth Bandhani


The rainy season in the month of November that we call ‘Short Rains’, is almost over and the jacaranda trees in Rani Bagh stand like a parade of purple bouquets under the blue sky over Nairobi, the town between rivers.


Sitting on the floor, on a mattress covered with a clean white bed sheet, I watch through the wide open door. Ma Gor Bai, standing at the threshold of the courtyard veranda, is ceremoniously receiving the women of Haiderali Devji’s family. No sooner than they step into my home looking over everyone else as if in search to claim me, than I notice Ma Jena Bai, Haiderali’s mother, my mother-in-law to be, my sass to be, coming towards me. My heart thumps; I look down and gather myself in stillness. She places a nose siri of seven tiny diamonds in my lap and then, immediately, like a mother casing her child in her pachedi from the cold, she covers me from the head down with the Devji family bandhani. It’s a silk shawl of dark purple-crimson almost black tie and dye dot patterns. It’s framed by a weighty border of pure silver zari thread worked into a leafy vine on which sit florets. I remain still, motionless, half in a fantasy world, half in fear of the unknown fate that awaits me in the new fold.


But I am adorned like a jewel in a crown and Ma Jena Bai is beaming over me having taken the bride. Everyone around is celebrating me, the jewel, while my heart beats with trepidation. I seek to hide into the bandhani’s desert landscape of florets. I seek to run into the tracing of stitch in, stitch out creating one floret into another in the timeless flow of my imagination. I want to hide in the richness of its shine in the border. I want to hide under henna’s patterned network on my skin. I want to hide into the seven diamonds of my nose siri. I want to hide in their sparkle. Then quickly and suddenly, completely unexpectedly, Ma Jena Bai flicks open a miniature silver box and presses a pinch of bajar tobacco powder into her nostrils sniffing in with contentment before returning the box into the cup of her brassiere. She hums to herself and talks excitedly in a commanding voice, “Keep the gold set near here! Spread the velvet and the shoes over there!” She has brought my wedding clothes and jewellery to be shown, to be bragged about and they have to be placed under her watchful eyes, fully exhibited. The beautiful bandhani shawl bears me down like a load of an unknown future on my shoulders. I begin to shiver but no one notices yet all eyes are on me.


There are whispers that Ma Gor Bai has invited Meethi Bai to sing the marriage song. The lady is famed for her marriage songs, which she composes and sings with her dance girls from the lodge. However, she is also the proprietor of the dishonorable Indian house. The keeper of prostitutes is an outcast but the Satpanthis, the lovers of Sufi chants, say, “The nectar of her voice in the ear softens the curse on the tongue.” Meethi Bai carries that dilemma.


The olive henna paste absorbs the heat from my body and I am cold. Ma Gor Bai has hired the best-known henna artist, Kulsum Bai, the only daughter of the Bohra tinsmith on Victoria Street. Kulsum Bai adds black tea to the henna paste. She knows how to keep the precise consistency for working the henna into fine line patterns on a warm night like today. Then all eyes turn to the door. Meethi Bai arrives in a flaming red sari, prepared for an evening of singing while paisley and floral patterns are sketch-pasted on my feet up to the ankles and on my hands up to the wrists. The carousing excitement of the evening temporarily numbs the apprehension that has been building in me since the morning.


Meethi Bai sings setting the tempo in six beats, 1 2 3 - 4 5 6, moving her head dole dole. She stretches her plump ringed fingers forward with the first beat. Then she withdraws her hand, fingers curled in, back to the chest with the second. At the third beat, she places her hands cross-folded on her chest. The hands I know so well and loved them raking through my hair looking for lice eggs to crack between her two painted thumbnails. A silence follows every third beat long enough to take in a deep breath. My heart races.


Honour the bride, her female self

Adorn the mother she will be

Sangaar, siri and the Satpanth bandhani


The response wavers in a limp echo, like the sound of a receding tide, Sangaar, siri and the Satpanth bandhani.

Meethi Bai, the koiyal songstress, continues, her eyes playing about the room, her head moving from side to side telling me to be proud for this long awaited day is here. But I am looking down holding in the feelings I have never had before. Meethi Bai claps, accenting every third beat, and nods to others to clap with her. She is in charge of the evening. The women clap, the chorus mounts becoming louder, filling the air, Sangaar, siri and the Satpanth bandhani.


Meethi Bai continues moving her head dole dole, her eyes are lighted and a smile sparks up on her red lipstick. Devdasi Rupa Bai picks up the next verse.


Laksmi, she will be

Wealth shines in Devji family

Sangaar, siri and the Satpanth bandhani


The women clap and sing in unison while Ma Jena Bai with her own hand touches the cup of ceremonial sweet milk to my lips. I sip a little, not enough to make a gulp. Warmth spreads over my tongue. My body stiffens, the warmth entering chokes me. What is it to know a man? Nobody has told me yet. Taking the cup from Ma Jena Bai, Meethi Bai wraps her arm around me and with the other hand coaxes me to take a little more into my body. I feel like an infant comforted in mother’s lap being persuaded to swallow bitter quinine. I reject it. Meethi Bai brings her head close to mine. I feel her breath hang in the funnel of my ear.


“When the man covers you, let him,” she says. My eyes widen. I want to hear more. “When he wants to be inside you, let him.” My heart thumps gripped by fear. I want to throw up the sweet milk. “It will be painful, my dear child, but let him because he has the right.” “How? Why?” My eyes question Meethi Bai but she says nothing yet she knows what I ask. Instead, she looks into my eyes with intensity of a sadness that deepens the anxiety surging in me. When tenderness returns to her kohl-blackened eyes as if on an impulse, she tugs, turns, sucks at and pulls out a ruby ring from her little finger and slides it onto my middle finger all in one continuous movement. I feel the warmth of her spit as the ring glides down over my cold knuckle creamed with henna. It’s the ring that my sister Monghi Bai used to play the bride with and Meethi Bai used to tell her that she would put it on her finger when she was really a bride.


The milk is hot and heavy with pistachio and almonds under a thick salve paste on which stand stripy bright orange saffron halos. Women sitting around me, cross-legged on mattresses, soft chew the honeyed nuts, relishing saffroned warmth of the full cream milk. There are some who are offended by the presence of Meethi Bai and they whisper chup chap under their breath. There are some who will not sit near her. Some feel she has no right to sing. Some feel she should not be at any wedding let alone this one. Though all like to listen to Meethi Bai’s lyrical stories and marriage songs, not many would talk with her in the bazaar or even at the jamat khana. In fact, she is never invited to sing the ginans for she is the inauspicious one, the absakan unlucky one of Nairobi. She has many names and is often the subject of men’s talk, joke and love. They would call her the bazaar’s night bird while women despise her as the husband stealer.


“If you sing to the song you will hear its story in the music,” says Kulsum Bai holding my henna laden hands at the elbows so they do not stain the bandhani shawl. Her voice is fine like the patterns she paints, words connected without a pause. Meethi Bai begins moving her head from side to side again, horizontally, like an elegant temple dancer. I watch her apprehensively through side looks as she begins the next verse. Sangaar, siri and the Satpanth bandhani


Blessed is one born of beauty


Covering her face partly with the edge of my bandhani, she veils one eye and sings from behind the silken mask, moving her head. She plays with me the way mothers play hide and seek behind their pachedis with babies in their laps. The way I played mother with my dhingly doll behind the blankets in Dadabapa’s store when I was little. Now she sings as if she were the bandhani.


Bandhani I am Brahma’s lotus

From my dots like bard’s music

Of beauty is born the shine

I catch Lord’s riches in my ode

Silver treasure in cupped hands


The diamond in her nose plays winks with the lantern’s light each time she turns her head showing a jasmine bunch perched on her perfumed hair clasped by a silver clip in the shape of a parrot in a cage.


“Her song is like the weave of the fabric of your bandhani,” says Kulsum Bai.


Women steal happy-sad looks at each other like the swishing savannah wind hesitating to come closer lest you discover a storm in its wake. What are they thinking? They add to the uneasiness in me such as the one that comes from suspicion of someone you trust yet you know she is hiding something from you about you. I turn to the song of the bandhani to seek an answer but instead its rass takes me away into itself, and I cannot understand the compassion and pity in the joy of celebrating me. The confusing feelings of the bride at an Indian wedding come from the women’s hearts that know the uncertainties that lurk ahead behind the glitter. But if they could talk, the women would say the girl must wed whatever future holds for her meaning happiness or unhappiness is not in her parents’ hands. That is destiny. Meethi Bai’s neck muscles tense and her veins swell over splinter bones at the neck as she sings, trapping and elongating the vowels in her voice.


Sangaar, siri and the Satpanth bandhani

The dyer strung me in knots, some small, some big

Pressed my tender skin in his fingers two


The tempo steps up. Meethi Bai claps to the rhythm of six beats, 1 2 3 - 4 5 6, leaving a space between like dots jumping, patterning the bandhani. She motions others to pick up the rhythm.


Unwinding strings

Knots break radiating dots

Colours bright inside,

Shadows curl outside


She holds up my bandhani once more half screening her face, teasing a look at the women with her dark contoured eyes in mischief as she would play with men wanting her. She stretches her legs out forward and, tensing her fingers, cracks her knuckles at my temples. Then she relaxes, aware that she has captured the audience. Her words flow in calculated unhurried strokes of her hands, sometimes clapping and sometimes slapping her hips.


O ye Kutchi Kathiawari folk!

First is the art of spinning the thread

Thread into thread weaves the bandhani

Three arms long the width of loom


Meethi Bai nods around like an Indian peacock, her red English lipstick lips inviting smiles. She continues her song, attended by a constant resonance of clapping, sometimes sharp smacking, sometimes soft thudding of palms on sitting thighs and sometimes an appreciative murmur in-between the lines to stress a pun or a metaphor.


Pour colours pure in a dyeing pot

Let embroiderer’s zari sting the eye

Line by line blaze silver the desert bloom


Women exchange looks to hush each other to listen, and then turn, all facing Meethi Bai, expecting to hear more of her melodious voice. She sits leaning on the wall. I am the bride in bandhani shawl with the henna lady fanning over my freshly painted feet and hands. Ma Gor Bai gives Meethi Bai a pillow, which she accepts with a thankful look, without a smile or a word and places it between her back and the wall. People say Meethi Bai has the voice of a classical Saurashtran singer of the age of Mohenjo-Daro, and for that reason, they would also want to call her the Koiyal Rani, the comforter of men of Indian Nairobi.


Words cascade like dance steps into musical beats. Six beats and then a miss beat. Meethi Bai stretches out her feet again and her toes tap the air. She has a ring on the middle toe of each foot. Both her feet are cracked with lines at the heels like erosion furrows on far away volcanoes in the Rift Valley. Heads move from one side to another like cobras stunned by music. “Wah! Wah!” they blow into the air.


It’s Devdasi Rupa Bai who sings again.


Saurashtran cloth traded Indonesia Sea

Adorned black princes of Zanzibar

Sangaar, siri and the Satpanth bandhani


Beyond the mountains of the Golden Dawn hailed Sikander

Yavana king lover claiming rule over the land of the loom

Then came Sufi bards singing Mohamed, Ali and Nizar

But to Vedas their hearts pulled, pirs becoming guru-pirs

Sangaar, siri and the Satpanth bandhani


Meethi Bai turns towards Devdasi Rupa Bai and nods, and continues her story of the bandhani, clapping, and at the same time with her eyes motioning all to clap after her. Her kohl lined eyes between twirled up lashes specked with Ponds powder, make her eyes look larger than they actually are exaggerating her telling looks. At that moment, Ma Gor Bai walks into the room with a wide smile exposing her gold plated tooth otherwise rarely seen. She goes around the room with Hawa, Malek and Monghi by her side, offering sweet milk with one hand and lifting her long frock with the other as she takes each step forward. Oudh scent of arean wood wafts from her pink velvet dress with tightly smock-stitched waist over which sways her plaited hair in a silver-silk knotted tassel. Women exchange melodious looks with eyes shining the music in their bodies.


In a few stylized, showy movements of gathering, pleating and feeling the weight of the bandhani in her hands, Meethi Bai throws it half over herself and half over me. The hefty four inch border in zari lands diagonally across her bosom and stays stretched from across my shoulders. She continues to narrate the story of the bandhani, calling the song back and forth while the women sip the milk relishing the saffron flavours of masticated almonds and pistachios cooked in a cauldron of sweetened milk over slow wood fire and steady stirring so no cream congealed on top. Ma Gor Bai had assigned the stirring job to Hawa, Malek and Monghi who took turns the whole day long, passing on the mwiko ladle as tall as they were from one hand to another like a relay baton.


“We enter the divine through beauty,” says Kulsum Bai suddenly as if to herself. As if awakened inside. I think about my bandhani; it is my own now. Part of my body. No, it’s my body. My hands and legs stretched out in front are cold from henna. I think about men. How different are men from women? Nobody has told me. I have seen no pictures of naked men. I withdraw into myself with chilling anxiety, and shiver. My pulse radiates with the pulse of the bandhani. Meethi Bai runs her fingers over bright and dark dots in the silken cloth before finally closing her eyes. And she sings lengthening the vowels as if releasing the imprisoned sounds from the depth of her throat. When she concludes, her voice quakes.


Sangaar, siri and the bandhani

Guru-pir dyed the soul’s cloth

In dots of colours fast and bright


Ma Gor Bai comes closer and sits beside Meethi Bai in the empty space. Devdasi Rupa Bai repeats each verse after Meethi Bai, like a mirrored reflection in an altered raga. Her eyes are also closed. Listeners fall silent, rapt by the nightingale duet. I feel dazed and let it be.


Dot in bigger dot the cloth makes bright

So to yourself, your word to deed

Dot in bigger dot, colour in deeper colour is bright

Zari of your words glimmer in deeds


“They are like two pilgrims walking along a path unaware of all that is around them but their walk. Their song, like the pilgrims’ stride, is their meditation. That is the Satpanth way,” says the lady with plastered hair. A sliver of silver hair at the parting in the middle of otherwise black silk catches the eye when she bows forward with her hand raised to the forehead partly in humility and partly appreciating Meethi Bai, the way Indians appreciate great artists at musical gatherings when seized by the rass of musical ecstasy.


Guru-pir dyed the cloth

In dots of colour bright

He dyed in many a dye

Lesser light shines in greater Light

Lesser soul lives in greater soul


“Wasikia raha?” asks Hawa with a mischievous wink. Do you hear happiness? Do I feel happiness? Yes? No? I don’t know because the song has not ended. It will end at dawn tomorrow when my marriage contract will be sealed in the jamatkhana after Ma Jena Bai, my father and Mukhi Dharamshi have together viewed my dowry and noted its value for the tithe that will be agreed upon before the mukhi accepts the money on behalf of Saheb and performs the ceremony.



Extract from " Home Between Crossings "

New Book by Sultan Somji,

Author of "Bead Bai"

Part Seven Nagapug – Nakedlegs

While the fear of the Mau Mau gripped the land, it became evident that change in governance in British East Africa was coming as it happened in India, Ghana and Nigeria. At this time there came a wave of modernization sweeping through the Satpanth Ismaili Khoja community. The Evian Conference of the Ismaili leaders was called in 1952 to draw out policies for drastic cultural changes that would project a new visage of the old community in the name of modernity and adaptation to the new era as in post Ottoman Turkey. Like the Evian Conference before on immigration and settlements of Jewish refugees in the new lands, the closed door Ismaili conference sought ways to change the Indian in the Khoja. Through dramatic moves that included a shift of worship rituals to Arabic forms and vocabulary, the community began displaying a character identified by a lifestyle thought to be modern and adjusting to change. All this happened within a decade of the 1950s that ended with the end of Mau Mau. Then, soon after, began the rise of brutal state propelled anti-Asian African propaganda. The Imam encouraged the women to adopt European dress style. He found a way around those who were reluctant at first because short dresses exposed their legs and they felt it was not just immoral but also embarrassing to walk around the town with ‘naked legs’ as they put it, and without a pachedi shawl over their chests and heads that they were used to as Gujarati and Kuchi Khojas.


The Imam decided to give his signed picture mounted on a board to those women who would wear the European dress. It was a special photo in colour of the Imam and his begum not seen anywhere before. Moreover, it carried blessings written in the Imam’s own handwriting. It was like a benediction certificate that the women craved to possess and show off on side boards and shelves in their living rooms. Some had it even framed. It read just one line, as the Imam’s blessings usually do, and that was enough: I GIVE MY BEST PATERNAL BLESSINGS TO ALL WHO ADOPT SIMPLE COLONIAL DRESS. A large majority of women, including many in their senior years, put on what the Imam called a ‘simple colonial dress’. There were a few, however, who were unable to abandon their traditional dressing and they continued to wear a long frock or adopted sari as their regular dress.

Conversely, the Ithna Asheri Khoja women’s ethnic Indic dress segued into full length veiling testifying sturdier adherence to the Twelver Shia faith and Middle Eastern religious identity.


Shariffa Keshavjee's beautiful bandhani

Sparkle of 31 Bandhanis Mombasa Jamat Khana (1963)- Courtesy of Amir Janmohamed

Sparkle of 31 Bandhanis.png

This picture taken Khushali, Mombasa Jamat Khana (1963) was one among several, a collection composed by Ameer Bhai Janmohamed in memoriam of beloved Malek Chachi (Malek Bai Somji) sitting in the front row, first from the left.

Back Row Left to Right: Malek Bai Rajabali Kassam Suleman Damji, Guli Bai Jivan, Dolu Bai Jaffer Haji Mitha

2nd Row: Khati Bai (Mira Bai?) Kassam Suleman Damji, Khatun Bai Rashid, Rehmat Bai Jivraj, Leila Bai Merali Mussa

3rd row: Shahsultan Bai Mohamedali Dhala, Mrs Merali Ramji, Gulshan Badru Musa, Mrs Haji Mitha

4th row: Shirin Bai Akbar A Janmohamed, Nurbanu Bai Nasser Alibhai, Fatma Bai Ramzan Dossa

5th row: Khatun Bai Kassamali Paroo, Dolu Bai Badrudin Alibhai Kanji, Roshan Bai Fatehali Dhala, Zainub Bai Akbar Moloo Alarakhia

6th row: Mrs Hami, Gulzar Bai Mansur Satchu, Nabat Bai Lalani, Nurbanu Bai Satchu.

7th row: Gulbanu Bai Husein Jivan Kanji, Muhkiani Zeinub Bai Mohamedali Rashid, Kamadiani Zeenat Bai Ameer Janmohamed, Fatma Bai Abdulrasul Gulmani

Front Row: Malek Bai Umedali Somji (Malek Chachi), Mrs Jamal Habib Kara, Dolutkhanu Bai Ebrahim Tarmohamed, Nurbanu Bai Sultan Fazal Bhanji.


Gorgeous 170 year old marriage bandhani, from the family of late Jena Bai Hussein Janmohamed of Mombasa - Courtesey of Farida Nanji of Nairobi


Rehema Bai Ramji in her beautiful marriage bandhani 1930's Dar es Salaam. Courtesy of Nizar Ramji

Ma Khati Bai of Masaka, Uganda, at age 96, in her marriage bandhani. Courtesy of Karim Bhai Sachedina.

Kuze, Mombasa Jamatkhana Mukhianis, circa 1960(Courtesey of Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi)