Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar’s mellifluous voice plays in the background as a pretty lady clad in a saree sits on her terrace, enjoying her tea with biscuits while sparrows gather on the rails. The Bollywood superstar of yesteryears, Meena Kumari, sits elegantly on a floor mattress in the iconic film Pakeezah as the hit song “Mausam Hai Aashiqana” plays in the background. These are some of the scenes depicted in sisters Zainab and Sakina Sabunwala’s popular stop-animation videos on Instagram.
Scrolling through the Instagram account @Bohrasisters is a journey back in time, into the sepia past, where life moved at a leisurely pace: three elderly women chatting on the steps outside their homes; the local chaiwallah (tea seller) pouring milky tea into mud cups with men sitting around reading newspapers; a portly jalebi seller swirling batter into a large pan of oil to make the funnel-shaped sweet, and tailor Abdul in his skull cap bent over an old fashioned sewing machine with a measuring tape slung around his shoulders.
The 33-year-old Zainab and 37-year-old Sakina belong to the Dawoodi Bohra community with roots in Udaipur, Rajasthan, in Western India. Today, they live on different continents — Sakina lives in London while Zainab is based in Kuwait. Both are trained engineers who spent seven years with their grandparents in Udaipur, Rajasthan, during the Gulf War and did their college education in Bengaluru (also known as Bangalore).
“Sakina was always fond of drawing and art and is completely self-taught, and I started working with animation after finishing my engineering degree,” explained Zainab, who happened to be in Udaipur during our phone conversation. She said that she created the Instagram account in 2015 with her sister as a hobby and an attempt to “relive” their childhood in a small Indian town, and celebrate their grandparents, with nostalgia being the overriding theme.
The Sabunwala sisters’ stop-animation videos combine hand-drawn and digital art with timeless Hindi music. The beauty of their work is found in the smallest details of daily life, like the sound of a man snoring or a cow mooing. A life-sized finger (actually Zainab’s) appears in each animation to do some of the action, like plucking a flower, adding an ingredient to a dish, or opening a window. Many of their posts have been inspired by the daily life of their grandparents, with whom they spent their formative years.
The sisters use some typical motifs to recreate their childhood memories from street food like jalebis and momos, to local vendors, Bollywood actors, old houses, gulmohar and banyan trees, crows and sparrows, and people doing household chores like drying clothes, making pickles, or cleaning rice. Each character has a fictitious name like “Bhola chaiwala,” “Laloo Pav Bhaji,” and “D Souza aunty.”
Many of the incidents portrayed are personal memories from their childhood, like the depiction of their grandmother on a rocking chair that suddenly becomes empty when she dies. Flipping through their Instagram page, I am lost in the evocative images they create: a grandmother driving away pesky crows disturbing her afternoon siesta, women sitting in an open yard cleaning platters of rice with clotheslines behind them, images of the colorful phool mandi flower market, all of which are actual vignettes from their lives in India.
“We grew up listening to Hindi film music on scratchy tape recorders and radios which our parents played all day as they went about their daily chores or on long drives,” said Zainab. “My father would insist we watch and learn to appreciate old classics,” There are a lot of their videos dedicated to particular Bollywood movies, dialogues, or scenes, besides the song that they choose to play with every video.”
Their food videos are especially popular, evoking a desire for that particular Indian food like falooda (a layered dessert) or samosa, where they often showcase the steps of the preparation of food, building up the viewer’s sense of anticipation. “In our community food is a very important part of life. We sit on the floor and eat from one big plate where a meal starts typically with sweets, and then we move to many other dishes, sharing and bonding over food,” Zainab explained.
Eating pani puri (typical Indian street food) from a wayside stall as the vendor slowly fills each small puri (fluffy bread) with a potato mix and then adds the spicy water, Gafoor Bhai’s halwa (sweet served with puri); the juice vendor putting fruits into a mixer, while a child watches atop her father’s shoulders; and a grandmother cooking aloo mutter (potato peas curry) while carrying her granddaughter with one arm are all scenes in which food takes center stage.
The duo also promotes social causes through their videos, from educating young women and supporting small businesses like the local tailor or vegetable seller to highlighting the plight of salt workers hit by extreme heat and unseasonal rains. “There are so many things that we take for granted because we are privileged and in India, it’s so common to see things like small children working on the streets,” Zainab said. “We also love nature, birds, and animals and try to incorporate this love through small details in our videos and artwork.”
They were mid-1980s kids and their videos are reminiscent of that time, creating slow magic with attention to small details like making a dish or feeding pigeons. Most of their brainstorming is done on video calls, and it takes about two to four weeks to create one animated artwork, from drawing to full-fledged animation and sound. They have lived in Bengaluru, visited Mumbai often, and lived in Udaipur, so their work has influences from all of these Indian cities.
The sisters’ work has been in demand by clients ranging from couples commissioning wedding invitations to Disney’s Indian digital platform (Disney+ Hotstar) and the country’s premier cricket league. Several nonprofit organizations have also requested to use their animations. Now they both work full-time on their Instagram account and other projects.
“We feel that this is our personal contribution to society, bringing a smile to someone’s face and making them also soak in the nostalgia of the past,” said Zainab.