Migrant moment

The just-concluded exhibition on Partition, ‘Part Narratives’, by four artists in New Delhi, showed how it is the accidental archive that can tell alternative histories

Updated - January 21, 2017 05:03 pm IST

Published - January 20, 2017 03:48 pm IST

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s Open Wound - India, a digital animation on i-Pad. Photo: Special Arrangement

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s Open Wound - India, a digital animation on i-Pad. Photo: Special Arrangement

At the end of a long exchange where they debated the origins of the senses, philosopher Yajnavalakya asked King Janak, “If a person such as yourself, equipped with wealth and knowledge wishes to make a long journey, furnished with a chariot or a boat, where would you go, from here? What latter region would you go to, being released from the former region?” Ignorantly, the king answered, “I do not know.”

My mother and her family crossed from Lahore to Delhi in 1947. A military convoy brought them to safety, my grandmother bringing with her a box of valuables and her four children. The carved wooden box from Kashmir, perhaps bought on a holiday, was pasted with paper that had faded and coloured with age. When they spoke of their lives before the crossing, it was with snatches of memory — my mother’s violin lessons, now stilled in an aunt’s home amid the strange turbulence of Delhi, the sweetness of the melons of Swat, and the Government College Lahore. Collapsed, shuffled, laid out or finally packed away, these were single snapshots, the partial memory of selection and denial. Beneath them lay the chaos and compulsion of new lives, identities on the cusp of unforeseeable change. If asked about the grand image of migration, its parts and its narratives, its passage and its inheritance, like the king in Yajnavalakya’s narrative they would say, “I do not know.”

How then do we speak of the history of the partial narrative? In their wish to be subsumed and absorbed, to move out of the margins, migrations are read as minor narratives, a conspicuous and awkward by-product of temporal change.

Atul Bhalla’s ‘Objects of fictitious togetherness’ using wood, brass, marble and water
Photo: sepiaEYE

Atul Bhalla’s ‘Objects of fictitious togetherness’ using wood, brass, marble and waterPhoto: sepiaEYE


Coming after the famine of Bengal and the Tebhaga movement, Partition created an aesthetic of toxicity and trauma. As a subject of engagement, Partition has been a highly productive site in art and cinema, television, fiction and biography. It fostered artist movements like Delhi Shilpi Chakra, and influenced gender reforms, and other concerns of the new nation. Seen decades later, as a historic imperative, it becomes subsumed in the larger history of forced migratory flows in different parts of the world.

But despite the enormity of the event, the artistic response to the event has not been registered or documented. Indian institutions have ignored largely the productive output, the family memorabilia, the archival material generated by the cataclysm — the absence of monuments to trauma or mourning extending well into the modern period. This, despite the fact that Partition as a subject has persisted and leaked through the decades, extending from the eyewitness sketches of the artist as diarist in the 1940s to the conceptually universal art works of the present time.

Even as the long shadow of Partition has spread over seven intervening decades, India is home to a rising tide of internal migration, second only to China in the churn of uprooting and resettling patterns. In this movement from village to city and then back, an entire poetic lexicon of des-pardes has been spawned, in the studios of Bombay and the penumbra of poetry that supports it.

In the work of Madhusudhanan, Sheba Chhachhi, and Nandita Raman, cinema as archive and its space as repository of memory is seen. Across much of North India, if des or desh is home and community, pardes could be a distant Indian state, as well as a foreign country and the pardesi fellow countryman a foreigner. Cinema from the 1950s onwards has been replete with narratives of the city or pardes as a site for pollution and the desh as the locus of the pure. In the last two decades, this narrative has see-sawed with the diaspora injecting a different scale to the value of place, with the voluntary migrant, the NRI. If the expatriate Indian was the caricature of Westernism in the 1970s and 80s, he has grown in the period of global exchange to “a kind of uber Indian able to assert his ethnic and national identity in a globalised world; successful, capitalist, male, family-oriented, technology savvy and a devout Hindu all at once.”

Nandita Raman; Untitled # 5 (Natraj), 2009, archival pigment print. Photo: Special Arrangement

Nandita Raman; Untitled # 5 (Natraj), 2009, archival pigment print. Photo: Special Arrangement


Migration to the West is justified through the retention, even the exaggeration of values of the ‘pure’, and the conspicuous enactment of tradition, rituals and festivals. Cinema’s images of diaspora capitalists are offset by images of migrating labour. What Said spoke of as ‘the politics of dispossession’ is a vast subject that engages all kinds of movements, from migrant labour to the diaspora to the exile. Movement is seasonal and circular, and allows large numbers to be in a perpetual state of the unlocated, the unstable, moving between the loci of ‘home’ and the quest for capital. Migration also compels artistic change and mutation.

The artist Sardari Lal Parasher, crossing over at the height of the violence in 1947 with a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s book in one pocket and his sketchbook, was to mark a sharp rupture with what he now saw. The early sketches on view revealed precisely the struggle to arrive at a figure that marks trauma and mourning, to arrive at a form when nothing like it exists. The sombre yet contained work of Amrita Sher-Gil, that creates a typology of the North Indian woman, must now mutate into the keening, mourning woman. Homi Bhabha writes about the singularity of the image of Aylan Kurdi, who swept up face down on the shores of the Turkish coastline, becoming death the face of the refugee crisis.

Appadurai has argued that media and migration both affect the work of the imagination, a fundamental aspect of modern subjectivity. While electronic media has the power to compress, expand and distort our sense of distance, there are migrating patterns of other contrary dimensions and the creating of a sense of disorder. The migrations to the metropolis have generated one kind of political and social resistance in several Indian states. Migration is a political and electoral issue, involving state agencies, military forces, political parties, border tensions and issues of legality. The migration of opinion fields on Twitter — India has 22 million users — represents another field of movement. On the ground and in cyberspace, the migratory patterns imply a kind of unchecked movement, pause, then further movement. Under demonetisation, another form of mass migration away from the centres of capitalism is currently underway, the implications and extent of which will play out only in coming months.

Sheba Chhachhi’s ‘Temporal Twist’ using wood, motors and 35 mm film stock. Photo: Special Arrangement

Sheba Chhachhi’s ‘Temporal Twist’ using wood, motors and 35 mm film stock. Photo: Special Arrangement


In staging the exhibition, what appears as a referent is the archive — frequently unruly, poorly documented, and uneven, but nevertheless, resilient, and accessible. Against the backdrop of the deep roots of popular presses and mass-based photography, the publishing of tracts across sects and institutions and the making of epistolary collections, India has built up a substantial if uneven ‘unconscious’ or accidental archive. Four artists within the exhibition represented the artist as eyewitness.

Krishen Khanna, dedicating decades to the principle of exitus and reditus, of departure and arrival, is comprehended entirely through his drawings of the journey. Arpita Singh, who witnessed Partition as a 10-year-old in Delhi, and Somenath Hore, who conflated his memory of the Partition of Bengal with the birth of Bangladesh, were on view. In periods of change, as the grand narratives of nationhood and its determining ideologies gradually recede, it is the accidental archive that may be excavated to create alternative histories.

In a heraldic piece in the exhibition, ‘Homage to Bade Gulam Ali’, artist K.M. Madhusudhanan evoked a sense of change and shift in history with regard to migration. Bade Gulam Ali believed that musical notes were distributed spatially. In an interview before his death he spoke of music as migratory, of travelling between the regions of the subcontinent. “Sheheron mein sur baante gaye” is how he spoke of the migration of Raag Bilawal to Kashmir and Bengal and Jaijaivanti to Sindh. Singing ‘Shubh Din Aayo’ in 1960 virtually at the end of the Nehruvian period, Ali revelled in this knowledge of music crossing geographies even as he mourned separation from the beloved ‘sur’.

Madhusudhanan’s work was hung across a faux photocopy of Nehru’s desk that bore video testimonials of migrating families, by Annu Matthews. It was on a desk such as this that perhaps the biggest migration in human history was contemplated.

Gayatri Sinha is an art critic and curator based in New Delhi.

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