Nine mark the divide

As harmony is increasingly threatened, a museum, a fashion showcase, a pop-up and more tell us why we need to remember the stories of Partition

August 25, 2017 04:50 pm | Updated August 26, 2017 03:14 pm IST

Our history pages tell a stark, almost black and white story: at midnight of August 14, 1947, close to 15 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs left behind all they knew, and travelled thousands of kilometres — facing unspeakable violence (which reports claim took over 1.5 million lives) — in the largest recorded forced migration. So it may have been a little unexpected when, 70 years on, the flamboyant fashion industry decided it would reflect on those harrowing times. The Partition Project, with seven designers, including JJ Valaya and Sabyasachi Mukherjee, showcased one garment installation each at Lakmé Fashion Week a week ago (they are now part of a permanent collection at The Partition Museum in Amritsar).

This also kick-started a conversation helmed by names like Nonita Kalra, editor Harper’s Bazaar India, and Mallika Ahluwalia, CEO and co-founder of the museum. “We all tend to dismiss fashion and think only silly, glamorous people care for it. But clothes define you: where you came from, who you think you are,” says Kalra, adding, “I felt fashion should contribute to the conversation: to acknowledge that Partition happened, and that we must not let history repeat itself. Never more than today do we need to remind ourselves how we need harmony most.”

Among countless narratives and initiatives that are happening in India, we look at nine that are ensuring that the stories from the breach are not forgotten.

1. Fashion: The Partition Project

Tarun Tahiliani’s muddy-coloured muslin sari had abstract maps printed on it, with a barbed wire running through. It was burnt, to show that people underwent turmoil. There was also a sheer veil and a crochet cap, with an ajrakh petticoat, indicating that “one day you were at home, leading your regular life; the next you were running for your life; and the third day you were wearing a burkha , having to disguise yourself as a Muslim,” says Tahiliani, both sets of whose grandparents were part of the migration from newly-created Pakistan to India. “It’s absurd that your life can depend on just the addition or subtraction of a single garment, and that one garment can have your identity stripped off you,” he adds.

For Narendra Kumar Ahmed, the connection was much closer. His parents met at one of the most turbulent times of India’s history, and it took them almost a decade to be together, with a large part of his father’s side opting to move to Pakistan. But it was only about 10 years ago that he realised the extent of their love and strife, when he found a yellowing love letter that his Muslim father had written his Hindu mother. Inspired, he had created a collection back then, with a beige-teal-rust colour story: beige for the letter, teal for the discoloured ink, and rust for the rusted pin that held the pages together. The letter’s contents were also embroidered on an outfit. For the 2017 project, however, his creation was a quilted, layered black gown featuring the sacred Japanese tsusu bird (to show that love triumphs) and red embroidery. “In what was probably the darkest period of Indian history, positivity, courage and conviction came through,” he says.

2. Pop-up: Godrej India Culture Lab

Earlier in the month, the Godrej India Culture Lab joined the conversation. When its head, Parmesh Shahani, had visited The Partition Museum, he felt it warranted taking a step further. His three-day pop-up in Mumbai, called Museum of Memories: Remembering Partition saw scholars (like Guneeta Bhalla), filmmakers (Govind Nihalani, Nandita Das, and others), and peace activists (Salima Hashmi from Pakistan, Lalita Ramdas), coming together in panels and performances, with the underlying idea that “we take something so tragic and enable people to understand there’s more that unites us than divides,” says Shahani, for whom the journey to the pop-up was special as one set of his grandparents came from Pakistan. One of the highlights was a 12-piece art exhibit, at the centre of the which was the Well of Remembrance, a brick installation with a long fabric that hung into it from the ceiling, a homage to the women who jumped into wells during the time.

3. Film: Partition - 1947

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Released in the UK as Viceroy’s House , it hit the Indian screens on August 18 as Partition: 1947 , and has been banned in Pakistan. Director Gurinder Chadha's British-Indian historical drama — with an Indian and Pakistani cast, including Huma Qureshi and the late Om Puri — traces the days leading up to the divide. At a press conference, Chadha said, “I had access to top secret documents in the British library. Their agenda was to eliminate India as a formidable rival. I am sad India only thought of itself rather than imagined itself as a global superpower.” The film, however, received flak for being a rather naïve exercise.

4. Book: Remnants of a Separation

So why are such stories important? As young author Aanchal Malhotra told The Hindu , “These remind us of humanity and friendship, and the relationships that survive the trying times.” Her book, Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory , which was launched two weeks ago, revisits these tales through the objects that families carried with them — like her grandmother’s foldable knife that was given to her to protect her during the riots.

5. Memorial: The Partition Museum

Meanwhile, The Partition Museum, is continuing to add to its displays. Officially launched nine days ago (though founded last October), it showcases personal artefacts, letters, photographs and documents. One of the most arresting exhibits is the Oral Histories archive, where you can hear history first-hand from someone who has lived through it. Exploring narratives from both sides of the border, Kishwar Desai, the chairperson, says, “We are receiving more objects, and requests for recording more oral histories.” The museum is also evolving as a cultural space. Gulzar launched his newly-translated book, and recited his poems on Partition here. “New donors are stepping forward to support it as there is a deep feeling that we must preserve our archives, both private and public, before it is too late,” she adds, describing the museum as a work in progress.

6. Online: The 1947 Partition Archive

This year, Partition stories are also finding their place online. The 1947 Partition Archive — set up in 2010, but grabbing headlines now after they tied up with universities like Stanford to stream their videos — is the world’s largest collection of oral histories of Partition. Founded by Guneeta Singh Bhalla, it has over 4,300 stories on digital video from over 350 cities in 12 countries. “By building this archive and engaging the public through crowd sourcing, we’ve popularised the notion of recording stories and created an atmosphere for other efforts to come up,” she says, adding that interactive centres will be coming up soon, across cities like Mumbai and Delhi, which will encourage people to understand, analyse and empathise with this largely untalked about part of our history in a constructive manner.

7. Social media: Bolti Khidki

Interestingly, Generation C is trying to find a connect with the past, too. Sandeep Dutt, an IT student from Ludhiana, and Faisal Hayat, a journalism student from Pakistan’s Rawalpindi, launched Bolti Khidki - The Speaking Window, a digital initiative that shares survivor stories and photographs, on Facebook in April. What began as a project to collect 16 stories (eight from each side of the border) has now grown to 40. “It has been a difficult journey, meeting people, convincing them to tell their stories, but it’s been worth it. We got over 5,000 followers (now at 9,000+) in just eight weeks,” Dutt says, adding that they are currently working on adding another 40 stories “as most Partition survivors are old and it will be difficult to trace them after a few years. Our generation should know where they come from”.

8. Book: Insurgency and the Artist

In my forthcoming book, Insurgency and the Artist: A Visual History of India’s Freedom Struggle , expected to be published in 2018 by Roli Books, I consider how Indian artists responded to colonial oppression, the tenor of nationalist thought, and some of the principal events that would characterise the political landscape of India in the first half of the 20th century. What insights might images — nationalist prints, paintings, etchings, cartoons, sculptures — give us about the struggle for independence that are not furnished by institutional histories and nationalist texts.

Recent work, nearly all of it riveted on nationalist prints which came out of workshops in Kanpur (then “Cawnpore”), Mumbai, Kolkata, and other cities, has drawn our attention to the frequent invocation by printmakers to Bharat Mata, or India conceived as a goddess who is in turn chained and ready to call her children to arms. And yet the Indian past in prints was simultaneously rendered as one of martial resistance to ‘foreign’ rule, as is seen in the proliferation of images of Shivaji and Maharana Pratap, revolutionaries like Khudiram, Chandrasekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh, and, of course, Gandhi.

The canvas of this book is large, eventually taking the reader from Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and mass non-violent resistance to the 1940s and the advent of the INA, the cult-like devotion to Subhas Bose, and the sunset of the Raj. But it is not intended solely, or even largely, as a chronological narrative through images. Zainul Abedin, Chittaprosad, and Gobardhan Ash, each a witness to the Bengal Famine of 1943, were among the artists who saw it as their ethical responsibility to bring the suffering of ordinary people to the attention of the nation. Chittaprosad’s almost frenetic drawings of working-class people stand forth as palpable testimony to the ruination of India under colonial rule. Printmakers and artists showed remarkable inventiveness. Shaheedat is an idea alien to Hindu thought; and yet artists had no difficulty in assimilating the assassinated Gandhi into the woof and warp of martyrdom. Thus my book also offers some thoughts on how ideas travel across borders, the porousness of culture, and the relationship of art to politics.

— Dr Vinay Lal, Professor of History and Asian American Studies, UCLA

9. Film: The Great Indian Escape

Meanwhile, documentary filmmaker, director and editor, Taranjiet Singh Namdhari, has just completed The Great India Escape — which may not be about Partition, but still promises to evoke a sense of patriotism. It all began over three years ago, when he chanced upon Air Chief Marshal PC Lal’s book, My Years with the IAF . “The word ‘escape’ leapt out at me from the index. I turned to the page and there was an account of three Flight Lieutenants who escaped from a Prisoner of War camp in Rawalpindi, in 1972.”

The 45-year-old found nothing about the leader of the escape, Dilip Kamalkar Parulkar, on Google, but managed to track him down. “He invited me home to Pune. At the end of six days, I had 45 hours of material recorded. Through him, I also met MS Grewal. The third pilot, Harish Sinhji, was sadly no more. But his daughter generously shared letters written by him,” he shares. Namdhari also met the other POWs who facilitated the escape. “It became not just about the escape. It was about the individuals, about camaraderie and leadership.” He was amazed at the details they shared with him. “They remembered the exact size of the bricks in the walls. They drew the layout of the camp for me. That is how we recreated the POW camp in Mumbai,” he says, adding portions of the movie were shot in Ladakh.

His production company, Kik Butt Entertainment, also bought actual war footage from the Films Division. “These were shot by cameras fixed on MiGs and Sukhois that were on war sorties. Of course, the reconstruction of Parulkar’s aircraft being shot down was all graphics,” he says, adding the spadework began in January 2014 and it was completed in July 2017. After screening The Great Indian Escape at a few selected Air Force Stations, he is hoping to release it in time for Air Force Day, on October 8.

— With inputs from Krithika R and Surya Praphulla Kumar

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