History & Culture

‘Lost Migrations’: Using animation to find a place called home

A still from Rest in Paper

A still from Rest in Paper | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

As India and Pakistan celebrate the 75th year of their independence from British colonial rule this month, the spotlight will no doubt linger on the painful partition of the subcontinent and the many geo-political equations that emerged after. Considered to be the largest forced migration of its kind, the Partition displaced 14 million people and caused the deaths of approximately a million when British India was formally divided into two new dominions — India and Pakistan — in 1947.

Much of the literature and archival content related to this turbulent period of the subcontinent’s history is focused on the division of the province of Punjab by British authorities in 1947 and the upheaval that it unleashed. But not much is known, except perhaps through oral accounts, about the desperation and violation suffered by other displaced South Asian communities during Partition.

Seabirds. examines how displacement affected the Chettiar community.

Seabirds. examines how displacement affected the Chettiar community. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Three-part anthology

Lost Migrations, an animated feature series from Project Dastaan, a UK-based venture which reconnects refugees of the Partition from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) with their ancestral homes and communities through film and virtual reality, focuses on these untold stories, narrated through the perspective of the displaced.

Funded by the British Council and supported by the National Geographic Society, the fictonalised exploration of history is a unique collaborative project between UK, India and Pakistan, with animation by Spitting Image, Bengaluru and Puffball Studios, Lahore. Project Dastaan was founded in 2018 by Sparsh Ahuja, Sam Dalrymple and Saadia Gardezi. It uses an extensive volunteer network to track down and film the childhood homes and villages of the Partition witnesses, which are then shown as immersive videos on VR headsets.

Dastaan’s three-part anthology premiered at BFI Southbank movie theatre in London recently and was made available for private online viewing to MetroPlus. “We aim to showcase the diverse voices of the subcontinent in an engaging way, combining local artistic styles and traditions to celebrate the individuality of each community. These stories have never before been showcased to popular audiences,” the producers say in the show notes of Lost Migrations.

Each episode focuses on a community that has been excluded from South Asian literature and historiography: women, the Chettiar diaspora and the stateless. “We aim to showcase the diverse voices of the subcontinent in an engaging way, combining local artistic styles and traditions to celebrate the individuality of each community. These stories have never before been showcased to popular audiences,” the producers say in the show notes.

Nameless bits of paper

The first episode Rest in Paper, is based on the true story of Ghulam Ali, a refugee who is shunted between India and Pakistan in the elusive search for a proof of identity. The India-born Ali finds himself stateless in 1947, and is led from office to office with contradicting bits of information about his nationality. Lacking the correct paperwork, he gets caught in an absurd chain of arrests and deportation, crossing the border many times, and eventually loses his sense of belonging and identity.

The episode draws upon Vazira Fazila Yacoobali Zamindar’s The Long Partition, Saadat Hassan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh and Franz Kafka's The Trial.

Nithya and her grandmother Umayal bond over food in Seabirds.

Nithya and her grandmother Umayal bond over food in Seabirds. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

United through food

In Seabirds, written by Omi Zola Gupta, recipes are the unbreakable link between generations of a Chettiar family, as eight-year-old Nithya hears her grandmother Umayal relate the story of their clan’s displacement from Singapore and Burma during World War II. The suddenness of departure from alien lands that feel more like home than one’s own homeland, is seasoned with culinary imagery. “When we are at home together, what does it matter what the name of the place is?” asks Umayal, assuaging loss and nostalgia with shared memories of food.

Pearls in peril

The third episode, Sultana’s Dream, depicts the hopes and shattered dreams of an elderly woman based in modern-day Kolkata, through a series of flashbacks that occur in Lahore, Amritsar and Peshawar.

A broken strand of pearls becomes the leitmotif to symbolise the ways in which women faced the trauma of Partition, especially sexual violence and desertion by their own loved ones. Based loosely on Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s 1905 feminist magic-realism masterpiece Sultana’s Dream, Urvashi Butalia’s writing and Project Dastaan’s interviews, this episode dwells on forced conversions and marriages during the Partition, in the name of nationalism and clan pride. One is forced to agree with the lead characters when they sigh, ‘If only freedom kept its promises.’

A still from Sultana’s Dream

A still from Sultana’s Dream | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT


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Printable version | Aug 15, 2022 6:54:55 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/lost-migrations-partition-india-pakistan-bangladesh-east-pakistan-project-dastaan-oxford-university-animation-film-bengaluru-lahore-puffball-spitting-image-nahla-nainar-film-review-independence-day-au/article65750262.ece