History & Culture

Partition oral history project goes online due to COVID-19

As the nib of Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s pen raced across the map to keep its tryst with destiny, sundering the Indian subcontinent into two in 1947, it resulted in an event saturated with violence. Trains filled with refugees, the coaches smeared with taunts, more often with blood, drew in at stations in Punjab and Bengal. Nearly 10 million were displaced and struggled to rebuild their lives in the cities they now called home. Partition’s echoes continue to haunt the political discourse in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but the stories of hardship, heartache and the robust optimism of its survivors are slowly fading into a sepia-tinted world.

The 1947 Partition Archive, a non-profit organisation founded in 2010 by Indian-American Guneeta Singh Bhalla, uses its flagship oral history project as a tool to record these experiences. It has preserved the memories of 9,300 Partition witnesses in more than 36 languages. The digital repository open to academics and lay people also has nearly 30,000 photographs, some of which are currently on display at the Mandi House Metro Station, Delhi. Primary information is collected by citizen historians — volunteers criss-crossing the globe interviewing survivors at their home in a race against time. With the COVID-19 pandemic now afoot, and the age profile of the survivors putting them at risk, the project has moved online to leave no story untold.

Partition oral history project goes online due to COVID-19

Bhalla, executive director of the Archive, who lives in Delhi, says, “We have nearly 1,000 witnesses waiting to tell their stories in 19 countries across Asia, North and South America and Europe.”

“Earlier, volunteer oral historians signed up for our free live online workshops. They went out in the community and recorded an oral history and submitted it through our online portal. Volunteer archivists then reviewed each oral history according to quality of the interview and content. Once the interview is archived, the volunteers become certified citizen historians and receive a certificate making them eligible to be matched with more waiting Partition witnesses,” says Bhalla, who launched the project spurred by her grandmother’s story of fleeing Lahore’s mayhem.

Across genres

Among the notable voices over the years are writers Bapsi Sidhwa and Khushwant Singh, artist Nek Chand, and sporting icon Milkha Singh. The project has facilitated meetings between old neighbours, people who look back with fondness at the endless days of summer, the girls they loved; and with anger at the life-altering violence and the crushing despair they struggled with for years.

The Archive’s global office is closed for the moment in California as mandated by the government; its second office in Gurugram is hosted by MakeMyTrip.

Partition oral history project goes online due to COVID-19

“We don’t want these memories to be lost at a time like this. So, now interviews happen via webcam and some of the paperwork requires using a courier service rather than getting it done in person. We assist the interviewee remotely, but it is limiting because there are many elders who live alone and don’t have the right access to technology. In this case, we allow phone recordings, which isn’t ideal since their body language contains so much more information than their words alone. But, given that elders are particularly at risk with Coronavirus, we want to open up all possible avenues of recording, lest we lose our history,” says Bhalla. “Despite how complicated it was to switch to work-from-home, our team has a new sense of renewed energy and urgency. We know that we have a time bomb ticking.”

Partition is a historical event for many, a family story for some. But, as these narratives show it is more than just a candid conversation from our past. It is about where we come from and where we are going as a nation.

For details, 1947partitionarchive.org

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2020 10:52:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/partition-oral-history-project-goes-online-due-to-covid-19/article31288769.ece

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