History & Culture

A virtual homecoming: Project Dastaan decodes Partition for a new generation

An elderly Partition witness viewing a Project Dastaan video. Photo: Project Dastaan/THE HINDU  

This week, as India and Pakistan celebrate their Independence Day in an exceptionally difficult year, for many people, the jubilation will be tinged by memories of the circumstances in which freedom dawned on the subcontinent.

The Partition of 1947, which signaled the formal division of British India into two new dominions, redrew not only borders, but also the geo-political equations of South Asia forever. Even in retrospect, 73 years after it happened, the Partition remains a humanitarian tragedy, forcing the migration of nearly 14 million people and causing the deaths of approximately a million. However, as many civilian bridge-building measures have tried to prove, the subcontinent’s people need to acknowledge their shared past to co-exist peacefully.

One such initiative is Project Dastaan, a non-profit venture which reconnects refugees of the Partition from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) with their ancestral homes and communities, using film and virtual reality to communicate their stories to the world.

A Sikh family has made its home in an abandoned mosque in Macoree, Punjab. Photo: Project Dastaan/THE HINDU

A Sikh family has made its home in an abandoned mosque in Macoree, Punjab. Photo: Project Dastaan/THE HINDU  

Inspired by the Partition-era reminiscences of his grandfather Ishar Das Arora, Sparsh Ahuja, then a student of Philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University (now a digital artist), and his Pakistani colleague Ameena Maluk, started Project Dastaan (meaning “story” in Urdu) in 2018. They were soon joined by Sam Dalrymple, then a Persian and Sanskrit student at Oxford (now a photojournalist and producer) whose grandfather served as a British officer in India in the 1940s, and Pakistani journalist Saadia Gardezi.

“Partition has politicised identities which didn’t hold that much relevance until the 1930s. We have the generational trauma of people like our grandparents, who will have been affected by a religious community and still hold prejudices against them because of the violence they faced during Partition,” says Sparsh Ahuja, over a WhatsApp group telephone interview from Melbourne with London-based Saadia Gardezi, who is the Pakistan Lead of Project Dastaan. “The trauma of the people who survived that moment is not spoken about. Religious divisions continue to be a rich resource of electoral politics,” he says.

Born in Bela, a small village in West Punjab in 1940, Ishar Das Arora was 7 years old at the time of Partition. He would walk every day to and from school in the nearby village Ziarat. He eventually moved to Delhi, India after living in many refugee camps and escaping communal violence. He is the grandfather of Project Dastaan’s founder Sparsh Ahuja. Photo: Project Dastaan/THE HINDU

Born in Bela, a small village in West Punjab in 1940, Ishar Das Arora was 7 years old at the time of Partition. He would walk every day to and from school in the nearby village Ziarat. He eventually moved to Delhi, India after living in many refugee camps and escaping communal violence. He is the grandfather of Project Dastaan’s founder Sparsh Ahuja. Photo: Project Dastaan/THE HINDU  

Revisiting the past

Project Dastaan 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 virtual reality (VR) headsets.

Besides this, the project is also in the process of making Child of Empire, featuring select stories from the Dastaan interviews combined with animation to form an interactive VR docu-fiction experience which puts viewers in the shoes of a young migrant in 1947.

Directed by Erfaan Saadati, Child of Empire has been accepted into the 77th Venice International Film Festival Gap Financing Market for funding this year. It has also received a £20,000 grant from the Arts Council, England.

Diversity beckons
  • What began as a student project has spun out in different directions. “Project Dastaan is also involved in the South Asian Heritage Month campaign, which premièred this year in the UK from mid-July to mid-August, on the lines of the Black History Month in the United States,” says founder Sparsh Ahuja.
  • The technology is the most expensive part of the project. “Recording 360 degree video is not difficult, but viewing it requires a few different options like a cheap cardboard device from Google, which will act like a mini VR player when inserted in your phone. The animated documentary requires a specialist device, but we are also making a version for Web which anyone can access on an iPad or computer,” he says.
  • With the hiatus brought on by the lockdown, the founding team’s future plans remain open. “All of us have been doing this for two years, almost completely as volunteers. This was always intended to be a short-term project. Saadia will be going into PhD soon, and I’ll be starting a job next year, so it really depends on how the world comes back after lockdown,” says Sparsh.
  • More information on projectdastaan.org

Dastaan’s third initiative is a feature documentary, The Lost Migration, which will physically take a Partition refugee back to their childhood home, while giving a socio-political background to migrations across the world.

“We have interviewed 20 Partition migrants in India, Pakistan, the UK and the US and created VR experiences for eight. We are planning to start in Bangladesh after the lockdown,” says Sparsh.

The project hopes to complete 75 interviews in time for the 75th year of Partition in 2022.

Colonial hangover

Despite the recent push against Western colonisation thanks to the Black Lives Matter campaign, which began in the United States and spread globally in a matter of weeks there is still a lot of mental groundwork to be done in Britain, says Sparsh.

“There is still a colonial hangover, Partition is not talked about in the educational curriculum in the UK,” he says. “When Empire is brought up, it is seen in dichotomy to what was happening in Germany at the time, and invariably, Britain is shown as the defending force of Western liberalism against fascism.”

Most of the people that Dastaan has met are in their 80s or 90s, but their memory of the hometowns they left behind remains fresh, says Sparsh. “People are overhwelmed by the visuals of these places that they have only been talking about for years, to their family and friends.”

A virtual homecoming: Project Dastaan decodes Partition for a new generation

Too important to forget

The passage of time has done little to blunt the edge of poignant memories, says Saadia. “A lot of the focus of the Partition so far has been on Punjab. Other stories, for example, the Mohajir movement in Pakistan, stories from Bengal and then Bangladesh and South India, are things that we have never heard of before. We do not know much about what happened to women during this time period,” she says.

She adds, “We have to realise that 73 years means just two or two-and-a-half generations. So it is not actually that long ago in public memory, especially in the case of Pakistan, where we have a State that didn’t exist at all before. So Partition is the starting point for Pakistan. You had to kind of give up your past to be able to accommodate a new history in a new territory. It is not the fact that we cannot forget. We should not, because it is too important.”


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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 2:20:16 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/peace-project-helps-partition-migrants-reconnect-with-their-past-through-technology/article32352748.ece

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