Year of the Woman

Kishwar Desai believes we need to confront the horrors of Partition

Kishwar sees the museum as an evolving project

Kishwar sees the museum as an evolving project   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

‘It would be unforgivable if we pretended amnesia and allowed a huge chunk of history to be wiped out’

It was not just a local immigration, but a phenomenon that had tremendous ramifications worldwide. Millions lost their parents, spouses, children and belongings, were chased out of their homes where their families had lived perhaps for hundreds of years and left destitute. Yet, there was no space in our country to house their memories of the colossal tragedy.”

It was this thought that troubled Kishwar Desai for nearly 20 years. She is the Chairperson of The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust that set up the Partition Museum in Amritsar in August this year. “I felt we needed to confront the horrors. It would be unforgivable if we pretended amnesia and allowed a huge chunk of history to be wiped out. While the idea has been brewing in my head for more than two decades, it is only in the last couple of years I could actually do something about it. And the 70th anniversary of the event seemed a good deadline to work towards.”

Remembering, recording

Kishwar also realised that it was now or never as those who remembered anything about Partition were ageing and if their accounts were not recorded, they would be lost forever. In her travels abroad she saw how countries preserved their not-so-distant past (Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Apartheid Museum). “Most museums in our country are about ancient Maharajas, and there is little about contemporary India. And, here are some people who have been witness to some of the darkest moments in the sub-continent’s history and have first person accounts to share. Their stories deserve to be told and heard.”

It took two years of relentless work to realise her dream. But most of all, it was her team that made it happen. “Especially Mallika Ahluwalia, a double Masters from Harvard who gave up a high-flying job with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for this. Ahluwalia, CEO and Curator of the museum, has worked 24x7 to get it on its feet. Assistant curator Ganeev Dhillon also gave up a job with a think-tank to join us.”

Kishwar is overwhelmed by the support that flowed in once the project got under way. “People pitched in with memorabilia and money, and some much-needed moral support. We were especially lucky to have the Punjab government on our side as both Captain Amarinder Singh and Parkash Singh Badal were witness to Partition and could empathise with the project. We get thousands of visitors every week from all backgrounds and hundreds of letters and memorabilia. ”

Constantly evolving

The museum, in the impressive Town Hall Building in Amritsar, has already seen book launches, poetry readings by eminent personalities such as Gulzar, and film shows. But there is a lot more in the pipeline, says Kishwar, who sees it as a museum curated, cared for and taken forward by young people. “We are in conversation with other museums in the country to share our experiences of setting up a space of this scale. Google Arts & Culture is working on taking it into the virtual space and archival material is being digitised. There are plans to set up the world’s largest archives on the Partition right here.”

“A work in progress,” is how she sees the Partition Museum. “It has to evolve constantly. It has to be a conscience keeper. And the word is spreading. Tourists are being told, ‘Before you travel to the Wagah Border, visit the Partition Museum.’”

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 10:29:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/kishwar-desai-believes-we-need-to-confront-the-horrors-of-partition/article22324884.ece

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