Silence By Design: Partition Museum Project
“Not forever does the bulbul sing
In balmy shades of bowers,
Not forever lasts the spring
Nor ever blossom the flowers.
Not forever reigneth joy
Sets the sun on days of bliss,
Friendships not forever last,
They know not life, who know not this.”
-- Train to Pakistan, Khushwant Singh
‘This is not that dawn with longing for which / the friends set out, (convinced) that somewhere there we met with….’ wrote Faiz Ahmed Faiz in ‘Dawn of Freedom,’ independent India’s first, and arguably foremost, poetry. While today we refer nonchalantly to an independent India, thoughtlessly ascribe chronological differentiation to the British phase and our subsequent ‘independence,’ be not misled. As British India approached its demise, a concoction of politics and religion appeared to simmer, more violently than it had ever appeared to. Even after almost seventy years of British India’s bloodied segmentation – the Partition of India, it is almost invariably explained with the two-nation theory.
Rooted in a glorious ancient Hindu past, it was believed that ‘modern’ India had made its way to itself on a middle, medieval, Muslim phase. This implied the existence of two dominant, monolithic religious communities, whose history had always been antagonistic. If independence from the British raaj were to come to the subcontinent, it must be negotiated between the two communities. There could not, therefore, be one, united India – India was composed of two nations: that of the Hindus and the Muslims, and it is two nations that it must become. While Pakistan did keep its side of the deal as a Muslim, theocratic state, secular India had to resign its dreams of a Hindu rashtra to a nexus of organisations, which now await deliverance. Perhaps a better term for 1947 is ‘fragmentation,’ as it lays naked the cunning of history that the tame, jubilant terminology of ‘independence’ cloaks.
That is not to say that independence did not come to India. Independence came, but it was built over the corpses of the 200,000 – 2,000,000 people maimed in the retributive genocide between the two communities with its foci in Punjab and Bengal, over the countless women raped, abducted, and sometimes killed to preserve honour, over the 14 million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims estimated to have been displaced during this terrifying upheaval – making it the largest mass migration in recorded human history. Seen this way, even the terminology of ‘Partition’ is misleading, perhaps insufficient. Should we call it holocaust?
(Partition of India: Cover Sketch of the Time)
The Partition of British India was a systematic fragmentation, a division not just of territory, but also of other resources: of the army, civil services, clerical utilities, and above all, of hearts. Faced with the prospect of murder or conversion, millions of people undertook painstaking travel across the momentarily fluid borders through trains, carts, maybe even on foot, leaving behind swathes of land, property, companions, memories, and home. Most believed that this was temporary, that the calamity of 1947 would end like a bad dream they would break in the comfort of their homes. But this was not to be. Delhi, the capital city of independent India, became the epicentre of this activity. A Delhi Muslim, Shahid Ahmad Dehlavi, compelled to flee to a dirty, overcrowded camp in Purana Qila, likened Gandhi’s arrival in Delhi on 9 September 1947 to ‘the arrival of the rains after a particularly long and harsh summer.’ Dehlavi recalled in his memoir how Muslims said to one another: ‘Delhi will now be saved.’
In fact, Delhi received the largest number of refugees for a single city, and consequently saw a vast conglomeration of makeshift refugee camps, whose people were eventually settled in a number of housing colonies all too familiar to us now: Lajpat Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, Rajinder Nagar, Nizamuddin East, Punjabi Bagh, Jangpura, Kingsway Camp. In what has been called the largest rehabilitation programme in history, refugees were also provided with facilities of education, employment opportunities, and loans to establish businesses, as most of them did. The pre-Partition residents of the city have called this influx the ‘tandoori-chicken-isation of Delhi,’ which captures the stronghold of the Punjabi culture that Delhi has made its own, like its refugees.
Over the years, refugees and their families (and the author speaks from personal experience) across the border have learned the silence that follows devastation. Having carved a dignified life in an alien land, having made the alien land their own, the trauma appears to have ceased. Yet, in its own way, it is too palpable. One reads it in the faces of grandfathers and grandmothers recalling the tribulations of travelling to a completely different world, the pain of leaving one’s own world behind: with fabulous, mind boggling riches, with friends and loved ones whose faces they strain to reconstruct, with memories that range from homes and havelis to something as trivial as an assortment of dry fruits in Lahore. There is a sense of persecution, and it is attributed to destiny, circumstance, to Hindus and Mohammedans. Expressed rarely, and even then negotiated restrictively, history is trauma, and silence reigns. The Partition Museum Project is its timely reclamation.
Conceived by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust in June 2015, the Partition Museum Project endeavours ‘to create a physical space that will be a memorial to the personal and human tragedies of the event, a commemoration of the resilience of people who migrated, and a reminder of the need for continuous dialogue.’ It is an attempt to breathe voice into the silence that has characterised generations of refugees as well as general discourse in postcolonial India, through the compilation of a repository of documents, photographs, art, oral testimonies, literature, and other such material. At the helm of this project are Kishwar Desai, author, former TV professional, and chair of the Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust; Dipali Khanna, former head of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts; Bindu Manchanda, a curator who works at the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and Mallika Ahluwalia, strategy consultant. Associated with this project are an assortment of mentors and advisors.
‘The Partition Museum Project has been a long time in the making; indeed, as has the need for its presence. Although there have been projects that have focused on different facets of the Partition, there is no physical space where these can all be documented and accessible. There are memorials for wars and other devastating events across the world, so there is no reason why India should not join this process of memorialising its own, and break the silence that has followed the Partition. We seek to generate conversation, to create a space where these conversations can find their fulfilment. I would confess we are in a hurry – we will soon reach a time when the people who were directly affected by the trauma of the Partition will not be with us. We cannot let memory be lost to silence,’ explained Abha Bunty Sawhney, a member of the advisory board for the project, as well as the executive director of Sanskriti Center, New York.
As the Partition Museum Project works towards its goal of the physical space, it hopes to create conversations on the shape and content of the museum. Its first major event was at the India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi, on the 29th of August, 2015. It comprised an eyewitness account of the Partition narrated by Padam Rosha, a presentation on the proposed museum by Bindu Manchanda, and a panel discussion between Kuldip Nayar, Alka Pande, Ashish Nandy, and Mahesh Bhatt. Its second major event – an exhibition and lecture series titled ‘Rising From the Dust: Hidden Tales from India’s 1947 Refugee Camps,’ was held at the India Habitat Centre (IHC) from the 19th to 26th of May, 2016. It was inaugurated by Prasoon Joshi, and the lecture series comprised eminent personalities Dr. Alka Pande, Dr. Alastair Massie, Meghnad Desai, Edith Desrousseaux, Sanjay Dhar, and Ratish Nanda. The exhibition series concluded on the 26th of May.
The exhibition series of the Partition Museum Project, held in the Visual Arts Gallery of the India Habitat Centre featured paintings, sketches, artefacts, documents, and other audio-visual material woven around the theme of the Partition. A sight in the gallery were elderly men and women walking through the exhibits, requesting guided tours, and recalling their experiential stories of the Partition to young volunteers who recorded these oral testimonies. Expressed succinctly in the invitation, this was a call to create a ‘People’s Museum.’ The exhibition held together shards of an era lost, an era in silence, and era that it sought to reclaim. The muse of the exhibition was the recently discovered art of celebrated artist, S.L. Parasher. Born in Gujranwala, west Punjab (now Pakistan) in 1904, Parasher took his masters degree in English literature from the Forman Christian College, Lahore. In 1936, he joined the Mayo School of Art as a lecturer and vice principal. Towards 1947, Parasher’s first hope was of staying in the re-invented Pakistan. This was not to be – he had to move to Shimla, further to Bombay, and Parasher finally settled in Delhi. Through these tumultuous times, emblazoned on several paintings, sketches, even sculptures is Parasher’s experience of agony, trauma, belongingness, alienation, and hope vis-à-vis the Partition. A fiercely private man, Parasher did not let anyone see this work, and it was discovered only after his death. It was made available to the Partition Museum Project courtesy Parasher’s family. The work is very powerful, deeply immersive, and instructive.
Featured in the exhibition series were Parasher’s fascinating artworks such as, ‘The Well,’ ‘Curled Up,’ ‘In Thought,’ ‘Road Away,’ ‘Praying Safety,’ ‘Thirst,’ and ‘Refugee Woman.’ All of these captured his lived experience, as well as of the millions who traversed daunting frontiers to flee from a home that was no longer theirs, into the difficult life of a new land that they had now to make their own, often in the absence of family and loved ones. They captures tragic tales of experience: the arduousness of travel, the consistent thirst that characterised these in the absence of resources, the anguish and fear that led many to pray for their safety and that of their companions. All of these experiences are emblematic in what is arguably Parasher’s most powerful work: ‘Refugee Woman.’ ‘Her face is a battlefield,’ a critic describes. Mirrored in the rugged battlefield of the refugee woman’s face are the myriad of emotions that marked this calamity: anguish, fear, trepidation, trauma, hopelessness. This is best animated by Amrita Pritam in her celebrated poem, ‘Aaj Akhaan Waris Shah Nu’: ‘Silenced are the songs in the streets, the thread of the spinning wheels snapped / the girls have fled the courtyards, the whirr of the spinning wheels halted.’
(Refugee Woman by Parasher)
Also in the exhibits were an intriguing motley of exhibits: three of the most fascinating ones being phulkari and briefcase - two belongings of a woman who was separated from her lover, only to miraculously find him in a refugee camp on the other side of the border; the family heirloom of a family, a chadar, which they carried with them, at great cost, to the new land where they settled, and a ghada that a family used to collect and store water in the long, difficult travel to independent India from western Punjab. The exhibition series also included varied documents, literature, photographs, running video screenings, diary entries, and cartographic material.
Smt. Lajwanti, who came to Delhi with her family from Punjab (now in Pakistan) in 1947 recounted, ‘We had immense wealth in Pakistan, but we had to leave everything there. Initially, we waited for some time before deciding to move, hoping against hope that we would not have to. But as circumstances became difficult and dangerous, we realised we had to move – although it was never in our foresight that we would never be coming back, that this was anything of permanence. We reached Delhi via Attari, which is the first station as one enters India. There were triumphant cries of Hindustan zindaabad(!), and we lived in fear of Muslims entering the train to murder us, as was commonplace in that time. We are now settled in Rajendra Nagar, but the memory of Partition has never left me. It casts a long shadow. I am also very thankful for this museum project: it allows us to relive those painful memories, in a way, to make peace with them, and to make sure that such an important part of our history is not lost with us.’
Silence, it has been argued, is deeply political. The silence of an aggrieved people driven unto it is the demise of history, and the birth of an animosity that becomes easy to carve. These tendencies have marked the landscape of independent India’s engagement with the Partition of 1947, and the Partition Museum Project carries the promise and responsibility of this deconstruction, perhaps even the beginning of an understated, pertinent virtue: forgiveness. Indeed, recent narratives have revealed that tucked into the gore of the Partition, and even after, are countless stories of love, companionship, help, and harmony. As Ruskin Bond concludes, ‘And when all the wars are over, a butterfly will still be beautiful.’
(Visit www.thepartitionmuseumproject.com for more information).