Stories of loss and hope, told through impressions and memories of Partition

ArtStories of loss and hope, told through impressions and memories of Partition
‘Freedom was a necessity, but the subcontinent was hurried into it. It should have been more systematic so that the security and safety of everyone could be ensured,” reads one of the panels displayed at an ongoing exhibition at Delhi’s Bikaner House, whose title is Shared Legacies: 70 Years of a Nation. This statement is by Majid Ali Hashmi, who was among the many witnesses of the mass migration that followed in the wake of Partition. The first-hand experience of Hashmi makes you familiar with this horrific and long-drawn phase in Indian history.

The theme of the present show is Partition, with special emphasis on the stories of those who were directly affected by it. Curated by the 1947 Partition Archive, a not-for-profit organisation run by Guneeta Singh Bhalla, this exhibition comprises a range of artworks and objects, including text panels carrying statements by people like Hashmi, whose voices are now part of the Partition Archive’s audio database.

The narrative of Hashmi is one of the many good examples that bring to the forefront the inherent compassion of people who, in this time of strife, put their own lives in danger to be of assistance to another. Hashmi, with his father, was posted as a railway officer at Bahawalnagar, Punjab (now in Pakistan) in 1947. In the interview with the Partition Archive, he mentions that in Bahawalnagar, things quietened down a few days after the hoisting of the new Pakistani flag on 14 August 1947. But then violence erupted with vehemence as people natives began exiting the city, and new ones started coming in from across the border.

Hashmi remembers that trains were stopped between Bahalwalnagar and the new Indian border, while hundreds of thousands of people were leaving and arriving on foot. But on the morning of 20 August 1947, a train arrived carrying the mutilated and dead bodies of refugees coming in to Pakistan. Immediately, he was told by his father to send a telegram to the authorities about this crisis.

He says, “Upon reaching the communication room, I found it locked from the inside and I looked through the slit in the door to find a few Hindu men, hiding, shaking with fear. I consoled them in Punjabi, ensuring them that no harm would come to them. I managed to find five railway employee uniforms and had the men change into them. Then at night, I led them to a vacant railway quarter and locked it from the outside. We fed the refugees for three days.”

He informs how inconspicuously he managed to save the lives of these people. “On the fourth day, an India-bound train from Quetta stopped at the station for water. With the influx of so many refugees, there was a shortage of water on the station and so we told the officers manning the train of a small stream just two miles behind the station. The train reversed, the refugees washed and cleaned themselves and returned to the station to thank us. Discreetly, I told the officers on the train of the five Hindu men that we had been hiding. They were brought to the station and boarded the train safely. Of all the lives that were lost on that platform, we managed to save five of them,” says Hashmi.

He adds, “Pakistan may be my country, but India is the land of my birth. That makes me Indo-Pakistani and no can take that identity away from me.”

There are a number of panels displayed at the exhibition which showcase the accounts of various people who went through the ordeal of Partition. The interviews were conducted by many who of those associated with the 1947 Partition Archive. The archive guides volunteers who want to record online interviews through a series of online workshops. The participants taught how they can locate people who were affected by Partition and were forced to migrate. They are then given the format of questions to be asked.

Curator Aanchal Malhotra went through a number of oral histories collected by the Archive while putting together this exhibition. She says, “While researching these documents I observed there was a lot of compassion in the people of that age group. The anger we see today is only in the later generations. Here, I wanted to show various experiences of people belonging to different backgrounds.”

First page of Urdu newspaper Daily Milaap from 1931, Lahore, showing Mahatma Gandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

An interactive map is also placed on the exhibition premises. Here people are invited to tie a black thread from the place they migrated to their new abode. Malhotra wanted to give a visual depiction of the partition. She says, “We often hear that we went from this place to this, but we don’t really understand the challenges people faced to cross the border. This map gives a sense of the actual migration and makes people stand and stare at the route.”

The show also displays the first page of a Special English edition of Daily Milaap of 1931, Lahore, showing Mahatma Gandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as Frontier Gandhi. It is currently the most widely circulated Urdu newspaper in Delhi and this particular page is borrowed from their office in Delhi.

This exhibition, with new narratives, will be presented at various cultural spaces in Delhi and will also travel to Pakistan later this year. Alongside this show, Bikaner House is also hosting a photography exhibition that captures the national spirit through the lens of various Indian and British stalwarts like T.S. Satyan, Raghu Rai, Norman Parkinson, and Derry Moore. Bringing a distinctive perspective on India, Dayanita Singh›s Pocket Museum displays her travels and also invites viewers to contemplate new ideas about the form and function of both the museum and object-image.

The show is on view till 24 August at Bikaner House, New Delhi


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