It is a place of collective memory, where broken fragments come together to narrate the history of the Indian subcontinent through objects and memories, writes Suyashi Smridhi
“According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.”
– Train to Pakistan
When Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan was first published almost a decade after the Partition of India and Pakistan, perhaps no one could have imagined the possibility of documenting tales of people who lived through it all. When Saadat Hasan Manto wrote, he fictionalised the gruesome violence of a nation torn into two, others like Bapsi Sidhwa and Urvashi Butalia tried to write a history of loss, of violence, of fanatic macabre beliefs, either as a memoir, or as an effect of Partition on different communities. But no historical configuration, no fictional narrative, captured the real tales of people who experienced that gory havoc brought about by what seemed like a spontaneous and instantaneous drawing up of boundaries.
With the 70th year of the partition right around the corner, this sense of a possible loss of a history is what made The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust, a not-for-profit NGO initiate The Partition Museum Project. The Project, primarily aimed to establish a physical museum, commemorating the Partition of India and Pakistan, its victims, its survivors, its lasting legacy. For this purpose, Kishwar Desai, Dipali Khanna, Bindu Manchanda and Mallika Ahluwalia, along with a few others began reaching out to people in order to record orally, the memories of the Partition survivors. “A couple of years ago, there were these four founding members and since all of us come from Partition families ourselves, there was a realisation that this generation is leaving us, they are all in their seventies, eighties and nineties, so that if you don’t make a museum now, you know, the voices will be lost forever”, says Mallika Ahluwalia, the CEO of the Partition Museum.
In October 2016, the Museum opened in the partly restored Town Hall in Amritsar as part of the Heritage Street, which starts at the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) and ends with the Town Hall. As the Museum opened its doors to the general public, it garnered a lot of support for its efforts of recording memories of the Partition survivors, of common people, of their efforts to rebuild their lives from scratch, for hearing tales that still survive and for not letting memories of a violent past to remain in travails of statistics and facts.
Partnered by Hindustan Times, The Tuli Family and Teamworks Fine Arts Society, The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust works purely through donations and through support of volunteers. The London School of Economics, South Asia Centre is an academic adviser to the Partition Museum. While individuals have helped out with donations, people belonging to Partition families have contributed objects and documents to Museum pre and post 1947. “When we started, we thought it would take us much longer, we thought it would take 10 years to get funding, get support. But there has been such an outpour of support from all directions, that within eighteen months of starting, we managed to open up the Museum”, says Ahluwalia. “We are a People’s Museum”, she continues, “For us the whole ethos of the Museum is that what is in the Museum are people’s objects and their stories.”
Covering an area of about 17000 square feet, The Partition Museum is thematically divided into seven galleries—syncretic Punjab, Independence and Partition, Migration, Research, Rehabilitation, Resettlement, and the Gallery of Hope. The narrative begins 50 years before independence and the partition, of how the idea of Pakistan took shape, of how things were before separation was even talked about. The tale moves to Mountbatten’s arrival in March 1947 and the transfer of power to the Indians, soon followed by the entry of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who drew up the boundary lines for the division of the country. From the chronicling of the political decisions that led to the Partition of India, the narrative then begins to focus effect and the impact the Partition had on the civilians, on more than 20 million civilians who were uprooted and transported across borders in the blink of an eye. Through the galleries of Migration, Resettlement, and Rehabilitation, two or three minute clippings of these oral histories of the common masses play out, making each individual experience as important as the bigger picture. These stories focus on the instant uprooting and covert migration across borders, life inside refugee camps and stories about a new beginning from nothing. The Research area includes the whole recordings of these video clippings and can be accessed on request.
As described, the Museum has oral recordings, photographs, paintings (including those by Sardari Lal Parasher done during his stay in a refugee camp) and other objects that people managed to carry across borders. While surviving, losing everything and beginning anew is an inspiration in itself, perhaps, the most impactful part of the Museum lies in the concept of the Gallery of Hope. At the centre lies the Tree of Hope— the trunk of which is made of barbed wires to represent the boundary that has forever divided India and Pakistan, but the branches are smooth, for they carry the tales of new beginning, of rising from the ashes like a phoenix.
While the Museum in itself is a portent of history, it also engages with various renowned intellectuals that help in accumulating or creating tales about the Partition. Gutagu with Gulzar saw the mapping of memories of the Partition with Gulzar along with a performance of his play Khaarashein, directed by Salim Arif and produced by Lubna Salim at the Guru Nanak Dev University auditorium. The Museum also witnessed a panel discussion between the actors, producer and director of Begum Jaan, a film that captures the rebellion of prostitutes of a brothel through which the Radcliffe line runs. On the 17th of August, 2017, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of independence and partition, the Museum is organising a Partition Remembrance Day. The complete Partition Museum will be opened up for the public in the presence of many Partition Survivors and their families, who will recount their trauma in the midst of poetry and art, celebrating the spirit of hope and life.