Updated: Apr 16, 2021
This talk was delivered as part of the Shared Histories conference, Chandigarh on 3 May 2019.
Visit the Partition stories on the Indian Memory Project photo archive here.
I would like to thank Seagull Foundation and St. Kabir for giving me the opportunity to present this project—this is a fantastic forum and I hope all of you will send in stories to this project right after. I’ll give you a brief introduction to what this archive is.
I am a trained graphic designer and also a photographer—I have lived in 8 to 10 cities all over the world. I stumbled upon this idea of being able to document private histories, the idea that if I put 20 pictures of Chandigarh together, hypothetically from 1900s to 2019, it would be in a way a snapshot of a history of that city. I could apply this same idea to India, the subcontinent, even the world. I founded Indian Memory Project in 2010 with this idea that if I took 20 stories, with photographs being the central context from where the story emits, I could actually trace a history of the Indian subcontinent. One of the reasons (there were many) I started this was because of the access to history—I didn’t have enough access to history, I didn’t know enough. We live in our little bubbles, our ideas of what other cities and states are like are quite cliched. I wanted to be able to learn more and I would have conversations with friends who would tell me their family stories, and they would be completely different from what I had imagined in different states where different kinds of people from different kinds of backgrounds live. This was my way of actually challenging archives and museums that were not accessible to the layperson.
Being a photographer, I like to read and study images and what they are saying. Photographs really carry secrets in them. I had a habit of asking what my mother called impolite questions when I would go to people’s living rooms—who’s this person, what did he do, how many wives did he have, how many children what are the scandals of the family, tell me everything.
The process is that I asked 15 of my friends to give me photographs. When I have a good idea, the best way for me to start a project is to start with what I know and what I can access immediately. So I asked 15 of my friends, friends of friends and friends of friends of friends to give me photographs that they would tell me stories about, and I put them on a wordpress blog, because I figured that the wordpress blog had the capability of running an online library. This online archive is called the Indian Memory Project. Then I asked people to give me stories about their pictures—where it was taken, what time it was taken, what was happening, who the people in the picture are and tell me a story about this family. Memory’s not linear—you can go all over the place, and I would ask them to go all over the place so that I could actually make a simple coherent narrative, a biography of that photograph, so to speak.
There are 838 categories of this project and around 3000 key words, so every time you put a keyword in Google, it should throw up Indian Memory Project in that category. These stories are now sent from all over the world, it has become one of the most popular archives around and been used in universities and colleges around the world to teach people about the Indian subcontinent and the kind of place we come from. Even for me who lives in India and is Indian, this is the way I learn history, because there is no other way for me to understand what place and what kind of backgrounds we all come from.
Of the 838 categories, Partition is one. I like to solve puzzles. For me the subcontinent is a puzzle to solve, and it’s going to take 10 lifetimes for me to actually understand this puzzle, what we are. I tell people in humour that India is a continent pretending to be a country, because we are so diverse that every 25 kms the language changes, the food changes, the clothes change, the values change. These are all fascinating ideas that I wanted to, in a way, put together. When I show this project, in my mind I do a hat tip to my history teacher, Mrs. Lakshmi Singh. She was one of those teachers who would come into class and ask us to close our history books. We were not studying any of the history from the books because she was of the opinion that you would learn your dates and events, you would be asked these questions in the examination and you would pass, but that you don’t really know so many other fascinating stories that were around these text books. So she would tell us stories, and these stories we’d write on the margins of the page, not very different from these markings of my notes. We’d write these little stories and she really made us curious to want to know more, whether it was about the Mughal empire or British colonization, or ancient India—something that we wanted to research more and more. Therefore, to all the history teachers I would say ‘thank you’.
I’m going to start by picking some stories from Partition. I just want everyone to know that when I narrate some of these stories and say ‘my grandfather’ or ‘my grandmother’, they are not my grandparents. Some of the stories of Partition are not really stories about Partition. Some of them mention it in passing, some as a cursory idea—I discovered over time that some of the people had grandparents who had no idea that Partition was even going on—these are the multiple realities that we all face. I discovered Partition mainly for one reason: my mother was born in 1947 and so it was a year for me to start researching differently.
The stories throw light on different kinds of histories and this is a very interesting story about properties that were being exchanged during Partition. This story was sent to me by Amita Bajaj from Bombay and she writes,
In June of 1947, murmurs of communal troubles were in the air. My father was a third year MBBS student at the Balakram Medical College in Lahore (it was re-named as Fatima Jinnah Medical College after it was abandoned during Partition). Hearing of riots around the area, my eldest uncle, who was also studying medicine in Amritsar, tried to convince my grandmother to sell her savings, especially her silver bricks that were stacked in the basement of the haveli (mansion). Partition was imminent, yet my devout Sikh grandmother, in denial, refused saying ‘Log ki kahangey ke nayaraan da divalaya nikal paya!’ (‘People will say that we are bankrupt!’).
On August 14, 1947, the family was eating lunch when they saw the Sialkoti police running away from the rioters and that is when they knew it was time to leave. After collecting their valuables, my grandfather hid the family in the house of a friend Ghulam Qadir, then later in the Sialkot Jail where the Superintendent Arjun Dass was a patient of his. (Arjun Dass, later as the jail superintendent of Ambala Central Jail supervised the hanging of Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassinator).
A few days later they decided to cross over to Amritsar with two trunks—one filled with gold jewellery and the other with silver bricks. The trunks were carried by two of their domestic staff, Nanak, a young boy, and Munshi Ram. Whilst crossing the River Ravi, Nanak apparently slipped and almost got crushed by the sea of people fleeing Pakistan and the trunk with silver fell in the river.
My grandparents’ entire life savings, their palatial mansion and their silver bricks were all lost to the river, except for the trunk with gold jewellery that reached India. My mother, the bride in this picture, is wearing jewellery from that very trunk.
By 1950, the family had settled down in Jullunder (now Jalandhar) where my grandfather was given the haveli (mansion) of a Muslim sessions judge who had left for Pakistan in 1947. The mansion was offered as ‘claim property’ (in lieu of property left behind in Sialkot that was valued in crores). The humongous three floored haveli with terraces and several rooms and kitchens and halls was evaluated at Rs 1.35 lakhs in 1947—I am told some of these property cases are still going on in courts.
Shortly after the mansion was photographed, the family witnessed a huge crowd outside with hundreds of policemen, jeeps, police trucks and cars with dark-green purdahs (curtains) on windows. My grandfather was informed that the original owners of the haveli—two women from Pakistan with all the requisite permissions and accompanied with police from both Nations, had come to claim some moveable assets they had left behind.
My grandmother first shouted in frustration on how much money she had spent on fixing this house but nonetheless, in disbelief led the way, followed by the two ladies and the policemen. Coming near a walled up alcove, the ladies gave it a few hard knocks with their hands using all their strength, and the makeshift wall gave away to reveal an 18 inch high glass shade of a shamadaan (candelabra), which was crammed to the brim with gold & silver and stone-studded jewellery with gold & silver coins.
All present in the hall just froze in awe and shock. The Pakistani ladies took possession of the treasure they had come to claim, nearly a decade after the bloodiest Partition of two Nations in the history of mankind, where over one million people lost their lives. So these are the kinds of stories that come. This is one picture that will emit this entire story, and all of these names and events become keywords and categories, so I can place them into different kinds of categories. This also throws light, if you were to read between the lines, on the kind of compliance that was going on between the two nations—that they would actually get these policemen involved and both would come with permissions and things would happen quite seamlessly at the beginning and then eventually give way to more trauma and more problems.
After the British left, several British companies either partnered with or sold off their companies to Indians and Pakistanis and became private limited companies. Several companies all over the world, even new corporates, have a history like that. Opportunities that many Indians and Pakistanis couldn’t have earlier because the British wouldn’t allow it, were starting to be available and one of these examples is that of the military. This story is about a gentleman who says,
My father, K. Vasudevan had enlisted himself in the British Indian Army in 1943 and at the time of Independence, was posted at GHQ Signals which is now a defunct unit, but it was responsible for taking care of communications for the Prime Minister’s Office. Not many know that the British military trained several armies from India and Pakistan in new technologies that they had accomplished, to be able to be good assets that a country might need.
My father too was selected to be a part of the first batch of Indian and Pakistani personnel to be trained in Cipher duties—a department which the British had earlier not permitted any Indians into. With Independence inevitable, a group of personnel, my father included, was screened, selected and trained for future armies.
My father passed away in 2009. As far as I know very few personnel of the Corps of Signals who served during the pre-independence era, remain alive.Then there is the story about a lady who belonged to a royal family but decided to not marry into aristocracy. But in passing, while interviewing her she said, ‘Oh two years we didn’t go to school after Partition’. What do you mean? It turns out that actually for two whole years, a lot of the schools and colleges were actually shut. So we have an entire generation of people who lost 2 years of education, but it’s not something that they think is important or worthy of mentioning. Sometimes when you hear stories from older people, they actually think you belong to their generation and you would know what they are talking about.
The other interesting story and photograph that shows a different side of Partition is of one of the three Indian men who were the first artists to join the Royal College of Art in London. The grandson of the man said that the riots also destroyed so much value including important artworks.
My grandfather was one of the three earliest known Indians to have studied at the RCA in London. In 1929 when he returned, he began constructing a bungalow at Express Road in Lahore.
For furnishing his bungalow, one of his students at Chief College—a Prince of Chamba—gifted him a railway wagon full of the best timber. In addition to making furniture my grandfather made easels, he was teaching his students at home and he made thousands and thousands of artworks. A year before the partition of India and Pakistan following the end of British rule, Vasu Deva Sharma passed away from diabetes.
Soon after his death, his son Ved Prakash was appointed manager of Punjab National Bank in Ahmedabad and he and his family moved to Gujarat just before the nationwide violent partition riots of August 1947. The few belongings that the family members in Lahore could save were Vasu Deva’s original RCA diploma, this photograph from Berlin and a couple of artworks. It was understood that the mansion was ransacked and looted and they were unable to salvage the artworks or the furniture which were left behind in the mansion. My father visited Lahore in 1977 and went to Empress Road to see the family home. By then, it had been turned into a housing estate with many apartments. But he noticed that the original marble name plate outside the house was still there, It mentions my grandfather’s name, Vasudev Sharma in English, with his RCA degree mentioned below. Today the site is a commercial building with no hint of the past and no trace of the name plate either.
There are much longer stories.
With the next interesting story that had come during the beginning of the project I discovered the kinds of stories among what we might call Anglo-Indians from the British empire—people who lived here for generations. Imagine you are asked to leave the country after you are eight generations down already in this subcontinent. This was sent from Australia.
A minority of Anglo Indians all contributed to the railways. My family has a history of having lived in India for 5 generations—they were all Railways people, or in the transport business, shipping. Both my grandmother and great grandmother were buried in Bhusawal. My father Leslie Nixon, was born in Agra in 1925, schooled in Mussoorie, trained with the Gurkhas, joined the KGV’s regiment (King George V’s regiment). He worked during Partition to transport refugees in and out of the Gurkha headquarters in Dharamsala (then Punjab territory, now in the independent state of Himachal Pradesh) to and from Pathankot, Punjab, by train.
My father, who was only 22 then and his friend Rob May were very young and had to take on the enormous responsibility and an almost impossible, dangerous task of taking refugees to and fro on trains and keeping them protected. He, like millions of others, was left deeply affected by it. They did have to leave India right after Partition.
Another interesting story is about the last big Silk Route trader in India. This is a story that came from Kargil—for me when the project reached Kargil it was a big high because it was just as if this project had found good reach to different kinds of places in the world.
This is a photograph of my great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah (my grandfather) and Munshi Abdul Rehman, sitting in a Sarai on a usual business day. My great grandfather, Munshi Aziz Bhat was the last of the Great Silk route traders of India. He was born in Leh in 1866 and brought up in Kargil.
He had four wives and fifteen children. Though people think that the Silk Route is eponymous with its most valued piece of trade, silk from China, it in fact traded every possible item for daily as well as luxury use. Goods were despatched from Asia to many ports and towns in Africa, Europe and the Americas, on horseback, donkey, mule, yak and foot. And Kargil, before the infamous wars, had a rich heritage as one of the key feeder routes of the Silk Route.
Munshi Aziz Bhat rose to prominence as a pioneer Silk Route Trader during 1880-1950. In 1920 he established his own large scale trading business and shops. Imported from Europe, the shop sold soap, toiletries, stationery, cosmetics, medicines, spices, textiles and shoe polish which was considered a luxury item. It also sold unusual items such as horse and camel accessories, catering to the big demand to decorate horses and camels which were a status symbol like cars today. The shop was known far and beyond for its variety of goods and earned itself a local folklore that ‘one could even find birds’ milk at the Munshi Aziz Bhat Sarai’.
He also built the first sarai for traders, the Aziz Bhat Sarai that still stands on the banks of river Suru.The Silk Route trade saw its lasts days during the Partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the uprising of communism in China the following year. All the major trade routes were shut down between India and Pakistan which had now become two separate countries. Hence, all the traders along the route were forced to shut down business activities. My great grandfather passed away of old age in 1948 just one year after the closure of the great Silk Route.
The next story was sent to me by a photographer in Delhi and he says,
My grandparents, Balwant Goindi, a Sikh and Ram Pyari, a Hindu were married in 1923. She was re-named Mohinder Kaur after her marriage. They went on to have eight daughters and two sons, one of the daughters happens to be my mother.
Balwant Goindi owned a whiskey shop in Lahore. He was a wealthy man and owned a Rolls Royce. During Indo-Pak Partition, he and his family migrated to Simla without any of his precious belongings, assuming he would return after the situation had calmed down, however, that never happened. After moving around, and attempting to restart his business with other Indian trader friends, they finally settled down in Karol Bagh. The area was primarily residential with a large Muslim population until the exodus of many to Pakistan and an influx of refugees from West Punjab after Partition in 1947, many of whom were traders. It must have been a very sad day when he heard that his home and his shops in Lahore were burnt down.
The picture of the opening of the Gaffar Market in Delhi is an interesting carry on from the last. This photograph was taken by my father Jiwan Das, a photographer in Delhi, at the opening of the sparkling new Gaffar Market.
By early 1948, with Indo-Pakistan Partition showing its terrifying face, my father Jiwan Das and family (wife and children) migrated to Haridwar in India where I was born. When I was about two months old, my father decided to move to Delhi and he opened a photography shop in Karol Bagh (originally called Qarol Gardens). The shop was named Jiwan Das and Sons, Photographers and Dealers (see image). The photography business dealt with portraits, group and family photographs and with the dealership we also represented photo papers like Kodak and Agfa.
In 1962, the opening of the Gaffar (Ghaffar) Market, (a market allotted to refugee traders and businessmen from Partitioned Pakistan) was celebrated with much fanfare. The procession had horsemen, drum rolls, dancing and music. My father, I’m sure must have run across the road from his shop to the shop terrace, to take this photograph.
These kinds of images mark events that took place, that were a form of development and how we were trying to be this progressive nation—that markets were opening, areas were being renamed, new colonies were being formed.
This market, named after a well known freedom combatant Ghaffar Khan, went on to become one of the most famous landmarks of Delhi. At one time it was a single storeyed market. It sold jewellery, crockery, garments and important wares for the home. People flocked to Gaffar to buy their goods. Today the market is known for selling the latest technology (imitations most of it) like mobile phones, electronics and PC computers at wholesale prices.
There is one picture in the archive which is very dear to me mainly because it’s a beautiful love story and it went viral. So much so that it was covered in the New York Times, The Guardian, and also translated into Japanese. It was an insightful picture for me. In my mind I used to think that only people who lived here suffered. I didn’t realize there were also people from other countries, foreigners, Anglo Indians, who had lived here for generations who had to pack their bags overnight and leave. They had property here, had lived here forever. It’s like they were us, just whiter in colour, but they had to leave.
This is a story that came to me from a photographer in Coventry, UK. His grandfather was actually a photographer with the Times of India and he had an archive of around 5000 images that are now with the Library of Birmingham in the UK. When going through the pictures after his grandfather died, Jason says,
I will never be sure if my grandfather Bert Scott, would have wanted me or anyone else to find these negatives; They were his secrets for all of his adult life from the moment he left India.
Bert Scott, was my grandfather, and he was born in Bangalore in 1915. He joined The Times of India in 1936 as a press photographer, where he worked until the outbreak of World War II.
With trouble brewing during Indo-Pak Partition, he and his family fled to the UK and he left his whole life behind; his country of birth, India, his friends and home. Travelling with minimum luggage would have been conditional so he chose to take only the necessary in just a few metal trunks.
Inside one of those trunks were photo archives of more than 5000 images. The little blue pocket-books held as many memories as it did negatives, about 100 precious moments of reflected light captured on film of our family and of some places where they had lived, but inside one particular folded grease proof sleeve were four negatives that were cut up into single frames and they were of one particular young lady; of a Margurite Mumford, a beautiful young Anglo Indian girl.
I remember one Sunday when he was alive, sitting with his photograph albums on my lap, my grandmother looked at me and stated, in a tone which sounded somewhat incongruously jealous for a woman in her late seventies, ‘those books are just full of photographs of his ex-girlfriends!’. My grandpa who was sitting across us, either didn’t hear the remark or chose to ignore it—the Snooker on television providing a timely distraction.
After he passed away, I found an extraordinary number of photographs of Marguerite. The photographs of her are always infused with a certain playfulness during day trips to the beach or picnics by the river. There is something so obviously personal and intimate about the images. Marguerite clearly loved to play to the camera or to be more precise she loved playing up for the photographer, flirting with both the camera and the man whose eye followed her through the lens. The books did have many photographs of other beautiful young women of the Raj too, but the intimacy I saw in Margurite’s images proved to me that only she was actually a girlfriend of my grandpa before he met my grandmother.
I set out to find who Marguerite was. I wondered why their romance had ended. I spent hours scouring the internet in the faint hope that I might be able to find someone from her family with whom I could share her beautiful photographs. With not a clue in sight, eventually my hope began to wane but I never stopped wondering about her.
Only recently while pouring over the pages of the albums for the nth time, I noticed a faded scribble “Margurite ‘Lovedale’” by a photograph. Intrigued as to what the word ‘Lovedale’ meant I returned once again to the internet and within seconds I was on to something. Lovedale is the nickname of the Lawrence Memorial Military School in the town of ‘Ooty’ in the Nilgiri Hills. I then remembered that my great-grandfather, Algernon Edwin Scott, had a summer-house in Ooty and my grandpa would spend weekends there as a teenager. Ooty would have been the place where he must have met Margurite!
I immediately contacted the school in Ooty. They in turn put me in touch with the alumni who although now in their late eighties and nineties were still in touch with one another. My search led me to a woman in America, Moira who very kindly informed me that she was still in touch with one of Margurite’s sisters, Gladys, who also lived in America. I was soon sharing these images with Gladys and she remembered my grandpa very well. She let me know that Marguerite was still alive and living in New Zealand, but she was now 96 years of age and living in an old people’s home. However she was suffering from dementia, her memory had dimmed, but she was physically quite well. I connected with her family and in my eagerness and excitement at re-uniting people with a more than half -a-century-ago memory, I sent a photograph of my grandpa. I was told Margurite’s poignantly hopeful reaction was simply, ‘Is Bertie here?’. Bert Scott, my grandfather, was indeed the love of her life. But like millions of others, her family too had fled India during Partition, she had then married an Irishman and moved to New Zealand.
Partition had broken a billion hearts and minds. It had been obvious to me all along, by the very nature of the photographs, that they were in love, that they both meant an awful lot to each other. Proof, if it were needed, of the indelible nature of first love. Margurite died in 2000 at the age of 100.
Another beautiful picture that is very special is the one sent to me by Rakesh Anand Bakshi, the son of Anand Bakshi, who as you all know is a very famous lyricist from the movie industry.
On October 2, 1947, during Partition, my seventeen year old father Anand Bakshi’s family was informed that within an hour or two, their colony in Rawalpindi (now Pakistan) was going to be attacked. They had only minutes to grab whatever money, clothes, personal effects, they could possibly carry with them. Hundreds of others and they fled from their homes, overnight.
When the overnight displaced family reached Delhi in India, homeless and with only few valuables on them, my grandfather took stock of what everyone had managed to carry across the border. Upon seeing what my father had carried, in those moments of life threatening crisis, my grandfather was livid. Angrily he asked my father—‘Why did you not carry valuables!? What useless things have you carried with you? How can we survive without our valuables? You should have carried some valuables!’ My father had carried what he had thought were valuable, a few family photographs; and particularly those of his mother, who he had lost as a little child.
On being yelled at, my father said to my grandfather—‘Money we can earn when we find work, but if these photos of her were lost, no amount of money could ever bring them back for me. Pictures of her are all that I have.’
The photographs were the few things my father had managed to save.
He served on board the ships H.M.I.S. Dilawar and H.M.I.S. Bahadur until 1946 and was dismissed from the Royal Indian Navy because of his participation in the revolt that took place at Karachi port against the British Empire. Post India and Pakistan partition, he joined the Indian army Corps of Signals, rank ‘Signal Man’, at Jubbulpore (now Jabalpur) and served for nearly six years.
On March 25, 1950 a poem of his was published in the Army publication ‘Sainik Samachar’. A published poem gave him the confidence to try his luck as a lyrics writer in Hindi films in Bombay, a dream he had long harboured. After he qualified as a Switchboard Operator Class II, he resigned from the Army in April 1950, and traveled to Bombay in quest of his dreams. But with no breaks or opportunities forthcoming, he ran out of money. He returned to the army and enlisted with the E.M.E.(The Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), in February 1951, with the rank of ‘Ex-Boy’, and this time he registered as Anand Prakash Bakhshi. He qualified as ‘Electrician Class II’ based at Jubbulpore and Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. In 1954, he got married to my mother, Kamla.
But yet again, after serving a total of seven years in the army, he took a voluntary discharge in 1956 and returned to Bombay, this time armed with 60 poems to find work. He also qualified himself as a motor vehicle driver as his ‘Plan B’ in case he didn’t succeed in finding a job as a songwriter; he could always drive a taxi or work as a motor mechanic. History repeated itself, and within a few months in 1956, he ran out of money again and lost hope of ever making it as a songwriter and despite the Plan B, he instead decided to return to his army job.
While sitting at the platform of Marine Lines station to take the train back home, a ticket inspector named Chitramal Swaroop caught my father without a valid ticket and asked him to pay a fine. My father had no money. Chitramal then asked him if he had eaten, bought him some food and asked him what he is doing in Bombay. My father told him of all that had happened and that he had lost all hope of becoming a lyrics writer and had decided to return to his army job, and his wife. A patient Chitramal then asked Anand to narrate a few of his poems. After hearing his works, an impressed Chitramal picked up my father’s tin suitcase and told him to follow him home. He led him to his Western Railway Quarters at Borivali, and allowed him to live there for a few weeks until he found work. With only a few poems that he had heard, Chitramal had come to believe, and rightly so, that my father Anand was an exceptionally talented man.
Weeks became years and my father lived at Chitramal’s house at Borivali for nearly three years. Chitramal would even give him pocket money of two rupees to eat and travel daily to meet producers and directors for work. I believe, my father Anand had two mothers, one who gave him birth, Sumitra Bali, and the other was Chitramal Swaroop; had he not stopped Anand Bakshi that day at Marine Lines station from returning to the army, the world of hindi cinema may never have discovered his poetry and lyrics.
By the end of 1956 he got his first break in a hindi film by Bhagwan Dada, a well known actor and film director. My father while sitting outside his office, overheard that a lyricist had not turned up, causing much stress to Dada. So my father walked into his office and told him he was a songwriter, and he was immediately put on the job. But my father only got established by 1964, when the film Jab Jab Phool Khile became a huge hit. The songs were hugely popular across demographics and across the nation. After that, he found another big success with Milan in 1967; post that, he never lacked work until he lived. He wrote for the top most film producers and directors, several times for two generations of actors, producers and directors, until he passed away on March 30, 2002. He had by then written nearly 3300 Hindi song lyrics, for nearly 630 films. Some of his top songs, like the exceptionally famous ‘Dum Maro Dum’ found cult status, and have been remixed and sampled by many other contemporary artists.
Looking at his work I am sure that the loss of and longing for his mother inspired him to write incredibly amazing and emotional lyrics. At least that is what he told us when he would get nostalgic and emotional, which was very often. Sometimes I even wonder what made my father survive the loss of his mother, the loss of his land of birth, youth, and an impoverished life because of partition for nearly two decades. The secret may lie in what he always said—‘There is something inside of me superior to my circumstances, stronger than the situation of life.’
Lastly I’d like to discuss two pictures—this is a project I was doing for pure joy. I live in Bombay, cinema is regular conversation in the background and the foreground and I was deeply interested in finding out the stories of people who’d worked in the film industry before 1947 because a lot of them have made huge contributions to cinema but do not even have a Wikipedia page. It took me a while. I collected around 38 stories and these are two contrasting stories related to the Partition that show the kinds of things that happened then.
One is of Azoorie, somebody who is completely lost to chapters of history. Azoorie was the first exotic dancer. Before Helen there was Cuckoo, before Cuckoo there was Azoorie. Azoorie literally started what we now know as the ‘item number’. Her name was Anette Mary Nesset Guizalon. She was born in Bangalore in 1915—same as Bert Scott—to a German Catholic father who was a surgeon general, and a Hindu mother. Anne was convent educated—she was good at Math, spoke perfect English and was very fond of dance. But her father didn’t approve of Indian classical music or the arts and instead sent Anna to learn Russian ballet. While visiting a film shoot after her father’s death she was given a cameo in which she says ‘I was born to dance’. Encouraged by Jaddan bai, who is also Nargis’ mother, Anne was inducted into movies and re-branded Azoorie. Azoorie was the first Indian exotic and classical dancer of the subcontinent. She became a raging sensation—so much so that distributors wouldn’t dare release a film without her dance, even if it had nothing to do with the plot. Which is what we do these days. By 1935, Azoorie was writing magazine columns on the craft of classical and film dance. She also married a gentleman from the ex-Royal Indian Navy called Joseph Mehmood and they migrated to Pakistan after Partition in 1947. She was one of the first few non Muslims who made a choice to live in Pakistan. Rebelling against the maulvis, she opened the first academy of classical dance in Pakistan but it was shut down due to protests by the same conservative maulvis. She then founded a troupe with Rafi Anwar and performed at Buckingham Palace in 1949—one of the first few people to do so. She was on the board of the National Council of Arts and founding member of the Pakistan-American cultural centre. She worked in 500 films in India and Pakistan and continued to teach dance even in her 70s, barely earning enough. When she passed away in 1998 in Rawalpindi, this very famous superstar’s funeral was attended by 15 people.
The other fascinating story that stunned me is of a gentleman called Ramchandra Torne. He was born in 1890 in a Konkani village near Bombay. Since the age of 10 he was working with Crompton Greaves—people didn’t have a problem with child labour as long as the work was being done. He was working in a theatre fixing fans and electric problems. And in that very theatre he would watch plays and foreign films. He was so fascinated by cinema that at the age of 23 he earned enough to actually import some raw stock and a camera from the UK. He hired a British man to shoot the first Indian feature film, Shree Pundalik. The film was processed in the UK, released in 1912 at the Coronation movie theatre. Torne, still a Crompton employee, was sent to Karachi where along with a friend he opened the first film distribution office by Indians for Hollywood films. The friends returned to Bombay, began importing movie equipment and later established Famous Pictures. He became quite wealthy and his profits could compete with twenty first century kinds of profits. He was also an important factor in the making of the first talkie, which was Alam Ara, because he had access to the latest equipment. His friend decided to make the first talkie Al Amara in 1931—Al Amara became a box office hit and Torne began supplying equipment to everybody. Incidentally, the first film that Dadasaheb Phalke gets credit for was made in 1913 and not 1912. He introduced artists into films who became huge successes but in 1947 Torne’s studio was robbed of all his equipment by a close Muslim friend who took all the equipment and fled to Pakistan. The incident immediately caused a heart attack and he retired from films.
Although it is Phalke who is known as the father of Indian cinema, credit must be revised where due, Ram Chandra Gopal Torne and not Phalke is the first Indian director and producer to make an Indian feature film. The distinction lay in the nationalist idea that Torne’s film was processed in the UK and shot by a British man. In 1960, Torne died at his home in Bombay, most of his films were lost to a fire.
I am going to leave you with some parting notes. There are lots of kinds of stories that have come in. Like Urvashi said, a lot of them extremely sad, some of them amusing, some quite insightful about the lives that we are living in the twenty first century. There were several stories that came of people’s families pretending to be Hindu or Muslim, pretending to be men or women during Partition, just to be able to escape the violence that was going on. Some fascinating insights include—we would not have a Kwality ice cream if it were not for World War II. There were lots of films taken from Bombay and duplicated because copyright at that time did not apply or was in very vague territory. So a film with Raj Kapoor acting in it, hypothetically speaking, would be acted out by another actor or actress from there, but with the same film and the same script.
I am going to end with a request for you to visit the archive, to know the kind of material that is in it, and for you to be inspired to send your stories. I have also made a video three years ago to thank people who had sent these fascinating stories because without these stories we would not know what these people’s history is. This is a past that is in construction to be able to understand the kind of subcontinent that we live in. A completely baffling puzzle solving that will go on for me.
Audience Member 1. Are you planning to compile these into a volume?
Yadav. It is not a priority.
Audience Member 2. Do you have any post-Partition pictures?
Yadav. Yes, a lot of them, the criteria of submission is until 1991. Which is why yesterday when Prof Krishna Kumar was saying that there are no post-independence stories, I was thinking that there are lots of stories from post-independence. The content is photographs, so this archive only starts from after the invention of photography and then goes on.
Audience Member 3. Is there any way you have to verify these stories?
Yadav. I fact check as much as I can and I do .
Audience Member 3. But how do you do it?
Yadav. Well, a lot of things that people mention happened, are documented. Sometimes they do not get the date right and I go back and fix it, lots of times they mention events but don’t know the name of the city, then that gets fixed. So it is fairly collaborative. But it is not fact check to detail. I cannot prove that your grandfather was indeed the man that you claim he was. But there is a photograph and I am in the business of reading photographs, so there are clues that the photograph itself would offer. A lot of the pictures that were taken would actually symbolize status—how people sit or how they stand, and the photographer becomes the confidant, the cultural confidante or the police. Interesting ideas about how women would stand in Bengal and sit in the West. Only once you’ve read a certain amount of pictures, you realize what was going on as cultural ideas of hierarchy and status and why these pictures were taken at all.
Audience Member 4. What would be the cut-off for the project?
Yadav. 1991. Because I started in 2010, 1991 was very recent and I personally felt I would do better justice if I would have more time to look at that more objectively. We have one and a half centuries to cover since photography was invented.
Anusha Yadav was born in London, and brought up between UK, USA and Rajasthan in a family that prioritised cultural and intellectual curiosity. An internationally recognised visual archivist, she graduated in Communication Design from NID, Ahmedabad in 1997. Over 22 years, Anusha has enjoyed an eclectic career trajectory as a branding and book designer, photo practitioner, and an archival researcher & conduit of a collective past.
In 2010, she founded Indian Memory Project—the multi-award winning, and the world’s first visual & narrative based archive. Anusha Yadav lives and works in Mumbai.