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Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič

The Partition(s) Within and Without


Updated: Mar 24, 2023

I am going to introduce two projects that my colleagues and I have done at Srishti. I will also show you different stages of some of the work that students have done for the projects to demonstrate the process they follow. The process is important, not the output. And since we are working as artists and designers, the form is what it is, essentially a form of protest—a form of expression. One can’t look at form as different from content. So, in a sense, the explorations are continuously giving expression to what they’re working with.

To begin with, who are we?

We are artists and design students, working with a group of school [?] students who were not directly affected by Partition.

Often, while working with them, we find that if we leave the project very open- ended, they struggle to find a context. A context helps to start them off and to work with ‘optimal ambiguity’—enough room to play around with but also restrictions so that the project doesn’t go haywire.

We are not history students or historians. Our perspective is different and our enquiry is through an artistic process.

Most of our students begin by saying, ‘Politics doesn’t affect me. I can go on with my life and it won’t matter at all.’

Mentoring is a journey we embark on together. The approach is not that of teaching but, rather, of a collective enquiry.

I’m interested in working with memory and that’s what I’ve been doing at Srishti. Memory, I find, can become self-indulgent, extremely personal, and ultimately even a dead end. Having a context helps in creating a link between the private, personal and political. And the difference between the private and personal is very hard to work with. So what is it that you want to share? How do you want to share it? How do you work with other people’s memories? Why do we remember? These are questions that we spent a lot of time on together.

The two projects that I will be sharing with you are:

  • Memory Lab, 2013. Done my colleague Nicolas Grandi, an Argentinean sculptor and film-maker

  • Elephant in the Room, 2014. Done with Bani Singh, an exhibition designer

  • I am a film-maker. So we had different skill sets that we brought into the classroom of eight students for a duration of five months for each project.

In Memory Lab, we were encouraging the idea of experimentation and looking at the process. Not only with what happens within oneself but also at what happens outside.

How do we represent memory? The three key ideas were: representation; poetics; and politics. The project is as much about being a good artist as it is about dealing with context sensitively. And we encourage transdisciplinary approaches, so one is not restricted by medium. In a sense, the medium is defined by what one is working on. So if a story is best told with film, then choose a film. If it’s a piece of performance, then choose performance.

Elephant in the Room looks at the collective shadows and silences that surround the Partition of India. The questions we had were: How do we create the possibility of new conversations by looking at something that’s happened before? Is the Partition an event in the past or does it continue to exist, and if so, how?

We immerse the students in the context: this is what we’re working with, this is why we’re doing this. And it’s in-situ work—we go to the place where the idea is located, spend time there and the production of work happens alongside.

These are undergraduate students born in the 1990s, so their historical grounding is very different, very neoliberal in context.

I’ll begin with one student’s work. He who spent a whole year doing both these projects. This is his initial exploration.

At the first stage, we threw up some words: ‘nationalism’, ‘patriotism’, ‘difference’, ‘loyalty’. Then we worked with the students, mentored them, and guided them towards some kind of expression of those words. This students did a performance and I will read what he wrote after the performance. Our students have to write the process of what they’re producing—a continuous documentation which is a deliverable at the end of the projects.

He writes:

‘I saw the partition.

I saw most of it.

My grandfather showed it to me.

My grandmother had lots to say too

and so did my mother’s mother.

I saw Gujranwala, Multan and I saw Amritsar.

I saw a small house on a crowded street with a lock outside.

I saw the only window.

I saw gold.

We hung the partition

on a wall with flowers.

We hung the partition in the mind, image-less.

Manto had lots to say too.

He told me stories.

Of brave men.

He told me stories of women and children.

He told me about the loss too.

But he also told me innocence.

And he showed me the asylum.

A shepherd showed me the partition.

He showed me hundreds of sheep.

He showed me murder

He showed me rape.

He showed the train with corpses

And the train on its way back too.

He read poetry

Of leaves and the land and the monsoon.

He read poetry

Of friends and lovers and the river

He mentioned the pride

He mentioned the Punjabi

And he mentioned the Muslim.

He also mentioned the line

And walked on one side of it.

I saw it during the Kargil war

I saw the death poles

I saw the value of the line.

And the value of the land

I saw the border

I saw the barbed-wire fencing

I felt the electrocution

I felt the value of the line.

I saw the Partition again

and again at Wagah.

I heard the patriotism

I heard hatred

I heard love for the country

I heard hatred for the other

I saw spectators

And celebrators.

I heard screams of Hindustan Zindabaad

And whispers of Pakistan Murdabaad.’

He took some dry atta—wheat flour, a huge amount of it. And while everyone is watching, he gundos it and makes a big flag out of it. Then he fires a plastic revolver. So he is looking at symbols of nationalism and what they do to him as a person. And that was his expression of it.

He found the idea stifling. He often said, ‘I don’t know why I have to take a side, you know! What is it to me?’

This was one of his initial explorations in this project:

‘I felt it in school too

I felt it when I was 8

In my first fight with a Muslim

I heard myself say

‘Go to your Pakistan’

I witnessed the anger

I witnessed the line.

I read the freedom struggle.

I read the day of freedom.

And a few words on the Partition.

I saw the flag painted faces

I saw anger and fight

I saw nationalism in sparks

I saw the win

I saw the loss

I saw firecrackers, I heard the bombe too.

My mother showed it to me

Every time I walked through a Muslim colony

She’d asked me not to go,

She’d asked me to be safe.

She hid it from my grandfather

And then I saw it again.

I saw a line when I was writing this

And then I saw it again

When my sister’s friends

Had to sneak in

Sneak in the Muslims.

I saw a line

A line right outside my house.

I saw the partition

I’m not lying.

But from one side of the line

I’m discontent.’

This expressions arose out of a fair amount of discussion. The idea was to look at the past in the present. What is it right now? What are these lines that are invisible in our life right now? Then, again: Why remember the past?

We had to keep going back to these questions because all the students found it disturbing. We were all in this dark heavy space, and we kept asking: Should we remember? Should we forget?

We like to introduce theory in these classes along with the exercises, so that the whole idea makes sense to the students. We read Nietzsche and Plato and discussed the idea of ‘active forgetting’. Interestingly, I found that idea a great way for moving forward. He’s not saying we should do it blindly, that we should forget and move on. But, he says, the ability to forget allows you to move on. And that’s something that we were seeing happen before us during this project.

How do I relate to someone without knowing anything about their past? If I don’t know that you are a Muslim, or that you are from Pakistan, then I can relate to you as a person. Because then I’m away from entrenched identities. In a sense, that is forgetting, and that is moving on. Nietzsche writes: ‘The unhistorical and historical are necessary in equal measures for the health of an individual of a people and a culture.’

This is what was guiding us in some ways.

We were in Preetnagar, close to the Attari border, about 10 kilometers from it. We were living there while we worked on this project. The students were meeting people, they were writing and discussing, and we were reading Manto. Every night we would come back and look at the material we had gathered, and sometimes there would be crying and laughter. We lived together and worked together.

This is a short piece on acceptance by a student:

I heard a story, should I tell you?

Or should it be left behind where it came from?

I am confused.

Should I let it be or should I let it out?

Should the world know? Should I know?

Should I have met the people I met?’

. . .

The grace I see in Poonam aunty

Will I ever be able to have that grace in me?

I see settlement in Keemti

I wonder how, a bullet was shot at him.

It’s still in his head.

Yet he has an undying faith in life,

In people, in love.

An acceptance,

An acceptance for his way of life.

I see an absence, a void in Durbara.

His son was a terrorist.

Is that a reason not to miss him?

Shanghara writes about a street, a lane.

A lane that his childhood was spent in

The lane that he and his brother played in.

They scare him now, they don’t belong to him.

Will he ever be able to go there again?

I was in Punjab.

I stood at the border.

We all stand on the same earth

Under the same sky

Yet we have a different story to share.

This was especially meaningful, because the border is an abstraction for many of us. Being at the border was a strange experience—because there was nothing. There were markers to indicate that it was a border. Apart from that? It’s hard to say.

So what, really, defines the ‘other’? The people in those lines are the people they met in Preetnagar. There was someone who’d been shot in the head—he was paralyzed and yet managing to run the post office. Someone whose son had become a terrorist.

The project also taught them to negotiate this very difficult aspect of trying to represent someone else’s reality. There were ethical questions, there were artistic questions, there were questions of history. So what was it? As facilitators, we encouraged them to not to get trapped in accurately representing history. Rather, they were to understand its emotional aspects and then try and evoke that through their work.

Another student wrote:

I didn’t expect to also discover the depths. What was really interesting for me was the layers. The layers to the people we met and the places we visited. I felt like each place and person had a unique secret. Whether they want it exposed or not, you will never know, unless you know where to look for it. I call them secrets because I feel they are so hidden and so concealed within the person. Had I met them under any other context, I would never have known what they have been through. Having said that, I want to say that having gone through this process of talking to people and discovering their stories, I feel extremely overwhelmed.

She also wrote: ‘How do I do justice to this person’s story?’ She really struggled with that.

Our students were encouraged to sketch and do other things apart from writing in their journals. This is one of the pieces she did. And she talks about why she leaves the heads out:

A man who’s son became a terrorist disowned him and did not attend his funeral. I choose not to disclose their faces because when their son was killed, they chose to go into hiding and destroyed all things that could trace him back to their lives—to their house. They had made such an effort to preserve their identity that I felt it wrong to disclose it now.

For us facilitators, it is great if a student arrives at such a conclusion because it is precisely this kind of tension that we want to build. How and what you do, what you show . . . because it’s all so personal. You have to find a way of showing it with dignity. This was, in a sense, moving away from judgement. Meeting these people helped the students move away from making or holding on to judgements, which is often what clouds history.

The next piece that I want to share is about unearthing a larger history within the family space. This was a student project. The student had a lot of difficulty in accessing Partition. Talking to her, we realized that she’s from a part of Delhi that was once a ‘refugee colony’. For the project, she had to go back there, spend time there, talk to her family members. A lot of people have shared that kind of process. In her case, the idea was to look at dualities—the dualities of horror and beauty; and the duality of what makes you violent and how you live with it.

The box you see here was a box of smells. She had punctured holes in it. She had created a box of smells—of smell memories—that she had heard about from people.

This is a portrait that she had done with a line. The idea of choosing sketches over photographs was interesting, I thought, because representation changes when you’re drawing and the time you spend on it changes too. It is a little bit removed from the person as he is. This is a story of a person who says:

I killed three Muslims myself. When I came from Lahore, all I saw was hundreds of corpses of women. And that was when I was overcome with anger. One Muslim girl said to me, ‘Marry me and save me. Look at this broken box, it has some gas and gold.’ I poured a canister of kerosene on her then I lit the match. After I lit the match, the fire was massive. She got bloated for a while, and after an hour and a half, she finally fell to the floor.

There were things like this that emerged from conversations within the family. And that’s very hard to bear, because you’re living with those people. It is also interesting because it looks at the perpetrator’s side of the story. She is trying to empathize with him, and understand—not to perpetrate further but to understand what went on then, what made him do that act of violence.

We do various exercises of looking at the past and present. One of them is to map out their year of birth, and connect political events in the world with what was going on in their home. I was shocked to discover that so many students had no idea of what had happened just before they were born or just around the time that they were born.

Another exercise looks at personal biases and questions the given. Students who were saying ‘It doesn’t affect us,’ were also students who were saying ‘Though it doesn’t affect us, you know, our parents don’t really like it if Muslims come to our house. So we give them a separate bowl to eat from. Or if we go to their house, we don’t eat in the vessels they cook in. And people are not allowed to marry across religions.’ These were some of the givens that we started breaking down by saying: This is also, on a sense, a partition.

How do you use metaphors? If you can’t access something from the past, what do you do? One way is to consider its emotional aspect. A student from Ranchi said, ‘I want to work with brutality.’ So we started looking at images. She started drawing, she started working with photography. What are some of the metaphors for brutality that one can find? Eventually, after five months, we had the short film Lakir. She worked with the idea of train and movement. We were looking at images, not only historical facts that flood us but also popular images. When we think of Partition, we see a train. There are images that we de-constructed while looking at popular narratives of images, and the film was one of the products.

Yet another student looked at riots through objects. She looked at everyday objects and tried to put them in a museum space to see what happens. When we look at a break in a clean, white museum space as opposed to the space of a riot, or a burnt wallet, which is suggestive of Godhra, or a can of kerosene—the objects tend to take on new meaning. When they are displaced, they are imbued with new meaning.

Bais Fervari ki Shaam was a culmination of what the students had written about their experience in Preetnagar. Originally done as a 5.5 x 3 ft three-screen installation and illustration, this work looks at the terrorism that rose in Punjab in 1984 with the demand for Khalistan. With three stories, the film explores how, over time, memory sustains the relationship between the self and its surroundings.

The interesting part for me in this project was how we looked at representation. The initial idea was to show people’s faces, to just have them there and say: Ok, let them talk on screen. But is that really what we wanted to say? We wanted to say, and are saying, that their stories can also evoke other people’s realities. And that working with metaphors somewhere helps that effort.

As a culmination of the National Flag project—five months down the line, the student did a five-day performance. He constructed a space and lived in it. There was a ‘floor’, there were bricks on both sides; he constructed a wall and lives inside that room, without talking to anybody, living on the fruit that he took in on Day One.

As facilitators, we were constantly asked by our director: ‘What if something happens to him?’

He did not set out with a concept, but he had a basic inquiry in mind and for him the performance became a way of understanding and exploring. Through his body, which was the site of the performance, he explored the ideas of nationalism, land, borders. Does you have a sense of safety when you enclose yourself?

In an artistic inquiry, you begin with a question which may change as you progress, but you hold on to it and go back to it. The methods can be diverse, as you’ve seen, as can be the expressions. It’s Also important to expose the students to other artists’ work. We showed them Zarina Hashmi’s work. Looking at material, looking at history, these are important for the process. I think the emphasis on internal shifts is important, and effective. Because then you’re not bogged down by the outcome—you just keep creating. And as you create, you understand what form works best for you.

This exploration is imperative. Externalizing the internal was a key element in these projects. Another thing we encountered was the need to break down the dangers of homogeneity. How do you look at difference in a way that’s dignifying and that everyone understands?


Aditi has a Bachelor’s degree in literature from St Stephen’s College, New Delhi; a Master’s in literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; and a diploma in film and video communication from National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. At Srishti, she has worked on projects that focus on the harsh social realities and trauma of the Partition of India, the 1984 riots, the displacement of indigenous communities in Kutch and several other issues. She approaches these subjects through artistic interventions, along with her students, for the learning becomes real through experience.

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