Updated: Mar 24
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.
‘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
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
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 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.