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Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič

Witness to Loss: Parasher's Partition's Sketches


'This remarkable series occupies a unique place in our history, a place universally felt but seldom mentioned. S. L. Parasher was the Vice-Principal of the Mayo School of Art, Lahore, and Founder Principal of the Punjab School of Arts, Simla. Parasher spent 1945-47 as commandant of the Baldev Nagar Refugee Camp in Ambala and Gandhinagar Camp, Delhi. Wrested, like everyone else, from much of what he knew and loved, he spent sleepless evenings walking amongst the refugees and often stopping to sketch the visible evidence of all that was lost.

Has the Partition become a word whose meaning is bent by the ears that receive it? For young Indians now reaching adulthood, it could easily be an academic concept only, one as far away as Shah Jahan—important, but inaccessible. At a half century after Partition we are in a brief moment when intellectual, spiritual and social memory sometimes still coalesce.

As those born on the cusp of the shift from memory—what our parents told us—and re-memory—what we have to learn for ourselves—we must feel a special responsibility toward Partition, to the violence of the birth of modern India and to the unrecorded lost who paid with their expectations, often with their lives, for our current well-being. Parasher's Partition Sketches are a window into this largely empty space. They are that rare transitional item that flows directly from the immediacy of his experience in a transit camp in 1947 to our experience in 2021 trying to imagine hopelessness and despair, of the lives which have given us our own, of a time where everything which was dependable had been ruptured and nothing of the future could be imagined. The very fragility of these pieces—they are largely on scraps of available paper—is testament to the nearly impossible journey they have made from that moment to this one. Unlike written records, scant as those are, and unlike recreations such as film, these sketches are a constant, as real now as they were in the muddy, fly strewn and exhausted moments of their creation.

The immediacy of the moment, the emotion of those gone days, appears in every line. A despairing figure erupts from the frame. A crowd of covered women console one another on paper. Although always moving, these line drawings are not individual. Parasher was an able portraitist but he does not in these figures make anyone recognizable. In many ways these drawings function as photos— snapshots of a moment in time in India's history. It was as if he knew he was documenting the trauma revealed by a people being shaped into a nation. The events of Partition, so present in our sense of ourselves, has by its very nature left little evidence of what it cost. There will not be another opportunity to enter this world with work carrying more authority, or as much capacity to bring this lost past into the present.

In my talk I will invite you to follow your gaze at Parasher’s images. A few of the images will be able to look at you. What they do offer is what they gave Parasher, the gift of their turning away so that we can follow that sightline into its absence. And in its emptiness recognize what was taken from them.

Parasher brought nothing out of Lahore but his family and the artistic integrity that allowed him to render this new space in joyous colour. Important in their own right, these works are also an index of the forces he was juggling as he established the Punjab School of Arts in Simla. Many of these images are not turned inward or turned away; instead they look forward toward the artist, toward us, the viewers. Did Parasher know he was documenting the birth of a new nation? It is tempting to believe that he did.'

-Prajna Parasher


Prajna Paramita Parasher is a filmmaker/scholar and multimedia artist practicing at the shifting intersection of classical thought and new technologies.

Currently she is Professor of Art, Film and Cultural Studies, Chair of the Arts, Design and Communication department and Program Director of the Film and Digital Technology program and Interdisciplinary Design program at Chatham University. Her personal focus on postcolonial studies comes to realization in several forms—films, 2-D art, installations and scholarly writing. Her creative work is experimental and has been shown across the country in venues from small towns to the Smithsonian Institution, Carnegie Museum, Brooklyn Museum, The Nehru Centre, London, The Tagore Centre, Berlin and the San Francisco Cinematheque. Already part of the canon at major American Universities, her films are used in ethnic, diaspora, cultural and women’s studies. She has received recognition via multiple fellowships, awards and grants.

Aloka Parasher-Sen has been teaching at the University of Hyderabad, India since 1979 where she is currently Professor of History and Dean School of Social Sciences. She has widely traveled on academic assignments and was DAAD Fellow, (1986- 87) and occupant of the Rotating Chair in India Studies (2007-08) at the South Asia Institute of the University of Heidelberg, Germany, a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor (1992) at the University of California, Berkeley, USA and most recently, the first occupant of the Saroj and Prem Singhmar Chair in Classical Indian Polity and Society (2008-2011) Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Canada.

Her major writings include Mlecchas In Early India (1991); Social and Economic History of Early Deccan - Some Interpretations (1993); Deccan Heritage, Co-Editor (with Harsh K. Gupta and D.Balasubramanian) (2000); KevalaBodhi, The Buddhist and Jaina History of The Deccan (2003) Subordinate And Marginal Groups In Early India Up To 1500 AD, Oxford in India Readings Themes in Indian History (2004; 2nd Paperback edition 2007), Settlement and Local Histories of the Early Deccan (2020).


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