New Delhi: At a new exhibition based on Partition violence in New Delhi, there is a common thread running throughout the items on display: Hope amid turbulent times. From shawls to bedding, displaced families saved some of their most expensive and precious belongings in the hope that someday, they might enjoy peace and prosperity. While some survived and others didn’t, these items are sitting today at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi. The exhibition opened for the general public on 14 August or Partition Horrors Remembrance Day.
When the Pakistani cricket team toured India in 1961, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru presented them with a bronze sculpture called ‘The Cricketer’. Created by Amar Nath Sehgal, the gift was an iconic memento of goodwill between the two countries that were still recovering from the horrors of Partition. The original sculpture is still in Pakistan, but Sehgal made another ‘Cricketer’, which is currently showcased at the Partition Exhibition. The images, documents, newspaper headlines, oral recordings, artefacts, and sculptures that capture the Partition years are a powerful memory of those who survived the time.
The exhibition, which runs through 14 galleries, does not just begin with the massacres and chaos on both sides of the border. “We include a pre-Partition narrative, so we also talk about the contributions of the Indians and the British Empire’s divide and rule policy,” says Kishwar Desai, the curator of the exhibition and Chairperson of the Partition Museum, Amritsar.
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Cutting across lines
The warp and weft of the tragedies cut across socio-political lines. In a section reserved for the redevelopment of music in partitioned India, a sitar occupies a corner space. It belonged to a Batra family that moved from Lahore to Rajasthan and carried it with them. When the family relocated to Delhi and wanted to restore the instrument, they took it to Rikhi Ram’s shop in Connaught Place. Rikhi Ram immediately recognised the sitar, which he described as a “long-lost relative”. He had made it for the Batras before he migrated from Pakistan.
The methodical style of storytelling gives visitors the context to explore the lives of people through letters, ration cards, torn clothing, and broken utility items. “We are displaying a national narrative with a lot of objects collected over the last five years. We collected oral history and then were asked by the IGNCA to set up an exhibition to coincide with 14 August,” Desai explains.
The exhibition has dedicated sections recording the personal histories of Dalit refugees, women, children, and the marginalised.
Opposite the sitar, in the women’s section, is placed a well. It is one of those many wells in which, at the height of the violence, Muslim and Hindu women would jump to save themselves from rape. Their children, too, jumped into it. “The installation commemorates all those millions of missing women and children whose lives were wiped out overnight,” reads the curator’s note.
The Partition Exhibition is an experience-centric event that also shows numerous testimonial videos featuring Partition survivors. “We always do exhibitions which are to do with the people. We believe in people’s memories, and those should be preserved. This one as well, we’re calling it an ‘exhibition of the people’ and what they went through. We collect the oral narratives, objects, their documents, whatever they can give us from the Partition time because for us, what the rulers are doing is one thing, but what the people are going through is quite a separate experience,” Desai says.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)