Where to deposit trauma?

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on January 10, 2018

Photographic memory: An Annu Matthew work on display at Part Narratives

A new exhibition collects individual stories of loss, terror and courage from the Partition

The 70th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence from British colonial rule has sparked a resurgence of interest in the events surrounding the Partition and the stories of individuals who lived through that traumatic time. In the UK, the media has spent the past couple of months in a Partition frenzy — the BBC has produced TV specials, a radio show called Partition Voices and a plethora of articles around the violence-plagued displacement of 10-12 million people across the brand new borders; The Guardian and other major publications have added to the coverage. Closer home, after decades of institutional apathy, last month saw the opening of India’s first museum dedicated to the Partition in Amritsar. Rather than focus on grand historical narratives, much of this recent reckoning has dealt with the individual stories of loss, terror and courage, plugging the holes left by the institutional failure to grapple with the trauma of one of the world’s largest mass migrations. Which is exactly the approach art critic and curator Gayatri Sinha took when putting together Part Narratives, a comprehensive exhibition currently on view at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

“I don’t think we’ve dealt well with trauma as an artistic subject,” says Sinha, the founder of online art forum Critical Collective. Her mother’s family had made the crossing from Lahore to Delhi in 1947. “Our art tends to be religious and celebratory and whatever violence is shown is related to myths. It’s fairly ahistorical in that sense, we haven’t made any conscious attempts to document our times through our art. Where do you deposit trauma? Unless it’s socially memorialised in some way, it becomes a problem.”

Which is not to say that artists over the years haven’t responded to the Partition or its aftermath. As Sinha notes, it has been a fertile subject for TV, literature, film and art.

In fact, many of the 15 artists — including SL Parasher, Somnath Hore, and Krishen Khanna — whose works feature in Part Narratives had lived through the forced migration themselves, the events deeply embedded in their psyche. Arpita Singh was 10 years old when she witnessed a train massacre in New Delhi, an experience that undoubtedly informs the harsh edges and lacerated bodies in her work. But much of this outpouring of artistic responses has been individual, artists persisting despite the absence of institutional support. Their works have never before been brought together in the form of a major show dedicated to the Partition. Which is what Part Narratives aims to change.

Sinha’s curatorial note divides the works along three principal timelines. The first — consisting of works by Parasher, Singh, Khanna and others — revolves around art as testimonial, the works drawing on the personal experiences of artists during 1947 and after.

Parasher, who crossed the border with just the clothes on his back, a Rabindranath Tagore book in one pocket and a sketchbook in another, captures the jagged edges of loss and displacement in his sketches, displayed next to a table with memorabilia from the time — his acceptance postcard from Bombay Art School, an application for compensation, an essay on Iqbal.

Elsewhere, Khanna’s sketches — from 2012-13 — show men and women on bullock carts, families in panicked transit.

The second timeline deals with art as residue, focusing on works that grapple with the repercussions of the Partition and other forced migrations.

“Partition continued to bleed,” says Sinha. “In the ’50s with Punjab, and the ’60s and ’70s in Bengal, people kept coming and going back and forth, and you had artists like Hore who were working through this.”

Of particular note here are the works drawn from Hore’s Wounds series of pulp prints that look like parchment, the skin-like canvas carved and embossed with the festering scars of violence.

The puckered disruptions are simultaneously abstract and rooted in his experiences of violence and displacement (1947 and 1971), condensing pain into wound-like fissures.

The third and final timeline — art as historic imperative — consists of attempts by contemporary artists to reflect on the event 70 years later. These are people who have grown up hearing about Partition. Sheba Chhachhi’s installation Temporal Twist looks at the post-Partition story through the lenses of cinema and memory. Ribbons of celluloid hang from ceiling to floor, slowly twisting into an hourglass shape — and then back — as they rotate on a large gyroscope, embodying the way memory and history have been slowly, but surely, warped by ideology and identity.

Atul Bhalla, who grew up in a refugee household, goes back to his ancestral village — nearly cleaved into two by the Radcliffe Line — and collects bronze glasses with Hindu, Sikh or Muslim names on them. Through the politics of water-sharing, he explores the truth behind the idea of ‘Punjabiyat’, and how it stands up in the light of the Partition — and the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.

At a time when mass migration is back in the headlines, these works also bring in contemporaneous narratives. “I think some of the later work... it’s more about now,” says Sinha. “I think there’s a kind of universalism in these works, because India is also dealing with massive internal migration — due to flood, drought or violence.”

Part Narratives is on view at Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai, till September 19

Published on September 15, 2017

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