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Kamayani Kumar


Kamayani Kumar – ‘Mediating Partition narratives through Visual Culture’



S L Parasher - Partition Line Drawing c 1947. Image courtesy: Parasher Archives




Now I’m in a country that has no name
House of Breath, Meena Alexander i

Partition of India has been a defining moment in the history of the Indian subcontinent. The trauma it generated is still spelling out its profound impact on subjective, political, literary trajectories on either side of the contested borders.

Lending expression to the trauma of partition has been rife with complexities. For decades ‘silence’ had become a definitive trope of expression. While literary narratives were aplenty, critical studies assert that these narratives revealed the inadequacy of language in speaking of a cultural trauma so invasive and intense. Theorists such as Cathy Caruth, Veena Das, Elaine Scarry to name a few, have spoken at length how the nature of intensive pain is such that it often renders language reductionist.

However, in the recent decades documentation of Partition has become much more assertive. Theatre, Cinema, Dastaan Go, Graphic Narratives, Video Art Installations, Paintings, Cyclorama, Advertisement, Documentaries, Photo Stories, became means through which people tried to express their horror of Partition. These efforts have found echoes on either side of the border. So while borders and memories are contested and fraught with cartographic anxieties, the desire to lend voice to the experience of partition is mutual.

This article has as its focus the way in which Partition of India has been represented through art vis-a-vis paintings and video art installations from both sides of the border perhaps, as a means of arriving at a cathartic resolution. At the same time the artistic renditions are echoing overlapping thematic concerns: the efficacy of borders, counter transference of trauma, the predicament of refugees, the loss of identity, violation of bodies.... It is also looking into the sparseness of documentation sans Partition trauma while also throwing open further trajectories for critical enquiry. The fact that decades after partition of the Indian subcontinent artists are responding to the event throws into perspective relevant issues such as Partition as a unresolved cultural tragedy, transference of trauma via postmemory to generations born decades beyond Partition, how the later generations have received, understood and are negotiating with Partition, also how art is proving  to be a common space sans borders where artists are invoking a very powerful metaphor for representing Partition.

I would begin with the work of S L Parasher. His work offers a very significant peek into the immediate aftermath of Partition of India. Parasher’s Partition line drawings of 1947 -1949 are compelling. His work stems from his personal experience as a refugee and particularly as a witness to the trauma of millions displaced while he worked in the capacity of Commandant, Baldev Nagar Refugee Camp in Ambala. What makes his art even more touching is the way he has done it, on bits of paper, envelopes, invoices, pages drawn from ledgers and notebooks. Drawn in pencil, charcoal, in ink they radiate the pain, fury of a man who has witnessed intense horror. The titles of his paintings also resonate with the fissures of loss running deep, for instance, ‘Heavy Despair,’ ‘Grief has no Voice’ ‘In Search of a New Home,’ ‘Cry I, Cry II’. The drawings resound with a profound sense of loss, dejection and despair. The richness of Parasher’s narratives can be attributed to his own experience of partition as well as from being a witness to countless and hapless millions of refugees surviving in the refugee camp.

From across the border Zarina Hashmi’s work can be classified (b. 1937 India) as belonging to the perception of and representation of Partition by the ‘hinge generation,’ that is the generation that experienced Partition from a child’s sensibility. While her family chose to stay in India post 1947, they eventually migrated to Pakistan. This generated a sense of unhinging, lack of belonging which is evident in the way Hashmi focuses on home in several of his works.

In her work Home is a Foreign Place (1999),ii a series of 36 woodcuts printed on handmade Indian paper she artfully and intimately meditates on the meaning of “home” in a time when histories of displacement, dispossession, and social fracture call into question the concept’s very foundations of stability and safety.

Zarina’s woodcut print Dividing Lineiii(2001), is an abstract meditation on the Indo-Pakistani border. Emblematic of cartographic turn in the twenty-first century it resonates with her exilic sensibility.

In Homes I Have Made/A Life in Nine Linesiv (1997), a collection of nine etchings of varying floor plans, each paying homage to a place Zarina has called home, both in India and abroad, illustrates an immigrant’s disconnection from his or her homeland. Ajit Maan, American cultural theorist and author of Internarrative Identity: Placing the Selfv, describes Zarina’s work as “the art of the nomad, crossing the borders of conventional categories of nation, language, medium and treatment of medium to explore and express her experience.” Her work had such a profound impact on the poet Meena Alexander that she has written the poem ‘House of Breath’ in response to Hashmi’s ‘Home is a Foreign Place’

Nalini Malani a contemporary painter like Hashmi asserts that ‘home’ is no longer Heimlich. This sense of uncanny and dispossession haunting one’s own house and national territory happens to be the thematic pulse of Malani’s video installation Remembering Toba Tek Singhvi (1998). Reworking on perhaps the most definitive satirical literary piece on the absurdity of Partition, Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, Malini gives it an very interesting rendition.

The video forces the audience to experience life as it was in the borderland between India and Pakistan. The screen depicts twelve tin trunks, each of which contains TV monitors and bedding, representing the trunks refugees used to carry their goods during forced migrations. The television sets broadcast archival images of deportations, while the spectators experience the feelings of displacement and loss. The experience is further complemented by a voice over which reads out excerpts from Manto’s Toba Tek Singh. Almost a similar trajectory finds an echo on contemporary artist Subodh Gupta whose work Fly with mevii, 2006, has scores of luggage pieces such as suitcases, and bedding lodged randomly seemingly in a train, cloak room or suggestive of lost property division. By representing it in such a way the work refers to the massive displacement of millions of people. The representation tries to define the angst and grief of millions who were under compulsion to migrate....often to a hostile space where they were labelled as mujahirs or refugees and steeped to the core with a sense of ‘unbelonging’.

Another very interesting instance is the recent project titled Aar Paarviii. Unlike literature, paintings and documentaries which terrain a path less accessible to the common masses, the Aar Paar project had easier access (contextually speaking) to the public imagination. It emerged as a discourse which would be able to confront, capture the imagination of the aam aadmi who suffers the daily ramifications of Partition in multiple ways either as a refugee/mujhahir, inhabiting ‘space’ in Cooper Camp even 68 years down the line, or being a half-widow, a victim of cross border terrorism or a POW. What makes Aar Paar project even more crucial is the fact that it has entries from either side of the border.

Aar Paar Public Art Exchange Project Between India and Pakistan 2000, 2002 and 2004.

Shilpa Gupta and Huma Mujli in 2000 came together on a common platform and invited entries from artists from either side on ramifications of Partition in today’s context.

This project in public art stood in defiance of borders and infiltrated international borders with arts and ideas. These artists in their aesthetic discourses (restrained to the western Indian border) invoke the audience to question borders and “eventually question the very foundation of nations and national identities.”

While literally the word aar paar implies ‘this side and that side’, it also implies to be ‘[pierced] through and through’”. In this regard the project emerges as an endeavour which desires to go beyond historiographical, political and military trappings and explores how Partition has shadowed the ordinary, everyday lives of people. At the same time it also shows the mapping of suffering, hatred and camaraderie that has been the fate of people inhabiting partitioned Indian subcontinent post 1947 on either side of the border.

In this article I would like to focus on Blameix, Gupta’s 2002 contribution to Aar-Paar. It was first exhibited as a sign hanging in the peripheral areas of Indian and Pakistani metropolises. The poster carries the slogan “Blaming you makes me feel so good, so I blame you for what you cannot control, your religion, your nationality, I want to blame you, it makes me feel good”. The violent act of blaming creates a clear-cut division between the ‘you and me’ polarities. The sign mimics the political propaganda based on the connection between religion and nationality and refers to a contemporary episode of violence to reveal the destructive effects of strict identity policies. With white letters clearly impressed on a blood-red background, it iconically reminds Indian and Pakistani viewers of the bloody pogrom that caused more than one thousand deaths in Gujarat during the same year.

In her other works also Shilpa Gupta muses on how she comprehends Partition. In Vitrine 1:14.9x (2011–12), she metaphorically expresses ‘partition’ through a hand-wound ball of thread. The art installation has been variously interpreted as expressive of the fenced border between India and Pakistan, metaphor for a complex and intimate relationship shared by these neighbouring nations.

In Here There Is No Borderxi Shilpa Gupta uses strips of adhesive tape with the imprint Here There Is No Border and places them where they corrupt the contact spaces. In doing so it “both affirms and denies the existence of a border. Its beginning, “here there is”, could lead the viewer to expect a real frontier to be actually and actively present; but its ending, “no border”, excludes this possibility.” In doing so she challenges the idea of borders and divisions. Untitled xii2005-2006 explores how post partition Kashmir has become the arena for enactment of consistent hostilities between India and Pakistan.  An installation in it five screens transmit a sequence of images and sounds. While two screens focus on how digital media has challenged the permeability of borders, one of them looks onto an open space: the border landscape from Srinagar to Gulmargh the beauty being disrupted by the presence of military figures that keep towns and villages under siege. Another screen is a hazy window. On the other side of this window you, the spectator, can see a finger moving and writing letters as in a game for children, while a childlike voice says A for Army. B for bomb. C for curfew. D for death. E for explosion. F for fear. G for garden. G for grave. H for hospital. I for Identity Card. J for jail. K for Kalashnikov. L for Land of Free Kashmir. M for militant. N for NTR - Nothing To Report. O for obituary. P for Papa. Q for questioning. R for rape. S for scar. T for television. U for utopia. V for VDC – Village Defense Committee. W for widow – half widow. X for X-ray. Y for Yes Sir! Z for Z-Security. Thus the security zone proves to be insecure and the walls cease to be a barrier to become an area of contact.

As way of concluding, this article is only touching the tip of an ice berg when it comes to multifarious ways of documentation of Partition. It also highlights the lack of a monument as a testimony to the memory of millions who suffered the trauma and are still experiencing its seismic shoots in the form of consistent cross border hostilities. It’s only recently through the efforts of Partition Museum project that a museum in Amritsar, Yaadgaar e Tasqeem seems probable in 2017.


i Alexander Meena, House of Breath, Quickly Changing River Northwestern University Press  2008 http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/content/quickly-changing-river-0

ii Hashmi Zarina, Home is a Foreign Place, 1999
—Eakins, Thomas. Spinning. 1881. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.  Philadelphiamuseumofart.com. Web. 12 Jun 2003.

iii Hashmi Zarina, Dividing Line, 2001

iv Hashmi Zarina Homes I Have Made/A Life in Nine Lines 1997

v Mann Ajit Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self

vi Malini Nalini Remembering Toba Tek Singh 1998

vii Gupta SubodhFly with me, 2006

viii  Gupta Shilpa & Mujli Huma Aar Paar Public Art Exchange Project Between India and Pakistan 2000

ix Gupta Shilpa Blame 2002

x Gupta Shilpa Vitrine 1:14.9 2011 12

xi Gupta ShilpaHere There Is No Border

xii Gupta Shilpa Untitled 2005 2006

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