Re-settling: Settling by Debashish Mukherjee (Photos: Ashish Sharma)
The delicate Mughal columns of the Dara Shukoh Library Building in Ambedkar University, Kashmiri Gate, may seem at odds with its British era arches, and the striking contemporary art placed along its walls, yet this combination truly highlights the building’s unique history. It also makes it an apt space to house Delhi’s Partition Museum and Cultural Hub.
The first thing one sees upon entering is a large auditorium, which shows the hybrid nature of this building as both a museum and a cultural exhibition space. It is bedecked with chairs, quaint light fittings and two striking paintings by Arpana Caur—of Baba Farid and Baba Nanak. A veranda designed for baithaks adjoins it, overlooking verdant lawns. In time, other portions of the building will have a Sufi gallery dedicated to Dara Shikoh, a Sindhi exhibit depicting the ‘Lost Homeland of Sindh’, as well as a library, shop and café.
After touching on these grand plans, Kishwar Desai, Chair of The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust, which is responsible for opening the original Partition Museum in Amritsar, and now its Delhi counterpart, brings us to the subject at hand. “It’s a people’s museum,” she says, recounting the story of her electrician’s visit moving him to tears as his own family had migrated across the border in 1947. “For decades, we had missed providing a very important recognition of the people who lived through the Partition of India, so this museum is for the people. As a philanthropic endeavour, it is also from the people. The most amazing thing is when I see those sections of society visiting it who may never otherwise think to visit museums,” she says.
A child of migrants herself, Desai adds, “Today, when a child loses even a mobile phone, they are bereft. These people lost everything—their homes, lands, belongings, even their identity— yet rebuilt their lives. It was so important for us to commemorate this loss.” Hence, she spearheaded the museum in Amritsar, which opened to much fanfare in 2017, the year India marked 70 years of the Partition. Now, fittingly the Delhi branch has opened in its 75th year. Built with the support of the Delhi government and under the Central government’s Ministry of Tourism’s ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme, the building was restored from its original decrepit condition and handed over to the trust based on an in-depth proposal provided in advance.
The museum brings this traumatic event alive through archival material that includes newspaper clippings, important documents, photos and donated objects carried across the border by people, oral history videos made by an in-house team, and contemporary art that seeks to capture the essence of intangible loss. A focus on Delhi and how this city was affected by the Partition sets this museum apart from the one in Amritsar. “The Partition Museum in Delhi is dedicated to its people and their indomitable spirit as they rose from the dust of the turmoil of 1947 to participate in nation-building. The museum examines the impact that the events of 1947 had on the city and the refugee population it accommodated. It is both a memorial as well as a museum dedicated to those millions of men, women and children who became refugees overnight,” says Ashwini Pai Bahadur, director of the museum.
The building itself bears an interesting history. Originally believed to have been part of Dara Shikoh’s (heir apparent to Mughal emperor Shah Jahan) palace, it passed to his brother Aurangzeb’s son Bahadur Shah after Shikoh was murdered. Later, it was occupied by an influential Portuguese lady, who was part of Bahadur Shah’s court. Nadir Shah plundered it during his invasion of Delhi, yet parts of it survived and were used by David Ochterlony, Delhi’s first Resident of the East India Company. After Desai requested the breaking of the false ceiling of the auditorium, it emerged as the room that was, perhaps, depicted in a famous miniature painting of Ochterlony watching nautch girls perform. These aspects of the buildings are highlighted in an informative exhibit in the entrance lobby.
The Partition Museum is divided into seven galleries, which mimic the chapters of a book. Two striking works of contemporary art by Veer Munshi on one side of the lobby set the tone for what’s to follow. These are Zuljanah , which depicts an intricately painted papier-mâche horse carrying skeletons on its back and The Fallen House where a beautifully carved house lies on its side, hinting at the unsettling feeling of displacement. Ornate red chandeliers, donated by Desai in memory of her father, light up poignant photographs taken by Serena Chopra of the residents of Old Delhi who lived through the time and recall how the city changed with the influx of refugees.
The entrance hall to the museum plays news clippings that show the growing resistance to the British Raj in the early twentieth century, which culminated in the religious riots of early 1947 and eventually the Partition. This leads us to the first gallery titled ‘Towards Independence and Partition’. Here, political decisions and the players involved are highlighted through documentation and oral history. A particularly interesting narrative is the one of journalist Kuldip Nayar who recounts his interview with Cyril Radcliffe, who was responsible for drawing up the border on the basis of outdated maps and incomplete information.
“Today, when a child loses even a mobile phone, they are bereft. These people lost everything—their homes, lands, belongings, even their identity—yet rebuilt their lives. It was important for us to commemorate this loss,” says Kishwar Desai, chair, The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust
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‘Migration’ is the title of the second gallery and is dedicated to the period when large sections of the population began to move from both sides of the border. This period is reconstructed through more oral histories, including some of British subjects who lived in the subcontinent in 1947. These have been collected in collaboration with SOAS, University of London. Further, emphasis is laid on the ‘kafilas’ or large groups, which moved on different modes of transport if they were fortunate, or on foot, often with nothing more than the clothes on their back. To bring the scene alive, the gallery is converted to a makeshift train compartment decorated with donated objects displayed in vitrines. These include a treasured lock to a trunk saved in a cupboard for years, a water pot carried across the border and handmade crochet runners, among others.
A small semi-circular room shows the death and destruction that followed the religious riots and migration. A trigger warning outside the room cautions one of the sensitive nature of the photographs depicted within— heart-rending images of riot victims or those who died of starvation, disease or sheer exhaustion on their perilous journey.
The first thing one sees upon entering the third gallery ‘Refuge’ is a large tent, signifying the refugee camps that overwhelmed the city of Delhi, to house the millions of migrants who arrived here. Makeshift ID cards, treasured ration cards, and in rare cases property papers of homes and businesses left behind, which would later help determine the properties the migrants would receive in exchange, are some of the documents that line the walls here. Even as the government scrambled to create townships and provide vocational training and employment to refugees, these temporary camps remained home for people for several months, if not years. The role of women in the rehabilitation of refugees, and the Dalit migration, which took place in later years, are other interesting aspects highlighted in this gallery.
The most striking exhibit in ‘Rebuilding Home’ is a large steel installation of misshapen blocks towering over an old, rusty bicycle. This contemporary work of art called Re-settling: Settling by Debasish Mukherjee attempts to capture the weight of the intangible loss of abandoned homes and discarded ways of life that can never be measured. Yet, the real intent behind this gallery is to show the growth of the city of Delhi. From being limited to Shahjahanabad adjoining a nascent Lutyens’ Delhi, the city began expanding to the east, west and south quickly. New colonies were developed in areas that were till then considered the suburbs. As the number of refugees swelled to constitute a third of Delhi’s population, its map changed forever. Yet, many of the names allotted to colonies or places of work were retained from pre-partition days. In this gallery, one also learns of the experience of Bengali and Sindhi migrants, which were quite distinctive from that of the Punjabi migrants. The rehabilitation of abandoned and widowed women is another sensitive subject covered here.
“The Partition Museum in Delhi is both a memorial as well as a museum dedicated to those millions of men, women and children who became refugees overnight,” says Ashwini Pai Bahadur, director, The Partition Museum
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The room titled, ‘Partition: In the Mind of the Artist,’ houses the works of Krishen Khanna, Arpana Caur, Jogen Chowdhury, and Satish Gujral and more art will be added in time. A film documenting oral histories of artists like Anjolie Ela Menon adds to the narrative.
The gallery ‘Rebuilding Relationships’ focusses on how migrants rebuilt their lives by setting new roots in unfamiliar places. Religious and educational institutions were set up as the first and perhaps easiest way to assert one’s identity. Over the years, stories of the Partition—of loss and violence, but also of resilience and the goodness of humanity—became popular themes explored in literature and poetry, theatre and film. Stalwarts in the arts moved across the border, even as their heart remained behind. Author Saadat Hasan Manto and singer-actor Noor Jehan are apt examples. Desai recalls a story she heard from her father Padam Rosha, who served in the Indian Police Service. “In the 1950s, Lata Mangeshkar came to him requesting that he allow her to meet her dear friend Noor Jehan. He organised this meeting at the border and recalled that incident fondly.” In this gallery, one also sees a collaboration with UK-based Project Dastaan, which uses virtual reality to recreate the pre-partition era. Through three distinct projects, they connect Partition survivors to their lost homelands using VR headsets and show events and stories of the time through a VR movie and animated short films.
A song from Yash Raj Chopra’s film Dharamputra titled ‘Insaan ki Aulaad’ plays on loop in the last gallery aptly named ‘Hope and Courage’. It captures the resilience of the human spirit in overcoming losses to move ahead successfully in life. The spirit of derring-do of those affected by the Partition shines through more than the trauma of that time. Stories of the lucky few who revisited the land of their birth after decades are also shared here. These returned visitors were often welcomed with great fanfare and presented with well-preserved relics from the past, which they generously donated to the museum. Famous names in this gallery include lawyers Hira Lal Sibal (father of Kapil Sibal) and Ram Jethmalani.
Keeping with the interactive nature of the museum, the last exhibit houses a post-box and board where visitors are encouraged to write messages of hope or chronicle their memories.
Desai ends with, “Indians are now beginning to be self-confident about sharing their own narrative. For too long we relied on the British narrative of events. Our research has shown that as a country we mostly lived peacefully for centuries. So, why did we have to go through the Partition? Was it worth it? We don’t have hard and fast answers to these questions but through the museum, we hope to show the importance of these questions and how necessary it is for all of us to reflect on them.”