The coronavirus pandemic gave 1947 Partition Archive an unlikely shot in the arm — a series with speakers from both sides of the border

A majority of the speakers who have featured in 1947 Partition Archive's new series come from families of Partition migrants and have enduring cross-border stories of love and friendship to share.

Payal Mohta July 21, 2020 09:30:23 IST
The coronavirus pandemic gave 1947 Partition Archive an unlikely shot in the arm — a series with speakers from both sides of the border

Hum keh thehre ajnabi itni madaraton ke baad
Phir banenge aashnaa kitni mulaqaton ke baad

Kab nazar mein aayengi be-dagh sabze ki bahaar
Khoon ke dhabbe dhulenge kitni barsaaton ke baad

(We who are like strangers, after all the time gone by,
Will we know one and another again and after how many meetings more?

And will there be spring when the green is all unblighted?
And how many rains must fall before the stains of blood are washed clean?)

These lines from Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem 'Dhaka Se Wapsi Par' (On Returning From Dhaka) describe the poet’s pain for his countrymen, divided by the then bloody civil war between West and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The sentiment transcends time, becoming the torment of the people who migrated during India’s own Partition, or even an echo of these uncertain times, where sealed global borders and lockdowns have separated loved ones from each other.

Yet, in the hope of a joyful union, Lahore-based Dr Salima Hashmi, the oldest daughter of Faiz, recites these lines in a virtual talk series, which is bringing India and Pakistan together while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Launched on 30 May, these weekly one-hour episodes are an initiative by 1947 Partition Archive – one of the foremost platforms to record people’s oral stories of India's Partition. From artists to scholars, the show, which is known as 'Sunday Stories Live', invites speakers from either side of the border to talk about the shared and lost history of the subcontinent.

For New Delhi-based Guneeta Singh Bhalla, the founder of the Partition Archive, it was the pandemic that enabled this talk show. She found herself forced to withdraw from plans of live events and rethink engagement in the digital space. Facebook Lives became a natural choice, as the Archive's page has one million followers from both sides of the border and the global diaspora.

The coronavirus pandemic gave 1947 Partition Archive an unlikely shot in the arm  a series with speakers from both sides of the border

Perwin Ali with Guneeta Bhalla. All images courtesy of the 1947 Partition Archive

"In mainstream politics and pop culture, Partition is often used as a test of someone's nationality and allegiance," says Bhalla, whose Archive has documented almost 10,000 stories since its inception in 2010. "Less than 1 percent of the people we interviewed migrated by choice. They still have love for their ancestral land. One of the purposes of the series is to bring forth this truth."

In the past seven episodes – recordings of which can be accessed on the Archive’s Facebook page – the speakers have included author Urvashi Butalia, whose book The Other Side of Silence is one of the first to narrate the oral history of Partition survivors, and Bhai Baldeep Singh, an eminent 13th-generation musician of Gurbani kirtan, who gave profound insights into the syncretic Hindu-Muslim musical traditions of undivided Punjab. Another episode saw a delightful camaraderie between professors Dr Rita Kothari of New Delhi and Dr Farrukh Khan from Lahore, as they discuss teaching Partition to graduate students through regional histories that have entwined Hindus and Muslims for generations.

Most if not all the speakers seem to come from families of Partition migrants and have enduring cross-border stories of love and friendship to share. Yet the show hardly ever becomes purely sentimental, with the continued relevance of Partition remaining central to each session. “Partition is not a static event, it is an on-going journey,” Lahore-based Anam Zakaria, an oral historian and award-winning author of several books on the Partition, says in one of the early episodes of the series. Like many other speakers of the show, she talks of how Partition has enabled the “crystallisation of religious identities with nations” which “uproots people from the only home they have ever known.” “Pakistani children often find it hard to believe how Shah Rukh Khan can be Muslim and yet Indian,” says Zakaria while narrating an anecdote from one of her classroom interactions on the show.

Zakaria also points out other ways in which the “wounds” of Partition continue to fester – the struggles of divided families on either side of the border, the lynching of minorities, attacks on places of worship, and most recently, the Uttar Pradesh government’s brutalities on Sikh farmers in its state, who migrated to the area during Partition.

Is there a way ahead for peace and friendship? That is another question that continues to surface through the show.

“It is the writer, the actor, the filmmaker, the poet on whom the responsibility of peace rests,” 77-year-old Hashmi, now a renowned painter who migrated from Rawalpindi to Lahore during the Partition, tells her digital audience. “The role of the artist is to heal these fractures.”

In this last episode, Hashmi speaks about her own work in this regard, which involves repeated cross-border collaborations. Whether it’s joint exhibitions between Indian and Pakistani artists, fighting diplomatic hurdles so that her Pakistani students can travel to India and study the shared art legacy of the subcontinent, or her pivotal role in opening art scholarships to students from all parts of South Asia at Lahore’s Beaconhouse International University.

The coronavirus pandemic gave 1947 Partition Archive an unlikely shot in the arm  a series with speakers from both sides of the border

Joginder Singh with Jagdeep Singh

Upcoming sessions for the following few weeks will include discussions on teaching Partition in the UK, its representation in contemporary cinema and its continued psychological impacts. Bhalla hopes to run the show at least for the next few months, allowing it to “evolve with the audience and its needs". Some speakers and viewers have felt that much of the conversation on the show remains Punjab-centric, which Bhalla intends on changing by bringing in voices from Sindh, West Bengal and Bangladesh as well.

As for the future of the digital format of the show, for now it seems to have more advantages than live events. The Archive's Facebook page is able to draw a large global audience – an average of 10,000 viewers per episode – a high number compared to the footfall of live events that the Archive often hosted in New Delhi. There are also no diplomatic visa nightmares, which would have otherwise made it impossible to invite speakers from the other side of the border.

“As the Partition is a very sensitive and polarising subject, at live events one would often receive very offensive and one-sided questions from the audience,” says Delhi-based lawyer Noor Anand Chawla, who is also the moderator for the show. Chawla admits that while “trolls” do turn up at the digital show as well, the backend team makes sure their comments don’t pop up on the live screen. This leaves room for more nuanced questions to be answered during the 30-minute audience interactive session.

Chawla has noticed that many of the repeat attendees of the show are Partition survivors and their families. One such person is 80-year-old Bengaluru-based Harish Jagtiani, who hasn’t missed a single episode of the show and will continue to watch it for its “knowledgeable, articulate and objective” speakers. He hopes the show can also bridge a missing cultural legacy between himself and future generations. “These stories are often not told to those whose ancestors migrated from places like Sindh, where there was not much violence,” says Jagtiani, who migrated from Karachi to Bombay when he was just a boy of four. “Through the show I hope to share this with the young people in my extended family.”

For those of us who may not come from families with a Partition history, the show becomes a way of discovering cross-border connections that are scarce, if not altogether absent in propaganda-driven State narratives. Instead, the show reiterates what Hashmi considers is fast receding from public memory: “People from both sides of the border have far more in common than what divides them.”

Payal Mohta is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai, India. Read more of her work here.

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