One foot in Lahore, the other in Chandigarh: How Partition's sundering affected a museum's artifacts

The collection at the Government Museum of Chandigarh, divided in Lahore on 10 April 1948, came this side of the border after long and complex negotiations between the representatives of the two newly formed governments of India and Pakistan.

Vandana Shukla September 30, 2018 09:46:06 IST
One foot in Lahore, the other in Chandigarh: How Partition's sundering affected a museum's artifacts

Toba Tek Singh, a popular short story of Manto, describes the exchange of lunatics between India and Pakistan. It made people aware of the absurdity of partition on both sides of the freshly carved border. The division of land and its people also entailed division of cultural inheritance. Albeit, the communal violence that engulfed Punjab and Bengal post declaration of the Independence destroyed tangible and intangible heritage, irretrievably.

The Lahore Museum (established in 1865), a repository of vast cultural inheritance of undivided India, housed in a majestic building, designed by Sir Ganga Ram, thus became a major point of contention. Fortunately, no harm was caused to the museums, on both sides, during the communal rioting of 1947. Soon after the dust settled, it was decided that the collection of the Lahore Museum needs to be divided on the lines of division of the Panjab University Library books, manuscripts, the artefacts of the ASI etc.

The Government Museum of Chandigarh, that completes 50 years this year, houses the collection received from Lahore Museum. The collection, divided in Lahore on 10 April 1948, came to this side of Punjab towards the end of 1949 after long and complex negotiations between the representatives of the two newly formed governments.

After the euphoria subsided on receiving the first cart full of artefacts in Amritsar, the question arose of where to house them? Lahore was the culture capital of undivided Punjab, this side of the land had no infrastructure to house the delicate pieces of sculptures and art, dating back to 1st BCE.

Buddha keeps one foot in Lahore

In 50 years, the Government Museum of Chandigarh has not been able to solve the riddle — how and on what basis the division of artefacts, especially that of Gandhara sculptures, the prized possession of Chandigarh Museum, took place. The story of the origins of these sculptures and their division remains buried in the archives. Gandhara sculptures are works of the Greco-Buddhist school that flourished in what is now Pakistan, and parts of Afghanistan,  just before and after the birth of Christ.

One foot in Lahore the other in Chandigarh How Partitions sundering affected a museums artifacts

The Greco-Roman Buddha with a moustache (L) and Buddha's foot in Chandigarh (R)

In an article written by senior architect SD Sharma, who worked with Le Corbusier, published in the journal of the Museum, Roop Lekha, he writes that since the Gandhara region fell in Pakistan, India received 40 percent of the total collection of Lahore Museum.

Things were not that simple though. Mrinalini Venkateswaran, who is working on the development of museums in Punjab post-1947 from the University of Cambridge, states in an e-mail interview, “Things were negotiated following due procedure, along with all the other assets and liabilities that were being divided. There were many rounds of discussion, in some cases arbitration, that took into account the resources, both new Dominions required (which included cultural heritage).” She adds, “In the case of the Lahore Museum, the division was first and foremost between two provinces of Punjab, rather than India and Pakistan. Some of it was based on population ratios of the new provinces of East and West Punjab, but different formulae were applied for different things – it was a complicated, lengthy process. There were a range of people involved in the process, such as politicians, bureaucrats, and specialists from the museums and Archaeological Survey of India.”

The sculptures and paintings, which were reproduced in books, were not divided and were retained by Pakistan Government. Similarly, archeological materials from Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were not divided as the sites were in Pakistan. The pre-historic “Dancing Girl”, is an exception (displayed at National Museum, New Delhi) and has been part of much controversy. It has also been claimed several times by Pakistani citizens, citing territorial right.

Former Director of Chandigarh Museum, late VN Singh, who had visited Lahore Museum, once observed an interesting detail about the division of Gandhara sculptures — one foot of Buddha is in the possession of Chandigarh Museum, while the other rests in Lahore. The coveted image of an emaciated “Fasting Buddha” too was retained by Lahore.

Finding a home for the Buddha

From Amritsar, the artworks were moved to Shimla, and were displayed in a church and an adjoining building called, “Manse”. The temporary museum was inaugurated by S Ujjal Singh, the then Finance Minister of Punjab, in 1952.

Punjab Government moved to Chandigarh in 1954, but there was no place in the city to keep the art collection. Therefore, it was exhibited at Moti Bagh Palace, Patiala. Dr Randhawa, the first Chief  Commissioner of Chandigarh, thought it was disastrous to keep artworks in a building full of windows and fireplaces. He asked the Punjab Government to get the matter examined by WG Archer, the keeper of  Indian section at Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Archer seconded Randhawa’s opinion in a report he submitted to the Punjab Government in 1960. The collection was then moved to Government Art School, the building adjacent to where the museum stands today, in 1962.

It was decided that the museum should have a building of its own. In the Third Five-year Plan, the Chandigarh Capital Project Scheme was included, designed by Le Corbusier, the museum building received a grant of Rs 2 lakh, for construction.

The wars of China and Pakistan

The war with China in 1962 meant that India had to curb extra expenditure – and the museum was labelled as one. In a letter he wrote to the then chief minister of Punjab, PS Kairon, Dr Randhawa, made an impassioned appeal in favour of the continuity of the construction work. In between, the labour on the site threatened to sue the Punjab Government if the promised work was not completed.

In 1965, the positive outcome of India-Pakistan war provided much-awaited impetus and the construction was resumed. As a reminder of history, a Patton tank, captured by the Indian Army, still stands outside the museum.

Chandigarh became a Union Territory on 1 November 1966, and the completed building of the museum was inaugurated on 4 May 1968.

Roman to Asian — identity of Buddha

Partition became a cause for the creation of  Chandigarh, and later its museum, an abode for the many faces of Buddha. Partition also divided the journey of the iconography of the Buddha; evolved from a Greco Roman, muscular figure donning moustache, long, curly hair and adornments to a delicately featured Buddha in a sitting, meditative position, wearing his hair in ushnisha (top knot). Even the shape of his ears changed over centuries of cultural influences — from Hellenistic, it became more and more Indian. Yet, Buddha, sitting in Lahore or Chandigarh, roots his quest for peace in love and forgiveness.

The Chandigarh museum received a total number of 627 Gandhara sculptures, 450 miniature paintings, 18 paintings of contemporary artists like Nand Lal Bose, AN Tagore, Jamini Roy et al, eight tankhas and few decorative artworks.

(All dates, places and names mention in the article are sourced from the library of Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh.)

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