The story of India's Partition is being told, one heartbreaking object at a time

A new exhibition by the Godrej India Culture Lab and Partition Museum Amritsar, calls on people to share objects that are tied to memories of India's 'Great Divide' — making for a poignant narration of history

Rohini Nair July 22, 2017 13:10:38 IST
The story of India's Partition is being told, one heartbreaking object at a time

If your home was endangered, and you had to flee, what would be the things you would take with you? In those few hurried moments, with fear mounting and the possessions of a lifetime collected around you, what would be the objects you might gather up — maybe for their value, perhaps as surety for the future, or because you couldn't bear to leave them behind?

Siting safely ensconced in our homes today, that may seem too hypothetical a question to give much thought to.

But it's a question millions of people in the world, uprooted by disasters both natural and man-made, have faced up to.

It's a question many of our ancestors faced, when the Partition of India took place.

It's a question that the Godrej India Culture Lab and the Partition Museum of Amritsar are now asking individuals across India, in the hopes of receiving answers that will then have a place in an exhibition called 'Museum of Memories'.

The story of Indias Partition is being told one heartbreaking object at a time

Soldiers of the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and Pakistani Rangers hold their respective flags during the "Beating the Retreat" ceremony, a daily ritual, at the India and Pakistan joint check post at the Wagah border on the outskirts of the northern Indian city of Amritsar. Image via REUTERS

Culture Lab and the Partition Museum have invited people to send in a photograph and an accompanying story of an object that has great relevance to their family in the context of the Partition. Those working on the project will then collect the objects — clothing, jewellery, bundles of letters, anything that harks back to the 'Great Divide' — from the participant's home; these will then form a 'Museum of Objects' within the Museum of Memories exhibit.

Among the objects already collected for the exhibition, are a shaving kit that one family handed down from generation to generation as a reminder of their ancestor who crossed over from Dhaka with this dented box among his few possessions; a lock from a trunk, which one family's little children took along as they were smuggled across the border; a tin box from an abandoned house that the finder kept for years; even a 'phulkari' dupatta (that now hangs on the wall of the Partition Museum in Amritsar) belonging to a woman who was made to jump into a well — but later rescued.

Seen together, these objects tell a vivid story — they make a part of history come alive. The Partition becomes more than words or a distant happening; it becomes real and gains an immediacy.

This was exactly the outcome Parmesh Shahani, the head of Godrej India Culture Lab, and Mallika Ahluwalia, CEO of the Partition Museum — Amritsar, were perhaps hoping for.

Shahani told Firstpost of being overwhelmed with emotion when he visited the Partition Museum, and wondering how some of that (experience) could be brought to Mumbai — especially with the 70th anniversary of Partition coming up.

"I thought – how can we bring the spirit of this museum to Mumbai – so that citizens here too can learn from this chapter of our history," Shahani said. "At our Lab we wanted to do something to mark 70 years of Partition, and so we decided to create this event where we could showcase the work of amazing archives like the Partition Museum in Amritsar, and also so many others, like 1947 Partition Archive and Indian Memory Project."

The decision to make the exhibition a participatory one, Shahani said, was a natural progression of the nature of the Partition Museum itself. "(We said) that at heart, this is really a people’s museum and we want to highlight ordinary voices from Mumbai and the country…all of us have some links, some stories that our parents or grandparents have told us, or some objects from the past imbued with memories. What if we invite all of these to the museum? It will truly become a museum of memories then... and this is what we are attempting to do."

Shahani added that the most compelling way in which history can be narrated is through close-to-the-ground stories that slice a particular moment of time into a range of fractal perspectives. "Each perspective gives you one view, and when you view it together you get a sense of the richness and complicated nature of peoples lives and times... I am a big fan of the small — so micro histories instead of a grand narrative," he explained.

A particularly evocative example of what Shahani says can be found in his recollection of the exhibits at the Partition Museum that moved him the most:

"I was drawn to glass cases with two objects in them: a woman’s coat and a man’s briefcase. They told the story of two separated lovers from Pakistan who were reunited while in a refugee camp in India. These were the only two possessions they had with them when they met once again. They got married eventually. I was in tears the moment I learnt of this story... (So) objects can convey emotions viscerally, in a way that text might find difficult."

Mallika Ahluwalia, the CEO of Partition Museum, Amritsar, spoke with Firstpost about how history could be told through objects.

"The Partition Museum is being built as a people's museum that uses everyday objects to tell the stories of what they experienced. These objects are not particularly valuable, and most are the worse for wear after 70 years — but each very poignantly carries a story within them about the life left behind... whether it is a wedding sari carefully carried over the border at the time of Partition, or a favourite toy... These objects convey wordlessly the emotions and sense of loss of the owners," Ahluwalia said.

Ahluwalia's family has shared one of its treasured possessions with the Museum: A book called Muraqqa I Chughtai, published in Lahore in the 1920s. "Three of my four grandparents experienced Partition," she said. "My nani's family ended up losing almost all their possessions... and it continued to impact their lives in complex ways for decades after the event. My nani has given a book of paintings by Abdur Rehman Chughtai to the Museum; this belonged to her mother, who loved art and music — and it was one of the few things that she could bring with them when they left Lahore in August 1947, carrying just about a suitcase each."

As for Parmesh Shahani, one family heirloom of deep significance is an old suitcase, belonging to his grandfather. "My grandfather wasn’t in India or Pakistan during the Partition but away in Ghana, and came to India after the turbulence had subsided," Shahani told us. "It is a reminder to me, of the journeys we all take, both outward and inward, in our quest for home, and how home for so many of us migrants, is both an idea, and something that can quickly be packed away within the rectangular corners of a suitcase."


Here are some of the objects that are part of the exhibition — and the stories behind them:

Tin box

This tin box was found by Sudarshana Kumari  in a broken down house near Civil Lines, Sheikhupura. Sudarshana was on the move from her own home at the time, with riots having broken out in her locality. The house where she found the tin box had been destroyed and burnt down. As the refugees waited for trucks that would carry them to India, Sudarshana and a few other children decided to explore this rundown house, located nearby. There, all the children picked up and carried with them whatever they could find. Sudarshana salvaged the tin box and decided to use it to store her dolls whenever she reached her new home. The tin box stayed with her over the years — she kept it even after she got married.

The story of Indias Partition is being told one heartbreaking object at a time

Tin box and lock belonging to Sudarshana Kumari. Photo courtesy: Partition Museum, Amritsar


Sudarshana herself also saw the worst of Partition. Her parents, seeing the rising troubles, had decided to send ahead all the children to India with some of the valuables. All the siblings were put in a truck going ahead, along with a trunk. But Sudharshana, the youngest of the siblings, jumped out at the last minute and said she was going to stay with her mother. That decision, taken by a child in an instant, led to her to see so much that no eight-year-old should have to see. And through the years, she kept this lock — that had been on the trunk that went ahead with her siblings — a reminder of their journey through tough times.

The story of Indias Partition is being told one heartbreaking object at a time

This phulkari hangs on the wall of the Partition Museum, Amritsar


In the worst moments of the Partition, families would resort to honour killings of women — with drowning in the well being one very common method. This phulkari belonged to one such woman, who was asked by her family to jump in the well. She was, fortunately, rescued and brought to safety. This phulkari symbolises those acts of humanity that existed even in those challenging times.

Shaving kit

In the months following Independence and the Partition of India, Aporajita Chakravarty's great-grandfather became one of the millions of refugees to migrate to India from East Bengal. His aged mother refused to leave her roots, despite the communal violence and perpetual state of unrest in Dhaka. Chakravarty's great-grandfather couldn't bring much with him; just four pairs of clothes, a dirty tree twig that he used as a toothbrush, the pair of shoes he was wearing, one book and this shaving kit. This kit has been in the Chakravarty family since pre-World War I. In the kit, Chakravarty's great-grandfather made sure to bring along a photograph of his mother — who no one heard from ever again. The photograph was eventually lost and so were parts of the kit. But whatever is left of it, has been passed on for three generations.

The story of Indias Partition is being told one heartbreaking object at a time

This shaving kit is part of the Museum of Objects exhibition


Museum of Objects, an exhibit at ‘Museum of Memories: Remembering Partition’ will be held over 4, 5 and 6 August at the Godrej India Culture Lab, Mumbai.

How do you participate?
1. Send a photograph of your object, its rough dimensions, as well as a short 150-word write-up on the story behind it, along with your name and contact number. Email it to The deadline for participation is 28 July 2017.
2. The team at Godrej India Culture Lab will get in touch with you about how your object will be integrated into the museum and the details regarding delivery and handover.
3. Your object becomes a part of this living exhibit.

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