Sonam Kalra is a friend who goes back to some of my earliest childhood memories. I remember how our grandfathers would take us swimming and, afterwards, order cheese sandwiches and potato chips for us. Together, we led the morning assembly with songs of national unity at Modern School, in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, for more years than either of us would care to count. We were out of touch for years once we began our adult lives, save a meeting here or there that would last only a few minutes but that would bring out our love and admiration for each other and give us a quick moment to catch up. Three decades later, we have both gotten to the place professionally where we have found our calling and where leaving a legacy behind is what drives our engines.
Last weekend, in a sold-out performance at Stein Auditorium at India Habitat Centre, Sonam shared the depths of her empathetic humanity. The notes she touched, the emotions she bared, the poetry she composed into song, and the people she gave voice to through the provocative cinematic storytelling behind her on stage, brought alive the struggle and pain of Partition, the vexing realities that have haunted the survivors, and the heartache that breaks many lives of those on either side of the toxic border that divides India and Pakistan.
The springboard for this multi-disciplinary experiential performance by Sonam was the heart-stirring, gut-churning words by Ustad Daman. In Akhiyaan di laali dasdi hai roye assi vi roye tussi vi (the redness in your eyes shows that you have cried and so have we), Daman gives voice to that wrenching emotion which my grandparents and many of their generation felt and lived a lifetime trying to make peace with. The narration in between Sonam’s singing and the visual installation designed by Gopika Chowfla is called the Bleeding Line. It shows a trunk and suitcases on the stage with a long piece of fabric, symbolising the river of blood, coming out of them, dividing the audience into two.
Sonam’s choice of songs shows, through the power of reflective poetry, the large-heartedness of those who have suffered from Partition. From Amrita Pritam’s erudite poetic work to the Punjabi Bidaayi badhayi madhaniya and a poem written by her for this performance, Sonam ensures we are glued to the stage every second. Painful memories, inspiring utterances from those who have lost and were broken beyond belief, hopeful messages from survivors and their families, and messages from everyday people of our times who cannot wait to meet their neighbours on the other side — these words, the emotions they come loaded with, the honest suffering they give life to, the candour with which they are shared, the hope they pack despite the ugliness they bare — it is this that makes Sonam Kalra a messenger of peace while also charming all with the sonorous heft and depth of her musical prowess.
“Partition: Stories of Separation” is clearly a passion project for the musical diva that is Sonam Kalra. “Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve heard stories about the Partition. Both sides of my family came from the part of Punjab that is now in Pakistan. My mother’s family was from Rawalpindi and my father’s from Sargoda. Even though I didn’t have to live through the pain of Partition myself, I have always been moved to tears when talking about it with someone. I’ve often wondered why I should feel so deeply about it — perhaps it lies embedded in the memory of my DNA. And, perhaps, it is this pain that has led me to question this further,” she says. Luckily for us, Sonam’s familial connection to the Partition of India and the pain that has kept its legacy alive for her has gifted us as a nation this rich musical theatre to appreciate, reflect upon, and draw from to find hope that can better our shared tomorrows.
Terrific performer, soulful human and strong vocalist, Sonam takes us deep into our common, very Indian subcontinental roots and shared humanity and suffering. On this day that marks the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence, I find myself most grateful to Sonam for giving us fresh tutelage on the horrors of Partition. The absurdity of how a people who coexisted for millennia attacked each other in a most horrific outbreak of violent sectarianism, whose ripples are being felt seven decades and more later, ought to give us reason to rise above the comforting calls of partisan politics and jingoistic leadership, no matter what country we see it in or what religion those leaders represent. This is no time to allow sectarianism, neo-nationalism, and woke liberalism to take us to dark places where hate breeds fascist outcomes and civil unrest.
In the people of India and Pakistan, I see the relationship shared by siblings. A love that comes with woeful hate, a healthy competition, a joyous pride and unmatched sorrow, a rare camaraderie and unparalleled tension, stoic support and uncompassionate betrayal. It is the tale of two countries and one people. A people with a shared geography; common shape and form; many similar traditions, languages and dialects; and dreams, hopes and aspirations that mirror the ones of those on the other side of the border. Just as siblings, the people of both nations have witnessed the same history. They have trailed each other over the arcs of their entire existence. We smile and cry, laugh and giggle, gossip and marry, celebrate and cherish in the same way, with similar words and with identical feelings. On paper, our religious makeup is what separates us, but it is there and only there where one sees any difference.
To keep India and Pakistan from combusting within their own borders, both the nations and their citizenry must never allow any political party or leader or people of faith to use religion to incite our animalistic tendencies that turn us into demons with nary a care for decency or humanity. Independence came at a very ugly, horrific price.
The only upshot this price can have is a future where the two nations and their one people find a way to cohabit despite the border drawn in 1947 and find love for the siblings living on the other side. Men and women of another country but with whom we share a history dating back millennia and with whom we still have many shared triumphs to celebrate and many more movies, books, and songs to cherish. It is our love for one another that has helped Sonam and I to keep our friendship alive despite being three decades in two faraway geographies. And with her singing haunting my mind and soul, I hope to keep Partition’s exemplum alive in my head as a parable of the deeply held values of unity in diversity that India has always celebrated.