It’s early evening at the India Habitat Centre (IHC) and the art galleries look like illuminated panels in the darkness. Somewhere in the silence, a man begins to talk. Follow the voice past the totem pole, the fountains, the palms and the potted greenery until, at the intersection of paths leading to the auditoriums and the restaurants, one comes to a brightly lit, white tent with golden tassles.
This could be a wistful wedding shamiana but for the film that plays on its walls. In it, Amrik Singh recalls the days of Partition. As he moves back and forth in time, the 75-year-old admits that his memories have become hazy. He was a boy of eight or nine in August 1947, when his Punjabi-Afghani family moved out of Peshawar to start afresh in Shimla. Singh’s story of the loss of home and identity makes up a video art installation titled Five Rivers: A Portrait of Partition, which premiered at IHC on Saturday, and will be on view till Friday.
Through this project, Brooklyn-based Sheba Remy Kharbanda and William Charles “Chuck” Moss attempt to understand the complexities of the word “home”, and paint a picture of the disorienting aftermath of Partition. “It was a course of circumstances. With five children, they had to start a new life. My father was capable of doing anything, like a Pathan,” says Singh, in the film. As he talks about the family’s constant sense of unbelonging and their new grocery business, a close-up of Singh’s face plays in the central panel of the tent. Around him, images of cramped Shimla hillsides, trays of vegetable, and mountains expand and recede. The film is for 33 minutes and plays on loop, from 5.30 pm to 8.30 pm.
“We tried to retrace his steps, go back to the places our family had taken shelter at, but those places are all gone today. We visited my mother’s old haveli in Ludhiana, and in its place stood a modern commercial building. In London, we still have structures that existed long ago but, here in India, so much is changing and so quickly. These are not just memories that my father alone has, but it’s a past which so many others have shared with him,” says Kharbanda, Singh’s daughter, a human rights’ researcher and storyteller, whose art has often featured stories of Partition and migration. Some of the footage of “Five Rivers” was shot in Moss’s hometown in Georgia.
Four videos run concurrently in the 17 ft wide muslin tent in a concept borrowed from theatre in which light is cast on a cloth backdrop called cyclorama. “My father remembers that when he came to the refugee camp in Patiala, all he saw were tents and tents and tents. I had seen the work of an Afghan-American artist who worked with tents and found it a powerful experience. I began to research online and finally found a tent by a manufacturer in Jodhpur,” says Kharbanda. Moss, a cinematographer and documentary filmmaker, adds that the tent “is perfect from the practical side as it has flat panels and lends itself to projections”.
The artist duo — married to each other — have made “Five Rivers” an immersive experience. Members of the audience sit on chairs, walk inside the tent and surround themselves with images or look on from outside, throwing their silhouettes over clips of Lord Mountbatten and a border outpost with a signboard that reads: “Absolutely forbidden to cross this border into Afghan territory”.
Besides sepia-tinted photographs and a dash of Punjabi and Urdu poetry, the film uses water as a leitmotif. Ripples fill the tent periodically, raindrops fall on water-filled ground and water churns into white foam as rivers travel over stones and rocks. “Water speaks of movement, feeling and flow. Punjab, in Persian, means five rivers and we wanted the film to be meditative, like a memory unfolding,” says Kharbanda.
The video installation is on display till November 21 at India Habitat Centre, 5:30 pm to 8 pm