It was exactly 70 years ago that Shane Ali, an eight-year-old orphan, made his way on foot from Jarahan, Punjab, India, to Kasur, Punjab, Pakistan. He had witnessed the massacre of his entire family during the aftermath of Partition. Now he is settled in the US with his grandchildren.
Till 2010, he had never spoken to anyone about the horrors and tragedies that he had witnessed in 1947. It was only when Guneeta Singh Bhalla, director and founder of The 1947 Partition Archive, approached him that he shared his memories of the historic event that changed the lives of millions in the subcontinent. “My intention was to gather and share stories about the event before they are lost to posterity,” says Bhalla.
She has organised a month-long commemorative project in Delhi, which includes “Remembering Partition”, a three-part exhibition — “Memory Through the Ages” (Bikaner House), “Women During the Partition” (India Habitat Centre) and “Unheard Stories” (India International Center) — a film festival on Independence and Partition, and corresponding panel discussions.
An army kid, Bhalla moved to California when she was 10. Growing up, Partition was always something like an elephant in the room that no one talked about. “My paternal grandmother had made the journey from Lahore with my father, who was an infant then. But no one ever talked about it,” says Bhalla, adding, “I always felt that there was a huge difference between what was in our textbooks and what really happened back then, but sadly there were no stories or records of oral histories that were available.”
It all changed with a chance visit to Japan in 2008, where Bhalla visited Hiroshima and the Peace Memorial. “I felt that we had never acknowledged Partition as the rest of the world had acknowledged other tragedies — like the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, or how the Holocaust was commemorated with museums, memorials, literature and so on,” says Bhalla.
A physicist by profession, Bhalla then started recording stories of people settled in the Bay Area of San Francisco by visiting temples and mosques. She soon started visiting India to record stories of people who had migrated across the subcontinent during Partition. Over a span of seven years, she has built an archive that has more than 4,300 oral stories in 22 languages and 30,000 digital documents and photographs collected from 12 countries.
It is to bring those stories to the mainstream that she thought of this month-long project. “We have organised panel discussions earlier but we wanted to do something big to mark 70 years of Independent India. We wanted different facets of Partition to be manifested with the three exhibitions.
The show ‘Women During the Partition’ that concluded recently brought to light the special role played by women and how they survived this very violent mass displacement. ‘Unheard Stories’, which begins on August 26, highlights how Partition affected not just the region of Punjab and Bengal, but also the economy, and impacted even the Northeast,” informs Bhalla.
The ongoing exhibition “Memory Through the Ages”, brings together the shared legacies of the two nations through a multimedia exhibition, with stories from The 1947 Partition Archive, and interviews with well-known personalities such as author Khushwant Singh, Olympic athlete Milkha Singh and artist Salima Hashmi, among others. There is also an exhibition titled “Khadi: The Fabric of Freedom”, curated by Prasad Bidappa. Bhalla, meanwhile, hopes to record at least 10,000 stories. “We wish to reach as many people as possible,” she says.
The exhibition “Memory Through the Ages” is on at Bikaner House till August 24; “Unheard Stories” will be on display at IIC from August 26 to September 8