Rashmi Kaleka’s family was one of the countless many which came to India from Pakistan during Partition in 1947 but never really forgot what once was home. The sound installation artist grew up on stories about Pakistan and the house her parents, aunts and uncles lived in in Lahore. One of the stories, narrated to her in Punjabi by her father, involves a simple mesh door and the desire to bring a piece of home to India.
While the violence of 1947 raged around them, Kaleka’s uncle, accompanied by two Gurkhas and armed with a screwdriver, made his way back to Lahore from Jalandhar to retrieve the door from his home. “No one remembers how he got back,” said Rashmi Kaleka. “But he built a house in Shahdara, Delhi, and fitted his door in it. It is a long time ago but Dad believes the ordinary, simple mesh door must still be keeping the flies out.”
Kaleka’s story, printed on a postcard with her photograph on the other side, is one among the 47 stories of Partition that Indian artist Manisha Gera Baswani has collected between January and March. Titled Postcards from Home, Baswani’s storytelling project is a collection of accounts of love and longing among the art communities of the two nations for a national identity forcefully taken away. It was on display at the Lahore Biennale which came to a close on March 31.
The postcards compiled by Baswani contain stories of heartache – for example, the longing for an ancestral home gone forever or the poignance of a couple who found love in India, but built their lives in Pakistan. In the postcard of Dabir Ahmad, the Lahore-based artist’s story of leaving Delhi in September 1947 is related in first-person – “At the time of migration, we shifted to Gurgaon and then Delhi. After which we left for Lahore by train from Nizamuddin Aulia Railway Station along with my family, including my father, Bashir Ahmad, two elder brothers and four sisters. Everybody was in tears except me and my younger sister.”
Growing up listening to stories from her parents, who lived the early years of their lives in what is now Pakistan, Baswani was drawn to similar narratives. “We are all shaped by what we are surrounded by and the nearest connection [are our] parents, so the fact that I grew up on wonderful stories shaped my childhood,” she said. “There was never any bitterness in their stories, which is what I need to always stress upon. Despite the pain, my parents speak about it with love and longing for the home they had. That is where my project subconsciously began.”
Creating an archive
Although a painter by training, Baswani feels an affinity towards the camera. The Gurgaon-based artist has been photographing the Indian art community for almost 16 years. “I’m not a trained photographer, nor do I know the nuances of photography, but I was taking photographs from a space of knowing their work and their artistic practice,” she said. “I would bring out my camera whenever I was with my artist friends in their studios or at an art camp. I did not approach it as a project, but just as something I wanted to do.”
In 2015, she started including Pakistani artists in this ever-expanding photo archive. While in Karachi for an art show of her works, Baswani photographed many Pakistani artists who, upon hearing she was Indian, would tell her fond stories of the time they or their families spent in pre-Partition India.
“It was late last year that the idea of putting together a project which involved artists both from India and Pakistan, all photographed by me over the years, came to me,” she said. “I wanted them to write about their own memories or their parents’ memories of the home they lost.”
In January, Baswani sent out a message to all the artists on her contact list with names that sounded Sindhi or Punjabi, asking them to share their stories of Partition and she was overwhelmed by the responses she received. While some stories are short, others paint a vivid picture of a time before the dividing line was drawn, splitting one nation into two.
Karachi artist Saba Iqbal’s story is the perfect example of how friendships can endure despite boundaries. In her postcard, Iqbal writes about the time her grandfather, Major Ibn e Hassan Sharique, was united with an old college friend from his years in Delhi’s St Stephen’s College: “He [my grandfather] had joined the army in the education corps and was posted in Malir cantonment in Karachi. One evening he was sipping his tea in the lawn when a gleaming car with an Indian flag came into his driveway. He could not believe that it was his dear friend Roop Chand from St Stephen’s College, Delhi. Mr Chand was now the Indian ambassador to Pakistan. The next day, my grandfather was summoned to the headquarters for an explanation as to why an Indian national and that too the ambassador, was allowed into the cantonment area? He would have had to bear serious consequences had Brigadier Pinto, a British senior in command, not stepped in to save him. The brigadier stood his ground that no partition line can stop two old best friends from meeting each other.”
Postcards from Home is among several projects that have been collecting stories from Partition to build a thriving archive of the shared history of two nations forever at odds with each other. Others include the 1947 Partition Archive, the largest repository of partition interviews and Remnants of a Separation authored by Aanchal Malhotra, which revisits the tumultuous event through personal objects, such as jewellery, photographs and utensils, carried across the borders.
“One of the big things I learnt during my work was that people don’t know what the other side is about and the sense of similarity that we might have can only be showcased through conversation,” said Malhotra, according to whom Baswani is in a place of privilege as an artist with access to art communities from both countries, which makes her project unique. “Lots of people are doing isolated work on the subject in either India or Pakistan and it is difficult to penetrate that border. In her [Baswani’s] project, she has proven that cross-border communication within the creative community is easy because they are inherently thinking on the same wavelength and many of them have used history to inspire their own art. It starts a larger conversation for sure and the project has so much potential in that cross-border conversations are boundless.”
Baswani’s aim is to grow Postcards from Home by gathering more testimonies. “There are so many stories that need to be told,” she said. “I kept it to 47 artists keeping in mind the year of Partition, but it is possible to expand the project as I am getting to know more artists from both sides of the border who have a shared history.”