Partition Museum: How Delhi experienced the tragedy : The Tribune India

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Partition Museum: How Delhi experienced the tragedy

Partition Museum: How Delhi experienced the tragedy

Margaret Bourke-White's photo of the Purana Qila camp aimed at showing the “misery of the dispossessed” through this Muslim boy; (inset) a recreation of the bogey of a train, one of the prime means of transport for refugees coming to India. tribune photos: manas ranjan bhui

Sarika Sharma

Kashmiri sculptor Veer Munshi’s papier-mâché horse laden with the weight of Partition lends a peek into what the Partition Museum in Delhi would offer. Skeletons and bare bones seem to tell countless tales of migration across the border, of the physical loss of leaving home, but deeper anguish inside: bleeding hearts, shattered souls, forever-scarred psyches. This, along with Fallen House, another of Munshi’s stark visual of displacement, sets the tone for the soon-to-open museum.

People’s Museum

Those who drew the map didn’t suffer in this division of a nation. It is the common people who suffered, leaving their homes with bare minimum stuff. And today they have shared both their stories and material memories with us.

Kishwar Desai | Director, TAACHT

If Amritsar’s Partition Museum, the first-of-its-kind in India, was inaugurated in 2017 to mark the 70th anniversary of Partition, Delhi is all set to get its own museum on May 18. Housed at the Dara Shukoh Library, a 17th century monument constructed by the eldest son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the museum commemorates the 75th anniversary of one of history’s greatest exoduses. The library, a part of Ambedkar University’s Kashmere Gate campus, has been adopted by the NGO, The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust (TAACHT), under the Government of India’s ‘Adopt a heritage’ scheme. The restoration of the building that had been lying in disuse for decades was done by the Delhi Government.

The Dara Shukoh Library is a fusion of Mughal and British architecture

With thousands of people from Punjab, Sindh and the North-West Frontier Province seeking refuge in the city, Delhi’s landscape changed dramatically post-Partition. This catapulted the population from 9 lakh in 1947 to 17.4 lakh, nearly double, in the 1951 census. At the same time, close to 3.3 lakh Muslims are said to have left Delhi for Pakistan. It is this monumental moment, which witnessed redrawing of the demographics and the geography of Delhi region with the setting up of the town of Faridabad, that the museum is dedicated to.

A section on rebuilding lives.

Housed in the high-walled library, it is a comprehensive peek into the history of the freedom movement, events leading to Independence, Partition and the rebuilding of homes. The six galleries are compact spaces, richly curated with black and white photographs, newspaper clippings, sculptures, installations, personal articles from the time, audio-visual testimonies and films.

Right at the beginning are Serena Chopra’s large-sized portraits — dramatic and arresting — of Partition survivors. Hailing from an uprooted family, the artist clicked these images for the museum across the last few years; some of these survivors having passed on since. Tragic headlines from the time are displayed. Stories of loot and brutal murders of men, women and children, parents selling children for rice, desperate efforts to maintain peace and order — the media all over the world was reporting the ghastly events, giving a glimpse of the brutality unleashed by an invisible line, the so-called new border. There are numerous images, some easily identifiable with the partition of India, some not so popular. Among them are photographs by James Joseph Puthucheary, an Indian National Army recruit from Kerala. He had enlisted for the Relief Welfare Ambulance in 1947 and worked as an ambulance driver and medical assistant. With a camera in hand, he clicked a lot of images at the Kurukshetra camp. Some hitherto unseen images are gory and the section advises visitors to exercise discretion. Corpses lying abandoned at a railway station, a mass grave with a bulldozer waiting to cover the bodies with mud, bodies lying on carts, pyres burning right in the middle of roads… the photographs shock.

Kashmir-born artist Veer Munshi’s papier-mâché work is a stark reminder of the cost of Partition.

And yet, so many lived to tell the tale. At the museum, these stories are depicted through oral testimonies and objects. Of the few things that the families could bring along, some have survived, serving as constant reminders of the past. These families have generously donated such objects to the museum. Among them is a water pitcher, a phulkari, a wedding invitation (captioned the Last Peaceful Wedding), a sitar…

Desperate attempts to find those who went missing during the tumultuous days followed. There were notice boards in newspapers, including The Tribune, by people looking for missing relatives. A particularly intriguing news appeared in these columns about ‘Refugee Bears’. “Property left behind by the evacuees sometimes creates difficult problems for the authorities. On his failure to sell his two performing bears, a Muslim refugee in the Humanyun’s tomb camp granted them their independence and went away to Pakistan. One of the pair immediately started chasing the inmates of the camp and the other, in an affectionate mood, began embracing the guard on duty and nearly hugged him to death. The camp authorities had to shoot the bears and thus destroy the ‘moving property’ of an evacuee.” The story raises pertinent questions about the non-human costs of Partition, most of which remain unanswered, a plaque beside the news item notes.

A largely ignored section of the refugees was the marginalised communities. Often missing from the popular narrative of despair, they find a section dedicated to their hardships at the Partition Museum. On display is a letter by Ambedkar to Nehru highlighting that the Scheduled Caste refugees were not staying in camps because the officers in charge were discriminating against the SC refugees and others. There is a letter explaining the exploitation of the Scheduled Tribes at the height of refugee displacement from East Pakistan; one brings to light evacuation of Scheduled Caste members from trapped pockets (apparently in Pakistan); another hints at a semblance of normalcy to their lives with the approval of 64 plots in Harijan Colony, Kalkaji.

Slowly, people picked up the pieces — looking for land, home and education, first at the camps spread across Delhi and then at the new refugee colonies, such as Punjabi Bagh, Tilak Nagar and Kingsway Camp, to the entirely new town of Faridabad, which was developed to house refugees from the North-West Frontier Province.

(Top to bottom) Recreating a refugee camp; Re-settling: Settling, an installation by Debasish Mukherjee; a letter box and some postcards for the visitors to write messages on; a section on Bengal Partition (1905).

Kishwar Desai, director of TAACHT, says that while they always wanted to have a Partition Museum in various parts of the country so that people all over the country know what had happened at the time, the Delhi museum came up out of the blue when IAS officer Manisha Saxena, then with the Delhi Government, asked them to build something similar for Delhi where 80 per cent population had been impacted by Partition.

“At the time, we were already running and maintaining the Amritsar Partition Museum and it requires a lot of effort for a small NGO to do everything on its own — from arranging funds to research. To build an entire museum all by ourselves would have been difficult. Saxena then advised that we adopt a building under the Centre’s ‘Adopt a heritage’ scheme, suggesting adaptive reuse for it. That is how we got the library, which was restored by the Delhi government.”

The Amritsar template was followed during research and a lot of the stuff collected during the making of the first came in handy while setting up this museum.

Fueled by people’s hardships, trauma as well as their memories, Desai calls it a people’s museum. “Those who drew the map didn’t suffer in this division of a nation, nor did their families that travelled safe with all their belongings. It is the common people who suffered, leaving their homes with bare minimum stuff. And today they have shared their stories and material memories with us,” she says, adding that the objects also talk of a lost culture and heritage.

Coming up is a gallery on Sindh. Desai says the region has been neglected in the narratives of Partition; this gallery would give a glimpse into its rich and vibrant culture. “It will be visually quite different, with artefacts and remnants of havelis on display,” she says. In the second phase, TAACHT plans to develop in the complex a museum dedicated to Dara Shukoh, the philosopher-king, and another one on the Sufis of Delhi and Punjab.

“Partition is a very important legacy for Delhi as also the rest of India and should not be forgotten, especially for young people because the generation that faced Partition is dying. This is a race against time,” says Desai.

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