More Than 75 Years Later, Partition’s Painful Legacy Persists for Artists

Since its independence in 1947, India’s blank canvas has dramatically transformed in color, size, and texture as a result of a checkered, often violent, and constantly evolving post-colonial history.

When England decided to let go of its crown jewel 75 years ago, its rushed departure resulted in the unceremonious division of its Indian territories into three parts, with the Hindu-majority mainland becoming India, flanked by two Muslim-majority regions which became West and East Pakistan. The two ends of Pakistan were further partitioned in 1971, leading to the birth of Bangladesh in the East.

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Lines drawn on maps decided the fate of millions and caused untold death and destruction. A region known for centuries of peaceful communion despite differing religious beliefs, cultures, foods, dress, languages, and rulers, was suddenly and arbitrarily torn asunder overnight.

In the wake of these violent acts, artists from the region drew, painted, designed, embroidered, and creatively reimagined their homeland’s numerous configurations for posterity.

Three-quarters of a century on, this has resulted in a rich legacy of work that can be loosely classified as “Partition art,” a tendency that captures both the negative and positive aspects of life after the traumatic events of 1947.

On the one hand, artists have focused on the discomfort of migration, the anxiety of displacement, the emotional scars caused by exposure to abject violence, hatred and fear, and the subjugation of women and other social minorities in propagation of false notions of honor. On the other, artists have also shown how invisible similarities between various communities exceed geographical divisions, exploring the deep and unfettered ties to the land of one’s ancestors and relationships that endure beyond religious splits.

At first, the mantle of documenting this phase of history lay with those who experienced Partition firsthand. Many could not bear to speak of it, but some captured what they witnessed in detail.

On fragile scraps of paper, Sardari Lal Parasher sketched the despair evident on scores of refugees he supervised in a transit camp in 1947. Satish Gujral caught the angst of survival in a haunting 1959 self-portrait where his sharp-featured visage, replete with furrowed brow, peeks out from a shroud-like garment, behind a skeletal figure. Pran Nath Mago sensitively painted the anguish of veiled women mourning a deep loss in Mourners (1950). Krishen Khanna showed the mental and physical despondency of sudden displacement from one’s home, through his painting titled Exodus (2007), where a tonga (horse-drawn cart) carries his family and all they hold dear, over “difficult and uncertain terrain,” as he once described it.

While those artists worked in a figural mode, others after them would take up Partition using the language of abstraction. S.H. Raza returned to the wound in his “Zamin” (Land) series from the 1970s, in which he painted in angry swathes of reds, browns, and yellows. Even without any figures present, these paintings manage to evoke an open wound. It’s a mode not entirely dissimilar from what appears in Zarina’s Dividing Line (2001), which denotes a contested border and a festering gash in equal measure.

A related wound appears to have barely scarred over in Jogen Chowdhury’s 2017 painting Partition 1947, in which a shaky line recalling the border drawn between East Pakistan and Bengal strikes a writhing body. Chowdhury is among the many artists who lived through Partition and has since returned to it in his art. His family moved from East Pakistan to Bengal, and in this painting, he alluded to the economic hardship faced by Bengalis forced to make their lives from scratch in West Bengal.

A thinly painted image of people floating amid abstract skies in a triptych. On the right hand side, a person stands above a kneeling woman. In the distance, there is a rural town.
A work from Nilima Sheikh’s “Questions of Martyrdom” series.
Courtesy the artist and Chemould Prescott Road

Artist Nilima Sheikh effectively drew on Urvashi Butalia’s oral history collection of survivor stories published in the late 1990s for her paintings titled Questions of Martyrdom 1 and 2 and Panghat Stories in the early 2000s. Here, Sheikh portrays startling images such as the well in the village of Thoa Khalsa that became a burial pit for hundreds of Sikh women and children who chose death over dishonor, as well as the decapitation of a girl by her father for similar reasons. “Urvashi questions whether this decision to be sacrificed was taken by the women themselves or forced on them in the guise of ‘honor’ of the family? Did the women have a choice?” Sheikh asked while speaking to ARTnews.

There is no doubt that firsthand accounts of Partition offer the richest detail, yet time and distance have the advantage of allowing objectivity. Therefore, in later years, second- and third-generation migrants have determinedly changed the artistic narrative in which Partition is portrayed by widening that lineage’s scope and redefining the messages relayed.

Manisha Gera Baswani conceptualized her cross-border Partition project “Postcards from Home” in 2015, on her second visit to Pakistan. She called on artist friends from both sides of the border to create 47 postcards, one end of which had a photograph of the artist taken by Baswani for another ongoing decades-long project “Artist Through the Lens,” and the other end recounted a story related to the partition. This also inspired her to create a series of works on paper that had pins driven through them, as well as a grouping of embroidered works, to highlight aspects of pain and healing.

Baswani said, “I often wonder what prompted me to create these huge projects on Partition, when I had never explored the subject earlier. Then I realized it’s always been part of my DNA, and it was just a matter of time. Whenever I have visited Lahore, I have felt a strong connection. Everything that was in my heart about separation has found its way into my work.”

A postcard that reads, in typewritten font, 'Making maps was a natural consequence for the life of a traveller. When maps were not available, I would draw my own from the books at the library. Maps became a necessity to chart my route and find my destination. Studying maps, I became aware of borders. The first border I drew was the border between India and Pakistan, the dividing line that split families, homes and the fabric of life of millions of people. I have often been questioned about the map I used to draw the border. Perhaps I distributed territory in correctly. I didn't have to look at the map; that line is drawn on my heart. I have crossed many borders, they affect people who have lived the separation. I continue to work with geographical maps and not just maps that had person significance but also maps of regions played by ethnic conflicts.'
Zarina’s contribution to Manisha Gera Baswani’s “Postcards from Home” project.
Courtesy Manisha Gera Baswani

Complementing this narrative of shared histories is Arpana Caur’s body of work, which is steeped in the visual imagery of destruction yet shows the power of love and hope in transcending divisions. In a painting titled The Great Divide (1997), she depicts two Indian freedom fighters, Bhagat Singh and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who seem to merge as one despite their diametrically opposed political views (the former advocated strong means to assert one’s message, while the latter ascribed to a policy of non-violence). They are flanked by the blood-soaked Partition trains of Caur’s childhood dreams. Lions rendered in the folk art style of Godna appear in the foreground, alluding to the strong character of the Singhs, who are members of the Sikh community to which Caur belongs. They were arguably some of the worst affected by the Partition in North India.

“Amid the culture, language, songs, and love stories that we share, one wonders: where does Partition figure?” Caur asked. “A line on paper that an Englishman drew erupts like a bleeding wound from time to time as some people want to keep the embers burning so that more pressing questions of hunger and poverty are pushed to the background.”

One of Caur’s most moving depictions of 1947, however, is of her own grandfather trudging on foot to Delhi from his native Lahore, surrounded by the same Godna lions. On his head, he carries the holy book of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, with the stark imagery calling to mind the loss of everything he couldn’t carry with him.

A drawing of a pair of lungs beside handwritten text.
Seema Kohli’s ongoing series “Project Home: The Word for World is Home” (2019– ) feature drawings based on ones in her grandfather’s book of Greek medicine, a means of preserving knowledge.
Courtesy the artist

In her ongoing series “Project Home: The Word for the World is Home,” begun in 2019, Seema Kohli also presents her family’s pre-Partition story. Inspired by her father Krishnan Dev Kohli’s autobiography, Mitr Pyaare Nu (To My Friends and Loved Ones), she put together a series that included a narrative performance, photographs, books on traditional medicine, and a sound installation extracted from songs sung by her aunts and father, along with ambient sound in Tamas (Inertia), a famed TV series about Partition from 1988. These pay ode to the memory of her father’s hometown, Pind Dadan Khan, and the medicinal knowledge which was lovingly preserved and practiced in her family of hereditary hakims (traditional doctors) for generations.

“The idea of expressing my family’s history possessed me,” Kohli explained. “At first, it was about sharing my inheritance with the rest of the family but as the social order of things were changing, it became about sharing the role my family played in the creation of a new nation—India.”

The preservation of the historic legacy of this period is a concept that resonates with young artists as well. The US-based Pritika Chowdhury’s series of “Anti-Memorial Projects” focus on feminist historiographies. Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra, both from India, find solace in documenting the plight of traditional akharas (wrestling grounds) and poor farmers in Punjab—groups that were affected by the Partition and continue to be slighted by people in power.

Bangladeshi artist Sarker Protick’s nationwide projects—the first called Crossing captures the industrial ruins of the railway network built under the British regime and their lost glory, and the second, Jirno (Ruins), documents abandoned houses which belonged to wealthy landowning Hindus who moved after Partition—aim to preserve a history that has been largely ignored since the birth of Bangladesh.

Protick said, “With the passage of time, I can stand at a distance and look at the subject objectively, instead of feeling overwhelmed by the architecture or its sense of space.”

A black-and-white photograph of a brick tower amid a hazy paddy.
A work from Sarker Protick’s “Jirno” series, which documents abandoned houses which belonged to wealthy landowning Hindus who moved after Partition.
©Sarker Protick

Sudipta Das’s family moved from Sylhet in present day Bangladesh to Assam in India, where the artist is now based. She compares the displacement her ancestors faced after leaving their cherished homeland to her personal experience of escaping the floods of the Brahmaputra River every year. Referring to her Korean dakjee doll installations which illustrate this movement, she says, “My work brings out my struggle—the loneliness and insecurities of migration.”

Encouraging interest on the subject in children is another consideration that drives Partition art. The ReReeti Foundation, an organization from Bengaluru that works to make museums accessible to everyone, has launched the Retihas project to educate students through a number of interactive modules. In one of these, users navigate animated storylines of people who experienced Partition, to reach a number of possible endings, both tragic and hopeful. The animation recreates exacting details of dress, food, and cultural traits to bring that time of history to life. 

From being a cataclysmic event that evaded serious documentation for many years to becoming a fixture in popular culture: when it comes to art, Partition’s legacy has changed many times, and will likely continue to do so as time goes on.

Pakistani artist and activist Salima Hashmi said of the continued attraction of the subject, “The issue of Partition keeps re-emerging with the third and fourth generation today. Even though they don’t have those immediate memories, they do carry the stories that were handed down to them.”

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