When the British Empire finally deserted the region once known as the Indian Sub-Continent, the populace was left with a rich, broken mass of edifices, stories, ideas, and identities, some of which are, to this day, contested, bickered over bitterly but in the guise of diplomatic tête-à-têtes.
I came across an article, recently, on the Jinnah House in Mumbai – a once-magnificent estate, spread on 2.5 acres of land, which now lies derelict, passively awaiting judgement on its fate and future; the mansion intimately associated with Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s personal and political coming-of-age has itself entered a zone of purgatorial agelessness.
A small apartment in a historic vicinity of Lahore stands similarly divorced from its own past. The home and workspace of Amrita Sher-Gil at the time of her premature passing – 23 Ganga Ram Mansion – is now just one among many tenements in a city fast devouring its own monuments.
These spaces are stories without endings, narratives that offer no closure. Their tellers and authors dashed off, leaving their unresolved arcs to be jumbled into a mess that also included mutated maps and distorted names, derived from a culture the people did not know and a love (for a monarch, an island, a history) they did not feel.
In an introductory essay for the catalogue accompanying ‘Lines of Control – Partition as a Productive Space’ (organised by Green Cardamom and held, in 2012, at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University), Iftikahr Dadi comments on the recent revival of interest by a younger cohort of South Asian artists in the partition of the Indian Sub-Continent –
‘Contemporary practice by a growing number of South Asian artists—most of whom did not experience firsthand 1947 (or the 1971 formation of Bangladesh)—is now beginning to grapple with the latent complexity of Partition’s effects, which extends from grand nationalist, geopolitical, and identitarian agendas into the most personal and intimate aspects of the self.’
He goes on to explain the ‘Partition experience’ – the problematic aftermath of the event that continues to manifest itself in indeterminate forms –
‘The resurgence of artistic engagement undoubtedly has something to do with the resonance of what theorist and film scholar Bhaskar Sarkar has identified as the “Partition experience” on the psyche. This experience is not to be conflated with simply witnessing or experiencing events firsthand; rather, it has a “spectral or negative presence,” and a “temporality all its own, one that runs alongside and yet is out of sync with the present.” Sarkar further notes that this structure of experience is “marked by deferral, gaps, and uncertainties, providing no guarantee of the eventual assimilation of the experience within a coherent history, or of therapeutic closure.” The experience, then, is not only individual, or belonging only to those who witnessed it directly, but extends its effects collectively to society in strange ways and works insidiously across generations.’
But as problematic as these far-reaching and at times indiscernible effects of the partition is what Shashi Tharoor, author of ‘Inglorious Empire’, calls Britain’s ‘historical amnesia’. The history of the British Empire that is taught and perpetuated in Britain is a grossly selective one. So perhaps one of the greatest injustices done to the colonised was their erasure from subsequent British historical writing.
Auteur Christopher Nolan was recently reproached by certain critics for the complete absence of Indian soldiers in his depiction of the events that occurred at Dunkirk during World War II. South Asian militiamen (at least two and a half million fought for Britain in the war) are done away with in this epic portrayal of the evacuation of stranded Allied troops. It is as if they did not exist. Bringing attention to this, argues writer Sunny Singh, ‘is also important because, more than history books and school lessons, popular culture shapes and informs our imagination not only of the past, but of our present and future.’
Yasmin Khan, the author of ‘Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War’, also reflects on this ‘amnesia’, in the context of Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ –
‘Yet Britain’s fixation with the war doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the subject. The focus on Britain “standing alone” sometimes risks diminishing how the war brought pain in many places, right across the globe. The war, especially when viewed from the East, was about two empires locking horns rather than a nation taking on fascism. Above all, the narrative of a plucky island nation beating back the Germans omits the imperial dimension of the war. Many people living in the colonies were caught up in a vicious conflict beyond their control.’
Our art has been a long, undulating trek to a point where we can consciously separate colonial influences from ourselves, never forgetting, however, that our unwanted gemination with them is now a fact; it is history and cannot be refuted. And some of our most imperative works now look at this enforced coupling and look at it unflinchingly, not dismissing the unsavoury portions.
Bani Abidi’s ‘Memorial to Lost Words’, a sound installation for the Edinburgh Art Festival, 2016, is one such achievement. There is the occasional Pakistani or Indian family from amongst whose members a young man went to fight for the British army in one of the World Wars and never came back. Not much else is known about him; he becomes a point of suspension in a text, a clouded memory in the larger smear of chaos surrounding the Partition.
Abidi, by excavating forgotten letters written home by the forgotten Indian soldiers, and resurrecting the folk songs sung by the women they kept waiting, reclaims their stories, commemorates them in a manner most fitting to the loss, sadness, and longing at the heart of their stories, and – in doing so – begins to recompense for the obliteration of crucial chapters from South Asian history at the hands of mainstream retellings.
Imran Channa’s ‘Eraser on paper/Error series’ works in a similar vein to explore the relation between the partition and the common man/woman. Channa uses archival photographs of the mass displacement caused by the partition to make sensitive, detailed drawings, which he then erases methodically. Ultimately, only the subtlest, dimmest traces of the drawings remain. The process is the work – the artist engages physically with his collective past; he reconstructs it, with the help of photographs that provide him with but a remote experience of the event, only to deconstruct it and relinquish authorship over it just as he has attempted to regain it.
A recent body of work by Naila Mahmood seeks also to examine the numerous inconspicuous ways in which the Raj affected the general, Indian populace. Part of Mahmood’s comprehensive research for her solo project, titled ‘Scattered Leaves’, consisted of photographs of cookbooks and domestic-conduct manuals from early 20th-century India. Shared under a section of the show titled ‘Malka Moazzama Ka Pyara Shoorba: Queen Victoria’s Favourite Soup’, these fascinating volumes – their whimsicality not withstanding – carry undercurrents of a kind of tragedy: they illustrate a people with a vivid, golden history of their own being swept up into a tide of steely British-ness. Mahmood explains the circumstances of these books’ popularity in the publication supplementing the show –
‘Although in these books the recipes and rituals are by and large ethnic and regional, they also draw from the foods, recipes, and culinary etiquettes of the colonial ruling classes. There are sections in recipe books devoted to maghrabi khanay (western foods), angraizoon kay khanoon kay waqt aur naam (names and hours of British dining), inn bartanon kay naam jin mein khana khaya jaata hai (names of the crockery in which [English] food is eaten)…and table sajaanay ka tareeqa (how to lay the table) – a shift from the traditional dastarkhwan spread on the floor.’
Mahmood’s research is paramount, for it locates the sites of impressionability and transformation not on streets and in stately offices but inside homes, in verandas and kitchens and bedrooms where the young were being raised –
‘Through these pages, we can see the construction of new, eclectic culinary traditions and cuisines that tacitly emulate and imply the supremacy of the colonial ruling classes. The cookbooks and household guides of this era, besides being manuals of household management and culinary skills, can also be seen as vehicles for perpetuating the values and lifestyles of the British raj amongst the aspiring middle classes.’
In Shahzia Sikander’s video animation ‘The Last Post’, the magisterial figure of an East India Company representative transcends individuality and specificity and turns into a portent, a symbol of power and dominion, ushering in an epoch that would eventually end in dismemberment. His is an ominous presence, suspended with a kind of merciless aplomb against a swirling, stormy sky.
After seeing decades of dominance of an artistic expression that assimilated modern, Western vocabulary and traditional, South Asian elements, the art of South Asia – at seventy – is finally getting self-aware and brave enough to reach out for, and touch, an old, old wound. In this, perhaps, lies a much-belated catharsis.