The Partition saw some gory and horrendous times. Devilish bloodshed saw countless die or render homeless. The Partition Museum in Amritsar offers a chilling glimpse of it
Ajay Bhardwaj in Amritsar
In the recent history, there has been no other incident except the Partition that saw the unbridled gory massacre of humanity and culture on such a large scale as the Partition of India and Pakistan did in 1947.
The humanity lost its face. There was no count of people who lost their lives. There is no account of properties and valuables people on both the sides lost to the looters and marauders.
Most tellingly, nobody has been held accountable for the reckless play of devilry and bloodshed that lasted for more than six months. Families fell apart. Women ran into wells to escape the rapacious eyes of marauders. Lakhs of people ran helter-skelter scurrying for safety.
As if to revisit those gory times recently a museum was set up in Amritsar’s 1870 Town Hall building. An outstanding feature of it is that some of the personal belongings of those who were witness to the horrible times are on display.
The museum has about 500 personal objects, mostly donated by the survivors and their families. A copper vessel donated by SP Rawal from Delhi who was just seven when his family left their home one night, along with that pot and other
belongings. Nearby, there is a radio set that a family listened to, and a bowl, a plate that the migrants clutched on to while migrating to the unknown land.
Revisiting Gory Times
Also on display is a manuscript of a Partition memoir written in Urdu, which never saw the light of the day. There are letters written by refugees at the time of the Partition — most of them to the government, desperately seeking help to find missing nears and dears. One of them is from a father to his son saying with pathos that they might never meet again. There is also an original refugee registration card from 1949 placed in transit relief camp. The central piece of the museum, however, is a chainsaw installation symbolizing how everything was divided into two, and thereafter never remained the same.
These articles, along with testimonies from survivors, have come together to weave a narrative of those tragic days in the aftermath of the Partition, when, it is estimated, close to 18 million people lost their homes and up to two million lost their lives.
The newspaper reports are displayed which speak loud and clear about the turmoil and turbulence of the times carrying pictures of the ravaged houses and bazaars.
The organisers of the museum got in touch with these families individually and also through writers, filmmakers and academics who had worked on the subject of the Partition before.
“We have the statistics but we don’t have the stories. Through this initiative, we aim to build a space where all these personal stories could be collated and recorded for posterity,” said Malika Ahluwalia, CEO of the Partition Museum, in conversation with media persons. Herself a Partition grandchild, who used to hear horror stories of migration from her grandparents, she said “Even the figures we have are indicative only. There was such an unimaginable chaos that not everything could be reported and recorded. So, the effort is also to turn this place into an ultimate repository of information on the Partition.”
There is also a room wherein survivors or their family members can come and record their own
Partition of Fine Arts
The museum poignantly touches on how classical music got a beating in the wake of the Partition. How the Army on the either side had no clue whatsoever how to tide over the crisis. How the currency problem gripped the people and how centuries-old trade link between Lahore and Amritsar was snapped so
Eminent painter Satish Gujaral's paintings depicting various shades of the tragedy are also on display.
Set in five big rooms of the heritage Town Hall building, which used to be a Kotwali police station and also housed municipal offices earlier, the first wing of the museum is an ode to the syncretic culture of the Punjab before Partition. The central installation here is of the five rivers – Sutlej, Beas, Jhelum, Ravi and Chenab – that come together to give the state its nomenclature. Another room is devoted to explaining — Why Amritsar? as most of the refugees crossed over through this holy city. in October 1947 itself half a million refugees crossed over from Pakistan through the Wagah border.
The Wagah border, which is half-way between Amritsar and Lahore, was witness to the migration of sea of humanity to either side . Close to the museum site is the historic Jallianwala Bagh — the site of the 1919 massacre by Gen. Dyre, another reminder of our gory modern history — where one can still see bullet marks on the walls.
The idea of forming a museum crystalised in 2015 when Ahluwalia, along with Kishwar Desai, Dipali Khanna and Bindu Manchanda – all affected by the Partition in some way or the other – came together to form The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust (TAACHT) and set up the
They also have a group of patrons, led by Kuldip Nayar, Lord Meghnad Desai and Prasoon Joshi, with Soni Razdan, Sunaina Anand and Ritu Kumar as trustees. Punjab has announced August 17 to be marked each year as the Partition Remembrance Day, to salute those who overcame their personal losses and helped rebuild a new India.
The Museum was founded by us because of a very stark realisation that we were losing the generation that had witnessed Partition—and that seventy years after the event there was no museum or memorial anywhere in the world to an event that shaped so many millions. Given the age of Partition survivors, we felt it was very important, that in their lifetime, as many of that generation who are with us, can know that their experience has been heard and acknowledged. Therefore, we have felt a sense of urgency to open the Museum as soon as possible.
The Partition Museum has been set up as a People's Museum. Mallika Ahluwalia,CEO,of the museum said, “Our main objective has been to tell the stories of those millions of people who were impacted. We are using people's own voices through oral histories, their personal artefacts, their letters, photographs and documents to tell history. For example, many galleries contain objects that refugees carried with them when they travelled; some items that have been donated to us include a phulkari coat that someone carried because it was their most prized possession, and a water pot that helped a family gather water during their time at a camp. Each of these objects tells the experience of the family more poignantly and fully than any history textbook ever could.
It also means we are trying as urgently as possible to reach out to remaining Partition survivors, so we can also include their stories in the Museum.
The Museum uses multiple different mediums to create a world-class engaging experience for the visitor. This includes oral histories playing on video, a soundscape in each gallery, original artefacts donated by refugees, newspapers and magazines, photographs showing the migration and camps, letters written by refugees, government documents, and especially created art installations.
The purpose of it is to
educate people on the collateral loss in the aftermath of a tragedy that was not inevitable. It is also about looking ahead with hope. The last gallery is called the Gallery of Hope which highlights how families rebuilt their lives despite everything they experienced, saw and lost.
A homage to this resilience of the human spirit ! n