Nearly 70 years ago, a border between the newly independent countries of India and Pakistan was drawn, launching what has been described as “one of the greatest migrations in human history”. Over 14 million people were displaced and devastating violence unleashed as families uprooted to align with either Hindu-majority India or Muslim-majority Pakistan. Yet, even today, “no museum exists anywhere in the world to remember and commemorate all those who lost their lives or had to leave their homes behind,” says Mallika Ahluwalia, a trustee at Amritsar’s new Partition Museum.
The museum, which opened this October, was set up by The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust (TAACHT), whose members include Ahluwalia and novelist Kishwar Desai. Situated in the east wing of Amritsar’s 150-year-old Town Hall, the museum is a repository of oral histories, personal belongings, and art that remembers the deep despair and loss of those uprooted during the 1947-48 migration.
Everyday objects on display tell intimate stories. Among the collection are two items that belonged to a betrothed couple who were separated in the mayhem of Partition. The phulkari coat (pictured below) belonged to Pritam Kaur of Gujranwala, and the leather briefcase to Bhagwan Singh Maini of MianwalI; both cities are now in Pakistan. Fortuitously, both found their way to a refugee camp in Amritsar, and spotted each other while standing in a long, winding queue for food. They married in 1948. The coat and briefcase that travelled with them across the border are now reminders of their fraught past.
In the museum, newspaper clippings from 1947 share space with letters from life-long friends who were separated by the border. Visitors can pop on headphones to listen to vivid stories of the Partition recounted by witnesses who are now in their 80s and 90s; in some cases, their stories are narrated by their family. The clips have subtitles in English and Gurmukhi, and tell stories from both sides of the border. The recordings were made by the museum over the last year and a half, in a bid to archive memories that are on the verge of being forgotten, with the passing of the generation that lived through it. The process is ongoing; Ahluwalia said, “We aim for the museum to have as comprehensive an archive of oral histories as possible as it is meant to be a People’s Museum commemorating all those who lost their homes or lives. Many families are coming forward to share their stories.”
The tribulation at refugee camps also finds voice, such as in the paintings of artist Sardari Lal Parasher, who moved to Ambala in Haryana during the Partition, where he became camp commander at the Baldev Nagar Refugee Camp. His sketches capture the misery he was confronted with at the camp, such as the portrait of a grieving man titled Heavy Despair (pictured above).
While the museum documents the strife of the post-Partition period, it also offers a ray of hope. One of its sections is titled the Gallery of Hope, and includes inspiring stories of bravery and hard-won success. One recording tells the tale of the Munjal family who lost everything when they crossed over from Pakistan. But they rebuilt their fortune, starting with a small bicycle business that grew into the reputed motorcycle company Hero Honda.
Visitors can join the conversation at an interactive installation also in this gallery, called the Tree of Hope. With a trunk made out of barbed wire that references the international border, the tree has smooth branches onto which people are encouraged to leave behind notes of how the exhibits impacted them.
More exhibits will be added, and curators say the museum should be ready for full viewing in mid-2017, in time for the 70th anniversary of the Partition. The museum views its collection as a work in progress—they continue to welcome stories and personal artefacts from the public.
The Partition Museum, Town Hall, near Hall Road. Open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10a.m.-5p.m. Entry free. To contribute your tales of the Partition, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details, visit www.partitionmuseum.org.
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.