Last week marked 76 years of independence from two centuries of British rule for Pakistan and India, but much of the world’s population has not been educated on the details of the Indian Partition, which resulted in one of the largest documented mass migrations in human history. On August 14 and 15, 1947, the two nations were formed from one swath of the formerly controlled British India, and millions of people found themselves on the wrong side of the haphazardly drawn Radcliffe Line that delineated Muslim-majority East and West Pakistan from Hindu-majority India by cutting through the provinces of Punjab and Bengal.
The Radcliffe Line wasn’t the sole impetus that brought upon the religious violence that ensued upon independence, but rather the boiling point after years of faith-based politicism enforced the idea that Hindus and Muslims were irreconcilably different — a notion that was stoked by the British to their colonial advantage. Both chaos and carnage ensued when between 10 and 20 million people sought safety across the new borders from the religious riots that claimed approximately two million lives, yielding inconceivable traumas that have been inherited across three generations and dispersed throughout the South Asian diaspora.
Healing from the Partition and its wake becomes more and more difficult as time moves forward, because the divisions that initiated the migration have left vengeful scars on the social and political frameworks of both nations and few are left from the affected generation to share their stories. Many descendants of the Partition generation also find that our family members are reluctant to speak on their lived experiences, an additional barrier to processing and building upwards. Thankfully, there are artists who are sifting through what was left behind, what was burned away, and what was buried both physically and emotionally to facilitate our track toward healing and regaining our sense of self in an uncharted era of displacement and diaspora.
Based in both Mumbai and New York City, Anagh Banerjee has pursued retellings of the Partition through his woodcut printmaking series The Other Side (2017–ongoing). Inspired by Käthe Kollwitz’s woodcuts born from the terrors of World War I and other such outputs of German Expressionism, Banerjee told Hyperallergic that the medium’s “gritty mark-making quality” lends itself to the subject of the Partition. The project began with Banerjee’s grandmother, who left her family behind in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh as of 1971) for India without returning for 15 years. Banerjee noted that she recalled her experience of the Partition in a very matter-of-fact tone — “There’s a sense of ‘what’s the point of talking about all of this now?’ that she and others I’ve interviewed for this project express,” he said.
“I don’t think she or anyone else had the space or the time or the bandwidth to really grieve the loss of life, language, culture, and home, and they lack the vocabulary to talk about it because they haven’t ever been asked,” Banerjee continued. “I feel there needs to be a more nuanced way of talking about the individual experiences of this migration beyond the violence. I would like to balance the political narrative with the human story as the Partition generation is in the twilight of their lives.”
Oakland-based artist Rupy C. Tut also examines the Partition and its aftermath through the classical visual language of Indian miniature painting. In acknowledgment of placelessness and loss of identity, Tut translates the poignant, disturbing imagery of Partition-related violence — such as the ghost trains full of slaughtered refugees rendered in the first image — into beautiful compositions that are equal parts ancient and contemporary.
“In the painting, the emptiness of the trains, the void space in the landscape, and the deafening silence of the vacant camps all point to the violent absence of humans and humanity witnessed and existent during and post-partition,” Tut shared in a statement about “The Ghost Trains (of 1947)” (2019). “Mango orchards, ancestral homes, and material wealth left behind by the refugees is shown out of focus and blurry towards the back of the map of undivided Punjab in this work.”
Tut’s paintings are akin to looking in a mirror to be reminded that all of my features are derived from ancestors whose stories I can no longer trace.
For Qinza Najm, a Pakistani-American artist who was born in Lahore, Pakistan, the core of her practice is processing, healing, and resilience. “The ability of people to rebuild and find common ground amidst chaos is a beacon for our times — it’s a reminder that humanity’s strength lies in unity, even in the face of adversity,” Najm told Hyperallergic. “Ultimately, my art acts as a bridge between past and present, cultivating conversations that traverse time and boundaries.”
Najm’s latest assemblage installation does just that by inculcating the contemporary diasporic experience within the narrative of the Partition. Traversing generations of displacement and migration, Najm’s boat was influenced by a 1978 poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz titled “Meray Dil Meray Musafir (My Heart, My Traveler),” taking into account the belongings that journey with us to new places for an old sense of comfort. The artist juxtaposes classic South Asian housewares and containers, belongings from her friends and family, and modern luggage, sentimental objects, and recorded interviews to illustrate the meaning of “a homeland beyond borders.”
Rajyashri Goody, an artist from Pune, India, examines the Partition through the lens of caste. Her latest print work, “Essential Services” (2023), currently on view at Twelve Gates Gallery in Philadelphia, consists of multiple Inkjet ink monotypes of archival written correspondence between post-colonial India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Dalit social reformist and politician Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s social activism and political career were informed by his own experiences hailing from a “Scheduled Caste” — the official denotation of Hinduism’s most socially ostracized and economically disadvantaged castes, now referred to as Dalits. He had written to Nehru with concerns that the Pakistani government was delaying the evacuation of Dalits from East Pakistan to India because their sanitation-based occupations were declared “essential services.” Ambedkar also acknowledged that the refugees of so-called “scheduled castes” who were able to migrate faced discrimination and were denied provisions and services at established refugee camps.
Goody’s platforming of Dalit activism and caste discrimination awareness, especially in the face of mass migration, forces us to consider the implicit biases about who is and isn’t afforded humanity, belonging, and the opportunity to survive at the hands of authoritative structures.
Based in Chicago, Indian artist Pritika Chowdhry has been examining the marginalized and underrepresented experiences of the Partition since 2007 through her ongoing Partition Anti-Memorial Project, the second iteration of which is currently on view at the Art Center Highland Park in Illinois. Oriented in research and education, Chowdhry’s multi-faceted endeavor in reframing the Partition-related historical canons addresses the web of complexities including but not limited to the uptick in sexual violence against migrant women, the physical act of migration amid chaos and disorder, the loss of language under colonial rule, and the role of architecture and monuments in memorializing mass migration and acts of violence. Both scholarly and symbolic, Chowdhry’s ongoing portrayal of counter-memories has been critical in informing the mechanics, the power dynamics, the intrinsic privileges or disadvantages, and the secondary impacts of colonialism and the Partition.
All four of my grandparents who migrated across the Radcliffe Line have long passed, taking the details of their journeys with them and leaving behind a paltry number of black-and-white photos of life before 1947. The practices of these five artists and many more who are devoted to peeling back the layers of fact to access the core of the Partition’s psychological ramifications brings me closer to my family than I ever have been. That is a gift I am eternally grateful for as I try to answer my own questions about belonging, identity, and familial connection across every new home I’ve built for myself and will build in the future. I can acknowledge that art won’t save the world, but when it comes to learning my history, it’s all I have.