Rattanamol Singh Johal
PhD Candidate in Art History, Columbia University
The Partition of India is a twentieth-century tragedy of immense proportions. The closing act of nearly two hundred years of British colonial rule over the subcontinent, its legacy continues to structure the present. There exist numerous historical accounts and scholarly studies drawn from the events that led to and followed from the sudden creation, in August 1947, of the two separate and independent nation-states—India and Pakistan (West and East, the latter becoming Bangladesh in 1971)—unleashing one of the largest forced migrations in history accompanied by unthinkable bloodshed. An estimated twelve million were displaced and close to a million died during an apocalyptic monsoon of riotous violence, flooding, hunger, and disease.
In compiling this shortlist for a readership unfamiliar with this history and its widespread consequences, I’ve limited the scope to references that reflect the impact of this “event” on visual art production and contemporary curatorial endeavors. These include essays by art historians and curators on specific artistic practices or bodies of work, exhibition-related publications (both online and in print), as well as links to films and artist interviews. Like any selection, this one is also far from comprehensive, entirely subjective, and necessarily provisional—reflecting my own interests, positionality, and limitations (notably that of language). Moreover, the Partition’s bearing on related creative fields, such as literature and theatre, deserves serious consideration in relationship with its legacies in visual art and film (with many instances of cross-pollination between these spheres). Notable references in this regard include Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh (Urdu, 1955), Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (English, 1956), Abdullah Hussein’s The Weary Generations (Urdu, 1963), Jyotirmoyee Devi’s The River Churning (Bengali, 1968), and Bhisham Sahni’s Darkness (Hindi, 1974).
Ethnographic studies that seek to reconstruct what happened through interviews and testimony, as well as anthropological discussions of the long-term, trans-generational psychic and social fallout of such events, are also indispensable for those interested in exploring this subject in any depth. Significant sources in these categories include Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (New Delhi: Penguin, 1998) and Veena Das’s Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). Publicly sourced oral histories and archival materials related to the period in question can be accessed online at The 1947 Partition Archive and the Indian Memory Project. Finally, historian Vinay Lal has compiled a bibliography (see here) of influential publications that map this field of study, with perspectives from both Punjab and Bengal (the two states that suffered the direct impact of this event).
The first generation of the post-Partition artistic avant-garde congealed in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the late 1940s, briefly identifying as the Progressive Artists Group. Tyeb Mehta, a key figure in this milieu, witnessed mob violence on the city’s streets immediately following Partition, a traumatic experience that manifested itself in allusions to violence and slaughter throughout his career, from the large-scale paintings of falling men and the mythological demon Mahishasura, to his only film work, Koodal (1970). The ravages of the Partition (specifically that of Bengal) also found recurring expression in the cinematic oeuvre of the filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, Mehta’s contemporary, whose works from the early 1960s—The Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara), E-Flat (Komal Gandhar), and The Golden Line (Subarnarekha)—have been dubbed the “partition trilogy.” Early in his career, Ghatak starred in Nemai Ghosh’s 1950 film The Uprooted (Chinnamul)—a classic of Bengali realism focusing on a group of peasants forced to migrate from East Bengal (then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) to Calcutta (now Kolkata). The support and legacy of the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA)—a leftist cultural coalition founded in 1943—links Ghosh and Ghatak with M. S. Sathyu, whose critically acclaimed film Garam Hawa (1973) brought to light the difficult situation confronted by a Muslim family from Agra that decided to remain in India following Partition and Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948.
Continuing into the next generation, the experience of displacement (both personal and historical) and the fragility of memory have been a central problematic of Zarina’s artistic practice, reflected in her exquisite works on paper from the early 1960s into the present. Nalini Malani’s multimedia experiments also repeatedly reckon with the foundational violence of Partition, making connections across geographies and histories, exemplified by the immersive installation Remembering Toba Tek Singh (1998) that included refugee trunks with inset monitors and large-scale wall projections. In another register, Nilima Sheikh’s paintings—particularly the series Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams (2003–10)—reflect on the tragedy and loss of Kashmir, the primary battleground of hostilities between India and Pakistan, and the site of incredible internal oppression and persecution of minority populations.
Partition’s enduring legacy of aggression and communal antagonism—fueled by unstable borders, enduring insecurities, and unresolved trauma—have remained a preoccupation for young and mid-career artists across the subcontinent. Amar Kanwar’s 1997 film A Season Outside begins and ends at the Wagah border, the only official road-crossing between India and Pakistan, where every evening hundreds gather to witness the lowering of the flags—a ceremony of military might enacted through the bodies of uniformed military men who huff, puff, stamp, and goose-step in a ritual display of pomp and power. The recurring event offers a metaphor for the fraught relationship between the neighbouring nations, staged as a contest between soldiers and spectators on either side—bearing an uncanny resemblance to each other—yet separated by the iron gates and barbed fences of a hastily drawn and fervently contested international border. Others like Bani Abidi parody the absurdity of this situation in video works like Mangoes (2000), where an Indian and Pakistani woman from the diaspora (both played by the artist) converse and reminisce while indulging in the beloved South Asian fruit, until their conversation becomes a competition between the two countries over the variety and quality of their respective mangoes.
Such works, and others by artists like Shilpa Gupta, Huma Mulji, Anita Dube, Farida Batool, Mahbubur Rahman, and Rashid Rana (among others), have been placed in dialogue through recent artistic and curatorial interventions, notably the artist-led project Aar Paar across Mumbai and Karachi (July 2002), and exhibitions like Mappings: Shared Histories...A Fragile Self (1997, curated by Pooja Sood); Lines of Control: Partition as Productive Space (2005–2014, curated by Iftikhar Dadi and Hammad Nasar); Six Degrees of Separation (2008, curated by Khoj International Artists’ Association); and This Night Bitten Dawn (2016, curated by Salima Hashmi).
Banner image: Nalini Malani, Remembering Toba Tek Singh, 1998–99, video installation, 20 minutes.
Bourke-White, Margaret. Halfway to Freedom: A Report on the New India in the Words and Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949. [English] MON.BWM
Dadi, Iftikhar, and Hammad Nasar, eds. Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space. London: Green Cardamom; Ithaca: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, 2012. [English] EX.USA.LIC
Dawood, Anita, and Bani Abidi. Bani Abidi: Videos, Photographs & Drawings. London: Green Cardamom, 2009. [English] MON.ABB
Ghosh, Nemai. Chinnamul. Kolkata: Desh Pictures, 1951. https://indiancine.ma/FUM
Gupta, Shilpa, and Huma Mulji (with collaborating artists). “Aar Paar.” July 2002. http://www.members.tripod.com/aarpaar2/02.htm
Hoskote, Ranjit. “Images of Transcendence: Towards a New Reading of Tyeb Mehta’s Art.” In Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, edited by Ranjit Hoskote, 3–48. New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery, 2005. [English] MON.MET
Kabir, Ananya Jahanara. “A Counter-Archive of Pain and Loss: Nilima Sheikh’s Evolving Kashmir Series.” In Trace Retrace, edited by Kumkum Sangari, 272–85. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2013. [English] MON.SHN3
Malani, Nalini, Gayatri Sinha, and Stuart Comer. “‘Partition is What We are Living Even Now’: A Conversation with Nalini Malani.” post: Notes on Modern & Contemporary Art Around the Globe. June 18, 2015. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://post.at.moma.org/content_items/600-partition-is-what-we-are-living-even-now-a-conversation-with-nalini-malani
Mehra, Tyeb. Koodal. Mumbai: Films Division, 1970. Accessed October 26, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtV2ky7kjQU
Naeem, Asma. “Partition and the Mobilities of Margaret Bourke-White and Zarina,” American Art 31, no. 2 (1 June 2017): 81–88. [English] CLP.17.06.01
”Nilima Sheikh: Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams.” Art Institute of Chicago. Accessed October 26, 2017. http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/nilima-sheikh-each-night-put-kashmir-your-dreams
“The Partition Cinema of Ritwik Ghatak.” Harvard Film Archive. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2008janfeb/ghatak.html.
Pesenti, Allegra, ed. Zarina: Paper Like Skin. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, University of California; New York: DelMonico Books, 2012. [English] MON.HAZ
Robinson, Macushla. “Nalini Malani in the Shadow of Partition.” Art Monthly Australasia, no. 256 (Summer 2012/2013): 39–43. [English] PER.AMA
Sathyu, M. S. Garam Hawa. Mumbai: Film Finance Corporation, 1973. Accessed October 26, 2017. https://indiancine.ma/PPS/info
Sood, Pooja. “Cross-Border Traffic of Ideas and Images.” Art India, vol. 9, no. 4 (2004): 36–38. [English] PER.ARN
Sood, Pooja, ed. Mappings: Shared Histories: A Fragile Self. New Delhi: Eicher Gallery, 1997. [English] EX.IND.MSH
Suleman, Adeela, ed. Six Degrees of Separation: Chaos, Congruence & Collaboration in South Asia. Karachi: Vasl Artist Collective, 2008. [English] EX.PAK.SDS
“This Night Bitten Dawn.” Devi Art Foundation. Accessed October 26, 2017. http://www.deviartfoundation.org/content/exhibitions/night-bitten-dawn
Yap, June. “Amar Kanwar | The Trilogy: A Season Outside (1997), To Remember (2003), A Night of Prophecy (2002).” Guggenheim Collection Online. Accessed October 19, 2017.
Zarina: Dark Roads. New York: A/P/A Institute, NYU, 2018. (leaflet) [English] AAA file