Time is not necessarily a healer. It wears out an individual with the unending burden of everyday life, pushing them to stifle trauma, and move on. It often supplants one perspective with a simplistic, narrower one. On the positive side though, it offers distance without detachment from the past, providing the chance to consider the mess of moments gone by from the calmer, contemplative space of the present. Manisha Gera Baswani leverages this truth to create an oral history of the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent in her project, Postcards from Home.
This archive of experiences and memories is focused on a community the photographer has documented over the years and closely identifies with: artists. It carries personal stories shared by 47 artists from India and Pakistan, which have been printed on postcards. Each postcard has a photograph of an artist on one side, with their reminiscences of a lost home on the other side.
Gera, as she is known amongst friends, took to photography in 2001. Initially, she worked on exhibition openings, once part of every artist’s social calendar. Later, she began exploring how Indian artists worked, visiting and photographing each of them in their studios over a few days. Turning her gaze towards the Partition was not a linear next step. Several parts of Gera’s life and practice have cast glances across the border. Her own grandparents moved from Western Punjab to India in 1947. Her earliest work was in a contemporary miniature style, still widely taught and practised in Pakistan. An interest in the work of her Pakistani peers, who formally learnt these techniques, was only natural. This set off a series of conversations with them and encouraged Gera to exhibit her own work in Pakistan. In 2015, while she was photographing Karachi artists in their studios, their casual narration of their family stories helped Gera discover the seeds of her next project. Bringing together personal history and professional interest, she started building the Postcards from Home series, which contributes to new approaches to understanding the Partition and its aftermath, especially in northwestern India.
Till the last five years or so, most histories of the Partition were written by academics who focused on public records and events. Urvashi Butalia’s 1998 book, The Other Side of Silence, about her Ranamama who stayed back in Lahore, was a rare exception that thew light on oral voices and personal traumas surrounding this historic tragedy. Following in Butalia’s footsteps, a fresh school of enquiry has sprouted in recent times - one that is rigorous while also being able to tell stories to a wider audience. Whether it be the Partition Museum in Amritsar or the unique scholarship of Anam Zakaria and Aanchal Malhotra, a more visceral narrative spills out from these new interventions. Gera works at the edges of this world.
Oral histories of the Partition have revealed many layers about the cataclysmic events that gave birth to modern India and Pakistan. Few people who witnessed those events first-hand are still alive. We often hear about their experiences of being suddenly evicted from their homes, and of the slow, heart-breaking realization that the Partition would have a greater finality than they had initially imagined. Those who crossed the borders lived with both the violence of a new modern era and the longings to return to previous lives rendered irretrievable. Successive generations have had a less direct relationship with the civil-war-like period and the country on the other side of the border. But through memories passed down, they too have grown up with the knowledge of having two homelands: past and present.
There was also many who did not have to migrate and found themselves safe in familiar neighbourhoods. For them, 1947 and the years that followed meant watching friends and neighbours drifting away into clouds of uncertainty. Sometimes, they would become chowkidars of abandoned homes and goods, waiting in anticipation for the return of their loved ones. Some of them may have even chased away new occupants, killing and looting them in the process. This happened on either side of the border.
Irrespective of whether or not their families left behind homes, today’s post-partition generations know about those times only indirectly: through literature, books, talks, family histories and propaganda. In the 75 years since 1947, it has become increasingly difficult to cross borders to meet people on the other side, or to conclude for one’s own self that “they are not that different from us.” This along with fractured political relations has left our common histories and connections fuzzy, malleable, and easy to forget. Gera’s work is an effort to counter this downward trajectory, and part of the lush public repertoire that speaks to the past despite the barriers.
The artists she spoke with were either those who were forced to migrate, or were children of those who did. This lends a distinct two-generational narrative design to the project. Many older people infuse deep nostalgia into their words, while younger folks recall their parents’ memories poignantly but also as more objective observers. Imran Qureshi describes how he could not bring himself to speak to the old man who sat outside what was likely his father’s former home in Jaipur, when he visited the city in 1993. He never confirmed whether or not the house was indeed at the spot his father had mentioned. Meanwhile, Atul Bhalla recounts how his father, who was 13 when he came to India, would sometimes pronounce that Lahore should have become the capital. His grandmother told him to take a walk in Muree, if he were ever in Pakistan, a country he still hasn't been able to visit.
A few micro-narratives in the series allude directly to violence, misery and killings. This trauma is still too great for witnesses to fully exhume. Others speak of the ostracism they faced when they crossed borders. Satni Malani, the mother of Nalini Malani, mentions how Sindhis like her were treated as alien half-Muslims because of the unusual recipes and cooking methods they brought with them. Food is recalled in a more joyful manner by Muhammed Zeeshan, who conveys his father Muhammed Jameel’s memories of sharing plain rice for the first Eid he celebrated with his family after escaping from Rewari and making it safely to Pakistan. Several testimonies also refer to sites associated with pleasant memories. Navjot Altaf mentions visiting Karachi, but not getting a visa to travel to Lahore, where her mother grew up. As a token of conveying her mother’s greetings to her old home, she sent a postcard to Lahore, on which she wrote her mother’s name (Ripudaman) and the address of the house. Salima Hashmi remembers walking and pushing along her baby sister’s pram down Athpula Bridge in Lodi Gardens. Delhi. Many years later, she broughtherownchildrentothespottosavoura“lost childhood”.
Postcards from Home has taken on new avatars with each round of exhibition. In the Lahore Biennale of 2018, viewers encountered the stories at a restored hamam in the older part of the city. To take a postcard home, they would have to stoop and pick it up, thereby also touching and reconnecting with the ground they walked on. At the Kochi Biennale in the same year, viewers walked through and were at times caressed by the works, printed on scrolls of white cloth hung from the ceiling. The medium of postcards - something easy to fold up and move - has been the appropriate vehicle for this series. It has allowed the project to grow, take the form of the spaces available, share stories and move on. With each version of Postcards, Gera turns into a trobairitz anew.
This body of work is based on a self-selected group: that is both its joy and lacuna. This is only natural, for Gera worked with those she knew, who easily responded to her, or whom she could cajole to contribute. Yet, this approach hides the many other disparate voices that exist, which might complicate the overall spirit of goodwill and cross-border bonhomie that has shaped this project. These might be worth exploring for future iterations, a brave step out of a familiar, comforting ecosystem.
And what of Bangladesh? We hear far too little from our own Eastern border, amputated twice. Postcards from another home, less culturally familiar to the artist, would enrich the shared history of the subcontinent. Art-making is not about checking all boxes. Given the emotive impulses of this work, the artist may find herself unable to engage as intensely with the Partition that effected lives in the East. It might not offer her the same sense of immediacy, culturally or linguistically. Whether or not Gera walks down that challenging route herself, she has shone light on a path less explored.
Bharati Chaturvedi writes on contemporary art. Her full-time passion is as an environmentalist who pushes for quick, drastic change in this melting, unequal world, as the founder of the non-profit organization, Chintan (www.chintan-india.org ).