Anecdotes of migration, longing for an ancestral home, and the poignance of finding love are at the heart of 'Postcards from Home', an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Britain’s Oxford. The thoughtfully chosen postcards from India and Pakistan, carrying the past into the present, add another intriguing dimension to the storytelling project.
"My mom said, 'Yeh project tujhse khuda ne banwaya hai (God has made you work on this project)," says Manisha Gera Baswani, a New Delhi-based artist, who collaborated with artists from both sides of the border to bring the stories alive.
The exhibit intends to revive and reconcile the south Asian diaspora before, during and after 1947, in the British land that divided the Indian subcontinent into two nations.
Ironically, the exhibition, being held in the 76th year of Independence, is displayed in a museum that houses several disputed relics of the British colonial history in south Asia.
The project, conceived by Baswani, tries to understand the tumultuous history of India and Pakistan through the lens of 47 artists from both sides. The exploration offers heart-breaking and resilient personal anecdotes of migration, longing for an ancestral home, and the poignance of finding love.
With its work and collection of oral histories at the Ashmolean, this arguably second modern south Asian exhibition has recieved critical acclaim and interest. If one takes the tour of the Ashmolean Indian Art Galleries in the museum, the postcards are displayed in a different section towards the end, aptly reminding how recent the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent is.
"Wounds do not heal easily. Therefore, it inevitably becomes important to showcase and document oral histories through which people can relate, understand and get terms to their histories. The displaying of the exhibition towards the end of the tour compels us to pause and reflect on our most recent traumatic past," says Sana Rizvi, a 23-year-old MPhil student at the University of Oxford.
Rizvi took some of the postcards from the exhibition to Pakistan to present them to her parents earlier this year, a reminder of the shared history of India and Pakistan.
While non-violence became the bedrock of the anti-colonial struggle in India, the horrors of the bloodshed and brutality caused by the violent Partition in August 1947 continue to gnaw the sub-continent even today, as the region remains susceptible to a lot of religious and ethnic violence.
The postcards tell stories that seamlessly traverse borders and make it impossible to divide or nationalise histories.
Documenting Oral Histories of Shared Realities
Though a painter by training, Baswani feels an affinity towards the lens. She has a body of work displayed in documenting and capturing insights across Asian traditions globally – in the India Art Fair, White Chapel Gallery, London and Lahore Biennale.
Baswani's ability to create an overarching projection of lived realities is especially relevant now, as the Indian subcontinent celebrates 75 years of independence from the British.
So, what drew her to this particular project?
Unaware about the nuances of photography, Baswani would often bring out the camera and capture the creative spaces of her artist friends in their studios or an art camp. However, she did not pursue her passion as an approach until she visited Karachi in 2015, where many Pakistani artists who, upon hearing she was Indian, would recount the stories they had heard about the time their families spent in pre-Partition India.
Baswani herself has grown up with stories of partition. In many ways, Pakistan, the land of Baswani's forefathers – Baswani’s parents lost their home in Quetta and Sargodha during the partition – and a 'terrain' of her heart, became the fertile soil for the seeds of this liminal project.
She was blown away by the responses after she sent out a message to all the artists in her phonebook with names that sounded Punjabi or Sindhi, requesting them to share their memories associated with the partition.
Baswani is an artist with access to art groups in both nations, which makes her endeavour unique. Her work demonstrates that cross-border communication within the creative community is extraordinary – many of them have utilised history to bring diverse yet compassionate narratives of the past. In addition, this is a one-of-a-kind endeavour to chronicle artists, a blind spot in south Asian culture.
Friendships in Times of Divide
In her postcard, Saba Iqbal, a Karachi-based artist, writes about friendships that thrive across borders. It reads:
"He (my grandfather) had joined the army in the education corps and was posted in Majir Cantonment in Karachi. One evening, he was sipping his tea on the lawn when a gleaming car with an Indian flag came into his driveway. He could not believe it was his dear friend Roop Chand from St Stephen's College, Delhi. Mr Chand was now the Indian ambassador to Pakistan. The next day, my grandfather was summoned to the headquarters for an explanation as to why an Indian national, and that too the ambassador, was allowed into the cantonment area? He would have had to bear serious consequences had Brigadier Pinto, a British senior in command, not stepped in to save him. The brigadier stood his ground that no partition line can stop two old best friends from meeting each other."
The Indian artist Krishen Khanna was able to find 'companionship' with Renu, whom he first met at Pahalgam in Kashmir at the age of eight, accompanying their professor fathers for a retreat.
Reminiscing about his days, he beautifully writes, "… My first advance towards her was coldly rejected. At 13, when I left for London on the Kipling scholarship, Renu dropped her handkerchief for me to pick up and take as a memory. Instead, I picked it up and graciously returned it to her. This convinced her that I had no idea of romance."
"On the day of Partition, 15 August 1947, Renu left for England to study. We kept in touch through letters which I still have. On her return, we got married in the year 1950. Together now for 85 years, in a journey that began in Lahore, we are currently in a sacred space of deep companionship. We do not have to say a word to each other when we are with each other."
The postcard ends on a liminal note, "Some things remain the same, some change drastically, and yet every state can be wonderful. At 93, I still have Renu and I am as crazy about her as I was when she was six. And I do miss Lahore …"
Despite All, a Story of Longing
With much water flowing down the Ganges that tears its constituent apart, the postcards try to capture the realities of life about what, often unacknowledged, brings the region together. The intrinsic nature of longing and love find a central theme of this collection.
In the 1920s, Nilima Sheikh's grandparents lived in Burnley, in the north of England, where her grandfather was a practising doctor. After losing his mother to tuberculosis, Lala Lajpat Rai persuaded the duo to help in establishing one of the first specialised tuberculosis hospitals in south Asia in 1934 – TB was rampant in the subcontinent at the time.
"It is heartening to know that the Gulab Devi Memorial Tuberculosis Hospital for women, named after Lala Lajpat Rai's mother, continues to be a landmark institution in Lahore. It has grown, I am told, with wider-thoracic care facilities and is now known as the Gulab Devi Chest Hospital,” she eloquently writes.
Audience visiting the exhibition are reminded of their past, irrespective of their origin. “I have grown up with stories of partition from my parents as a child of an immigrant. The exhibition spoke not only to me but also of me. And that is the beauty of it. In particular, the postcard written by Nilima Sheikh caught my attention. It is indeed a testimony of layered history on how she can find home in Lahore and speak volumes about the commitment to the cause that remains undeterred, irrespective of the nation you hail from,” says one of the visitors at the exhibition.
“And that is what our generation needs to learn from them. Remember, only love has the power to win over hate," adds the British Indian who longs to visit Pakistan soon.
From Lahore, the artist R M Naeem envisages through postcards, "I dream that our nations bridge back the brotherhood that was broken. Nations need boundaries … Love does not …”
(Kalrav Joshi is a multimedia journalist based in London. He writes on politics, democracy, culture, and technology. He tweets @kalravjoshi_.)