16 Aug 2015 14:46 IST

Museum of memories

Cultural activists come together to build a museum to preserve the dusty images of composite culture

Before the generation that experienced the pain of Partition passes away, cultural activists come together to build a museum to preserve the dusty images of composite culture for posterity.

For several of us, Independence Day doesn’t mean celebrations alone. There is also a sense of despair for having lost roots and families in what happened after India attained Independence in August 1947. The Partition of India displaced over 20 million people — considered the largest displacement of people in human history. As India was divided, people from either side, abandoning their land, homes and families, walked to the other side of the border. As theviolence broke out, the tragedy became unprecedented in the history of human kind. The memories of it are stored in the form of pain, loss and agony in the hearts of those who witnessed and suffered it. But what happens once this generation is gone? Would we lose it all? Author Kishwar Desai wants to ensure that we don’t through a Partition Museum that she and other like-minded people are planning to build. On the 29 of this month, at India International Centre in Lodi Estate, the core group comprising Kishwar Desai, her husband and economist Meghnad Desai, Urvashi Butalia, Kuldip Nayar and Ratish Nanda will go public with their proposal to build the museum and invite suggestions.

The consultation will pave way for many more which will be held through the year, to have a clear vision for the space and to have the material come in. Kishwar says while there is so much available in the virtual space, there was a need to collate stuff and make it real. “I feel strongly about the whole thing. My parents suffered during the Partition. My grandfather was attorney-general in Pakistan. But they had to leave everything and come here. In one day a lot of lives were changed, affected and lost. All these memories, I felt, need to be housed and shared,” says Kishwar who has just returned from Pakistan where she met Saadat Hasan Manto’s family. She wants to make the family of the writer — credited with penning powerful work on the tragedy — to contribute to the museum. Pakistanis Salima Hashmi and Jugnu Mohsin are also part of the mentor group.

“We are clear about the approach which is going to be through history, geography, personal collections and the media. What we are concerned about is how much emphasis to give to one area and also that it is a very large subject and a sensitive one. The Diaspora will also be a part of it because so many people left the country and settled abroad. How did the world look at it and how did the media report it? We will be looking at all this,” elaborates Kishwar.

Right now, the group is in the stage of compiling a list of institutions and individuals, it needs to get in touch with to acquire material. “We are in touch with historians like Ishtiaq Ahmed who has so many recordings. So many camps had come up all over Delhi. We are tracing their history. So many kids were lost. We are trying to explore that angle and look at orphanages like the one in Allahabad that came up to shelter the kids lost during the Partition,” reveals the author adding that soon they will be approaching institutions like British Library. “It has important documents pertaining to the Partition and so does the Oxford and Cambridge.”

The consultations like the one scheduled later this month in Delhi will only speed up things by facilitating a dialogue between the proposers and the public.

“We will get a wide variety of people who will come up with ideas. People interested in our project could even donate objects. Someone I was talking to showed me a jug her mother had brought with her during the Partition.” Such consultations will take place through the year and possibly in different cities and countries.

Contemplating an inter-disciplinary space, Kishwar is hoping to assimilate literature, music, art, films and even performances. “It is important for this generation to understand what happened and make it a visceral experience. They need to accept it. And we need to do it quickly before the Partition generation goes away. We are thinking of doing it within 5-10 years.”

As for the location, nothing has been finalised but before that happens, the group wants to concentrate on creating a momentum for it. “Personally, I am keen on Delhi or Amritsar and may be we can have smaller wings of it in other cities. But right now we are focused on getting the material, raising private funds and creating awareness about it. We are also planning a major exhibition in 2017, which is going to be a smaller version of the museum.”

For more details you can write to Kishwar Desai at kishwardesai@gmail.com (This article was first published in the Hindu's MetroPlus.)

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