“It’s 69 years since we left what we called home. At that time I wondered what it would be like to live on this side. My language was alien here as was the food we cooked. In some parts of India we Sindhis were even called half Muslim.” – Nalini Malani
“Many years ago, a group of women had come from Pakistan to attend a seminar in Delhi. One of them accosted my mother and asked how she was wearing such an old design from Lahore!” – Anjum Singh
“My grandfather was a brick maker and had his own kilns. He owned four trucks and transported people in his village and his workers across the border, covered in tarpaulins.” – Bharti Kher
“The brigadier stood his ground to support that no partition line can stop two old best friends from meeting each other” – Saba Iqbal
These are the stories of independence collected by artist Manisha Gera Baswani.
India’s Independence Day is August 15th, and so is Pakistan’s. Both countries celebrate the joyful occasion of national pride, but it is tinged with the bittersweet ache of partition. This was the tragic day in 1947 when the abrupt exit of British colonial rule resulted in one of the largest mass human migrations in history, as Hindus and Muslims were violently displaced from ancestral homes along borders that had sprung up seemingly out of nowhere.
For India-born artist and curator Manisha Gera Baswani, the stories of her family fleeing modern-day Pakistan were heart-wrenching. Her parents, now both in their 90s, came from Quetta and Sargodha.
“My experience of India’s Partition has evolved from the bedtime stories and inexhaustible personal anecdotes of their paradise lost,” writes Baswani from New Delhi. “…My parents still miss the ‘Home’ they fled overnight, leaving all they had and the deep friendships shared over generations, never to return. They have taught me to live in the moment, to never take anything for granted, and to be grateful for what we have without being bitter about what is lost. On the terrain of my heart, Pakistan is an island, an abode of my forefathers, that has floated away on the tears of Partition.”
Baswani subsequently underwent extensive acupuncture treatment for pain-related ailments, during which she reflected on the everlasting pricks of generational trauma. With each pin, just like each story, the body and the family began to heal.
So came 47 pinned postcards of artists from both Pakistan and India, as part of Partition Project: Postcards from Home, sponsored by the Kiran Nader Museum. The series debuted at the Lahore Biennale in 2017, returned in 2018, traveled to the Faiz Festival, and then went to Kochi and Delhi in India within months. After a 2019 TED Talk, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University held a 75th anniversary showcase of Baswani’s work in March of this year, where viewers could take their own postcards home.
Prior to becoming postcards, the standalone photo series was initially called Artist Through the Lens, featuring the same 47 artists from each side of the partition trauma. Baswani began this initiative as a university student nearly 40 years ago, training as a painter but instinctively documenting her professor, A. Ramachandran. She curated his 2018 show at Vadehra Gallery in New Delhi, and in 2020, the photos was exhibited in full at White Chapel Galleries, London as part of the group show, A Century of the Artists’ Studio, 1920-2020. Ramachandran and his family’s mentorship encouraged Baswani to move beyond her existing work and think about the universality of her journey.
Working on her photo project in Lahore, she was moved by hearing stories from the Pakistani side, which she had never heard growing up in India.
Since 2015, she has visited Pakistan seven times.
“While there, the intensity of loving welcome that I always experience is akin to the welcome I receive every time I enter my parents’ home even 24 years after my marriage,” Baswani explained.
The postcards are snapshots of celebrated artists from both sides of the border that mow include their narratives, photographed by Baswani in their current studios while reminiscing about their family’s former home territory.
“…The common sentiment, of deep pain, nostalgia, longing, and love for what was once ‘Home’ on both sides of the border, was all-pervasive,” Baswani continued. “I experienced their healing through the act of repeated narration of these heartfelt stories that soothe the permanently displaced and their kin who carry this legacy of grief. Each recounting [is] a muted hope that their memories are not buried in the sands of time. These stories continued to ring inside me like an echo of my own thoughts. I felt compelled to etch these tales, so they live beyond the teller.”
Each showcase has sought to encourage viewers to interact with the works, whether to pick up the cards 47 times in a performance, or even to take versions of them home in individual reflection. At one show in Lahore, sacks of quotidian wheat leaned against one another in a play on an old word for the color ‘gold’. It is a metaphor for a perhaps faded golden dream of unity and support.
Baswani is not sure what future generations, including her own children, will hold from the past. She is currently ‘Connecting the Dots’ (and the dots connect now) with a show at Gallery Espace, expanding on the pinprick acupuncture metaphor and continuing dialogue on human connection. But for now, all she can do completely is spread the origins of truth and the best of their seeds, with at least 47 new friends.
“I found generous support on both sides of the border,” she wrote. “I realized yet again that love knows no boundaries.”
76 may be an anti-climatic anniversary for the global recognition of independence, but not for Baswani herself. Because after all these months of travel, her showcase has made it back to Museo Camera at Gurugram, where her parents could finally see it where they lived. Just as they had always longed for politically speaking, the art has found them at home.