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A repository of stories from Partition

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By Ammara Ahmad

The Amritsar Partition Museum is a landmark achievement. This is the first museum based on the Indian partition and was inaugurated in August 2017.
The museum aims to become a repository of narratives, stories, mementos, and documents related to the Indian partition. Mallika Ahluwalia, the curator, and co-founder of the museum, talks to us about how the process of setting up the museum has been an enriching and rewarding experience.
“The museum opened on the 17th August 2017,” says Ahluwalia. “The reason we chose this date was because that’s when the borders and the Radcliffe line was declared. I think just seeing the response of everybody who visited the museum has been really overwhelming.”
The museum is housed in the glorious red-brick Town Hall building in Lahore’s former twin city – Amritsar. The building is 17000 square feet and has been recently restored. The Arts and Culture Heritage Trust which is headed by Kishwar Desai helped establish the museum.
A visit to the museum is a sentimental journey into the subcontinent’s violent past of course. There are installations, oral histories narrated on screens, photos, letters, documents, mementos and even news clippings. Of course, there are some remnants of the mass violence and killings as well.
“This has been set up as the people’s museum,” says Ahluwalia. “People come and recognise within the stories, the stories of their own families. So when people come here, it opens up a conversation within their own family. When they go back, especially the younger generation who have never spoken to their grandparents about how the partition affected them.”
She adds that they have created a physical as well as a “metaphorical” space for conversation on the partition within families. She believes there was no such space before. “Anybody who comes here can find a way to put their story into the archives of the museum. So 20-25 years from now, their grandchild can hear the story of their great-grandparent.”
Ahluwalia says there is a sense of urgency now because the partition generation is dying.
There are 14 galleries and the last one is called the Gallery of Hope, enclosed with a large barbed-wire tree. Under the tree, people can scribble their messages on leaf-shaped papers. Ahluwalia calls this process the “greening.” Most of the messages show the way forward with hope, love, and peace.
“The central installation is the ‘Tree of Hope’ where we ask our visitors to write messages. So that way even though it is a difficult subject, people appreciate how we look back at the event and we look forward from there. “
More than 160,000 people have visited the museum so far. Many are now helping the museum by reaching out to more families.
The museum is entirely funded by donations and only charges ten rupees ticket entry. Foreigners have to pay rupees 150. Companies like the Hindustan Times and Airtel have given donations. The Indian Punjab’s government donated the space for the building.
The museum collects oral histories too. Many researchers and academics like Ishtiaq Ahmed, Ian Talbot, and Ritu Menon have submitted the interviews they have been recording for many decades now.
“We have tried to have oral histories from Pakistan in every gallery,” says Ahluwalia. “We have tried to have voices from all sides of the story including the Bangladesh and India border. Then the Sindhi story is also there. I think that’s very important because the voices these are the voices that left India.”
The good news is that the museum is collaborating with the Google Arts and Culture. The entire museum will be going online and people do a virtual tour of the galleries. This is partly because many people, particularly the partition generation, can’t visit the museum
So far there are no artifacts from Pakistan and the museum is working hard to change that.
“The archives of objects of refugees who were leaving, we want to grow that collection as much as possible because after the person is gone there will be no one to tell us the significance of the object there.”
She aims to make the museum a “comprehensive archive” of partition history so that researchers, artists, and academics do not have to go to different locations to collect materials.
The good news is that the museum is collaborating with the Google Arts and Culture. The entire museum will be going online and people do a virtual tour of the galleries. The exhibitions can also run virtually. This is partly because many people, particularly the partition generation, can’t visit the museum.
The museum is also planning to take the artifacts and exhibitions to different cities.
Ahluwalia says she was inspired to create the museum after listening to her grandmother’s stories of the partition. Her grandmother was 13 when India was divided.
“Three of my grandparents were in Lahore,” she says. “Two of them were studying. My nana (maternal grandfather) was in Government College Lahore and my dadi (paternal grandmother) was I think in Kinnaird. I will have to double-check that. My nana was graduating so he came to India. My Dadi, she had locked her and her sister in the male wagon of a train and promised my grandfather that they will reach safely. My nani was just thirteen and her family was the most impacted by the partition. Her whole family was there and they lived there until mid-August. My great grandfather like many also thought that these circumstances are temporary. So they all thought they will stay back. When they left they took a few clothes in a small box. Unfortunately, that never could happen so they ended up losing all their physical possessions. They remained safe but lost everything they had.”
The museum holds the artifacts donated by partition survivors and their families. These include utensils, clothes, trunks, jewellery, boxes, wedding saris and what not.
There are also paintings by the well-known artists like Satish Gujral, Aparna Caur, S.L.Prasher and Krishen Khanna.
Ahluwalia says that the object that moved her the most is by Sudershana Kumari. Kumari was eight years old when the partition happened. Her siblings were sent to a safe place but she refused to leave her parents. She had to witness a lot more because of this. On her way to safety, she asked her mother if she could keep a tin box that she had discovered for the new dolls she would have to buy in their new home because all her old dolls had been left behind. Kumari kept the box with her for seventy years before finally donating it to the museum.
“This story brings out the human element of the partition,” says Ahluwalia. “How it impacted people’s lives, especially children, in a very personal way.” She says that most of the people the museum is interviewing right now were children when the partition happened. Those who were adults in 1947 are unfortunately no more. This is why researchers like Ritu Menon and Ishtiaq Ahmed are important. They met those adults, decades ago for their research interviews. “People we are interviewing today were at max teenagers and it is very moving to think that if I was only eight or nine and it happened to me and I lost my home and friends and everyone.”
Ahluwalia adds to be the curator of the museum has not just made her respect the partition generation but also have more empathy for it. “You recognise that so many people had been through so much you know and they never pass that sorrow on to the next generation,” she says. “They tried to just move on and give their children a better life. Sometimes you look at the generation and you wonder why this is so because maybe they went through something like that.”
Ahluwalia is grateful for this opportunity. She hopes to make the museum more “immersive” and “interactive.” Hopefully, the Amritsar Partition museum will grow and thrive. Meanwhile, we in Pakistan will wait for such a museum to open here.