“It is a reminder of their journey through tough times,” says Mallika Ahluwalia, the CEO of Partition Museum, Amritsar. Mallika talks about the museum and its purpose…
Tell us something about the Partition museum which is dedicated to India-Pakistan Partition of 1947?
The Partition of India in 1947 caused the largest migration in human history; no one knows exactly how many people lost their homes but estimates go up to 18 million people. No one knows how many lost their lives but estimates vary from 200,000 to 2 million people. Yet, almost 70 years after the event, there was a severe lacuna that no museum existed anywhere in the world to remember and commemorate all those who lost their lives or had to leave their homes behind.
The Partition Museum, located in the Town Hall in Amritsar, India opened with a curtain raiser exhibition covering four galleries last October, and all fifteen galleries this August covering 17,000 square feet of space. It is the world’s first Museum or memorial to remember the millions impacted in the largest mass migration in human history.
There has never been a venue focused on the stories and memorabilia of Partition survivors, so how this idea of setting up Museum came to you?
All four founders, of which I am one, come from Partition families. The Museum was founded by us because of a very stark realization that we were losing the generation that had witnessed Partition– and that seventy years after the event there was no museum or memorial anywhere in the world to an event that shaped so many millions. Given the age of Partition survivors, we felt it was very important, that in their lifetime, as many of that generation who are with us, can know that their experience has been heard and acknowledged.
What kinds of exhibits are at the museum? Chronicling the oral histories and testimonies is a tricky business; tell us about your experience in gathering these items and about the sources.
The Partition Museum has been set up as a People’s Museum, where the main objective is to tell the stories of those millions of people who were impacted. We are using people’s own voices through oral histories, their personal artefacts, their letters, photographs and documents to tell history. For example, many galleries contain objects that refugees carried with them when they travelled; some items that have been donated to us include an embroidered coat that someone carried because it was their most prized possession, and a water pot that helped a family gather water during their time at a refugee camp. Each of these objects tells the experience of the family more poignantly and fully than any history textbook ever could. Alongside these objects, the oral histories play.
So far how many items are at display, is any protagonist featured at the museum still alive?
Including all the objects, photographs, oral histories, videos, etc.- over a 1000 objects would be on display at the Museum.
Yes, many of the people who are featured in the Museum are still alive and are in their seventies, eighties and nineties.
We have heard that the Museum was also planned as a resource centre for the study and understanding of the Partition. Tell us about it.
The Museum aims to become a comprehensive archive for official documents and photos, and for the art, literature on film on Partition; our hope is to promote further scholarship and art on the Partition. It also aims to become a repository for the personal stories, photographs, letters, and other personal artifacts, and again make these available to scholars and to artists.
What is the purpose of opening a first-of-its kind cultural institution dedicated to one of the most deadly and disruptive political cataclysms of post-colonial era?
We are losing the generation that witnessed Partition– and seventy years after the event there was no museum or memorial anywhere in the world to an event that shaped so many millions– and indeed that continues to shape us as individuals, families, communities and a nation.
The lack of a Partition Museum is particularly stark when one looks around the world to see how other major international events have all been memorialized– indeed 9/11 had a Museum within a few years of the event. The Partition remains the largest mass migration in human history anywhere in the world, yet the stories of those millions who lost homes or loved ones remains unheard.
Have you narrated any special recorded story of the 1947 Partition’s victim at the Town Hall Museum in Amritsar?
Two of the most poignant objects in the Museum are a Phulkari coat and a briefcase.
Pritam Kaur was 22 in 1947. When the violence started flaring up, Pritam Kaur’s family put her on a train to Amritsar with her two year old brother. After reaching the railway station, she made her way to the closest refugee camp. This phulkari coat was one of the few possessions that Pritam Kaur brought with her, not because it was particularly practical as she fled, but perhaps because it was a reminder of happier days. She had been arranged to be married at the time of Partition to a gentleman names Bhagwan Singh Maini, but in the chaos of the time, she lost contact with her fiancé’s family.
As fate would have it, Bhagwan Singh also reached the same Amritsar refugee camp with his aged mother.
It was in the long winding queue for food where hungry, weary, desolate refugees stood for hours, that Bhagwan Singh and Pritam Kaur met again. Viewing it perhaps as destiny, the couple got married in a simple ceremony in March 1948. The leather briefcase had been brought across by Bhagwan Singh with his degrees and as well as his property claim papers. Property that he could of course never return to.
These lie together currently in our museum as a testimony to the life they lost, and found, together.
Tell us about the Visitors and Partition’s second generation families coming forward to donate items of their personal memorabilia for the purpose of exhibition?
The Museum has received thousands of visitors, demonstrating the continued emotional resonance of Partition; from local families who are Partition affected, to domestic tourists, to international tourists, to school children, and government officials.
Many of the visitors who come to the Museum are from Partition families; they are often moved to share their family’s stories and objects with us. This is how the Museum is being built- people are coming forward and sharing their families objects and stories. We hope that people who read this article will similarly also help us reach out to more Partition survivors.
Could you narrate any of the oral histories recorded in the museum? So far how many oral histories have been recorded?
Sudarshana Kumari is 78; her oral history is playing in the Gallery of Migration. She was just 8 years old when Partition happened. Sudarshana saw the worst of Partition. Her parents had seen the rising troubles and had decided to send ahead all the children with some of the valuables. All the siblings were put in a truck going ahead. But Sudharshana, the youngest of the siblings, jumped out at the last minute and said no she was going to stay with her mother. That decision taken by a child in an instant led to her to see so much that an 8 year old should never have to see. All these years she has kept the lock that was on the trunk that went ahead with her siblings. A reminder of their journey through tough times.