“I heard this story from my aunt. When India was partitioned, my great-grandfather’s family took in a lot of people to protect them because they had a large estate. But one day my great-grandfather called his two youngest daughters to him and said, ‘ I have a favour to ask of you. If the mob comes, if the mob overpowers us, I will shoot you. But promise me that you won’t cry when I do so, for it will break my heart.”
This was one of the stories singer-composer Sonam Kalra heard when she was a child. Growing up in a family which had its roots in the part of Punjab which is now in Pakistan, the Partition of 1947 had always meant more than just a chapter in a history book to her. This week she revisits the event that changed the lives of over 14 million people in a show titled Partition: Stories of Separation. She’s often tried to imagine how desperate a father would have to be to tell his daughters that he would kill them rather than let anything untoward happen to them.
“My mother’s family was from Rawalpindi and my father’s from Sargoda,” says Kalra. “Even though I did not have to live through the pain of Partition myself, I have always been moved to tears when talking about it with someone. In fact, the first time I crossed the border on foot, I wept. I’ve often wondered why I should feel so deeply about it - perhaps it lies embedded in the memory of my DNA.” The germ of the show was born when, during a cricket match, she saw a man at the India-Pakistan border carrying a child on his shoulders. “The child held a banner on which were the words “Laali akhiyaan di dasdi hai, roye assi vi, roye tussi vi” “It means that the redness in our eyes shows that both of us have cried,” explains Kalra.
Beginning with these two lines by the poet Ustad Daman, Kalra worked for more than a year to compile a body of work which includes music, installation art, real-life narratives of people who were displaced by Partition and more. “Many of the stories we have heard from our grandparents will be lost with the passing of the older generation and they need to be preserved, honoured and they need to serve as lessons for generations to come. My intention is not to open old wounds but to talk about what happened so we can reflect on what happened. Religion divided us. And that thought breaks my heart,” says Kalra.
Watch: Sonam Kalra speaks on Partition: Stories of Separation
Using music and works of poets of that era, Ali Sardar Jafri, Ustad Daman, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Amrita Pritam, as well as personal accounts of people who suffered Partition, Kalra weaves together an account that not only revisits the grief but also hopes for a better future – a hope born of the love that she believes people shared before 1947 and that she feels has survived the distance across the borders. “It’s been a labour of love, of a lot of hard work. We have composed original music as well as written some of the poetry and prose,” says Kalra. Collaborating with her on this project are artist and graphic designer Gopika Chowfla, musician Ahsan Ali, poet Deepak Ramola, actor Salima Raza, video director Manish Halder and production assistant Arshi. “Salima ji will be reading out some poetry and accounts of people that we have collected in between the music,” explains Kalra. At the entrance to the venue will be an installation work by Gopika themed on Partition.
“I hope that in revisiting these stories through music, we are able to empathise, ponder and realise the way forward.Hopefully, a way of peace and co-existence based on a shared grief, a shared loss, a shared history and a shared love,” says the artist. She adds, “Every time I meet someone from the other side, I find an underlying sense of kinship and love.” Like the time a Pakistani immigration officer sang for her at the airport. “The gentleman asked me do you sing, so I said yes, though that time I had gone for a theatre project, not a music project. So he said that he sings too. I said it would be my good fortune to hear you sing some day. He finished the passports, called me to another room and began singing. His boss came over, and after he finished the song, told him this is not a concert hall, it is an immigration hall. He said it’s okay, these are my guests from India.”
She recalls an equally moving experience her aunt had in Pakistan: “She was one year old when the country was partitioned, so she had no memory of the other side. But she had been told by her mother about their house there. Years later when she visited Pakistan and found her way to the house, her father’s name was still on the door. The then occupant of the house, who had been a friend of her father’s, thanked God that he had been able to establish contact with someone from the family before he died and showed her how he had kept the house exactly as her parents had left it, including the rose bushes which had been a favourite of her father’s,” says Kalra.
To build on this love and carry forward the relations between the people of the two countries, Stories of Separation will launch a Facebook page the day after the performance called partition: messages to the other side with messages from people here to those on the other side of the border.
Through music and the message the music carries with it, Sonam hopes for peace and friendship between the two nations.