This virtual museum narrates history through objects dating back to the Partition era | Hindustan Times
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This virtual museum narrates history through objects dating back to the Partition era

Discover fascinating aspects of the history and culture of the subcontinent through a virtual museum showcasing objects from the Partition years to the 1970s.

art and culture Updated: Nov 18, 2017 09:20 IST
Soma Das
In 1982, Nasreen Sultana came on a visit to Jodhpur from Karachi in Pakistan. She met a girl named Toto, who had come to attend a wedding. While they soon left Jodhpur, they stayed in touch for years through letters. But eventually, they lost track of each other.  All Nasreen has as mementoes of those days are the letters that she treasures.
In 1982, Nasreen Sultana came on a visit to Jodhpur from Karachi in Pakistan. She met a girl named Toto, who had come to attend a wedding. While they soon left Jodhpur, they stayed in touch for years through letters. But eventually, they lost track of each other. All Nasreen has as mementoes of those days are the letters that she treasures. (Courtesy: Museum of Material Memory)

A Benarasi wedding saree that is passed on as a gift from mother to daughter, an old Sikh ‘granth’ (scripture) rescued from the ritual of ‘Antim Sanskaar of birdh beerha’ or funeral of revered/religious books, an heirloom paan-dibbi (a box to store paan) and ittar-daan (a container for attar)...these are some of the objects whose stories are documented in the Museum of Material Memory.

The virtual museum, which launched in September this year, is the brainchild of Aanchal Malhotra, an artist and oral historian, and Navdha Malhotra, a ceramic artist who works in the field of digital communication.

“One of the objectives of the museum is to unfold the history and generational narratives about the diverse traditions, habits, language and geography of the subcontinent while tracing family histories through objects. We hope this museum will stand for an ethnographic archive and research tool of articles of everyday use,” says Navdha.

As a kid it was always fascinating to go through my mother’s things, some of which she had inherited from her own mother. Old school treasure – I’d call it. When I first came across her wedding saree, I told her if I ever get married that is what I would wear. And then many years later, it finally happened. I decided to get married. Mine was to be a small affair, a court wedding with a few ceremonies at home with just family and close friends. I literally had no time to plan anything because of the paucity of time. My to-be husband wasn’t in the country and neither were my parents. It was a living nightmare! When my mom finally reached Delhi closer to the date of the wedding, I asked her about the saree. And she couldn’t believe I was serious. The saree was lying in a box in Chandigarh and there was just no time. Three days before D-day, my mother who is the biggest rock in my life took a cab early morning and went off to Chandigarh, picked up the saree and came back the same evening. She got it dry cleaned and handed it to me and I don’t think we even had the mind space to just stop for a minute and embrace that beautiful moment. . An excerpt from A mother’s gift to her daughter on her wedding by Parul Ghosh @Prooly. Full link in bio. #museumofmaterialmemory #antiques #saree #family #heirloom #motherdaughter

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The idea came to Aanchal when she was researching objects that migrated across the border during Partition on both sides (India and Pakistan) for her book. “People began writing in to know whether I would be willing to visit them to see the objects. Most times, it was not possible for me,” says Aanchal. She hit upon an idea to ask people to submit stories online about the objects that have existed in their families for generations. Navdha further suggested that they widen the time span till the 1970s to ensure a diverse range of objects.

The museum currently features 15 objects (a new one is added every week), and the curators are constantly looking for additions. The exhibits are sourced from family, friends, colleagues, and via social media.

Then one day, a sliver of hope arrived. It was sent in mockery by my father. It was an unused typewriter sent from Saudi Arabia to Bangalore. A ‘Brother 760 TR ‘ portable. My mother had never felt the need to write anything before, she had never even had the time- she'd jumped straight from school to the Poona film Institute. Yet she was enamoured by this little machine. She waited for my father to step outside and then locked all doors and windows. The moment the noise of his scooter faded into the distance, she bolted to the stack of old newspapers and found her greasy old time machine. Though my father had bought this for her, she knew that it was out of spite and she hid it so that he wouldn’t burst into a rage someday and break this precious little metal contraption of hers. She gingerly opened the cover and pressed those keys with a glee that hadn’t graced her face for years. For the first time, she felt she had a reason to get up and rediscover herself . An excerpt from 'The hope in black and grey' by Naveed Mulki #museumofmaterialmemory #family #history #heirloom #typewriter #writer

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Each object narrates a story that is at once contemporary and rooted in a bygone era — an antique typewriter that gives a new sense of purpose to a mother, letters that stand as testament to a cross-border friendship, a Pothi or a family register holding up to hundreds of years of history. “The exhibits not only unravel something unique about a person’s history, but also allow us to look at the habits and traditions we share as people of the subcontinent,” says Navdha.

One of the important processes before displaying an object is to verify their authenticity. It can be a tricky process since people rely on their memories of objects which may not always be accurate. “We do as much research as possible when it comes to the tangible object, by referencing books, online and offline archives and pre-existing museum collections. The materials and processes with which it’s made, if there has been any modernisation of the same, the time period, geographic locations, evidences of wear and weather, its usage and importance in society and history — these are the things we try to provide information about.”

'It was 2016 when I first saw my family tree. Mine, along with others who shared my last name, wrapped up like a beautifully intricate tree trunk, various beige and brown parchments rolled up with jute string. Under a red flag, in one of the huts on the banks of the holy river Ganga in Haridwar, sat a pandit who looked after the genealogy of all the Malhotras from Qadirabad, now in Pakistan. This Pothi, Vahi or a family register sometimes holds up to hundreds of years of family history, and it is a customary act and duty for every family to update it at the event of a birth or death. Sheet by sheet, they record names, addresses, birthplaces, ancestors and titles. Over centuries, these registers have become a vital and visceral genealogical source for many families in tracing their history, especially after the Partition of India in 1947.' . By Aanchal Malhotra #museumofmaterialmemory #family #history #life #death #remnantsofaseparation #familytree #book

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Unlike most other museums, the Museum of Material Memory is not limited to a particular site, and doesn’t require an acquisition of objects. “ A lot of the objects hold an emotional attachment for people, they are part of their history, and where they come from. We don’t want to take that away,” says Navdha. The duo are, however, keen to do pop-up exhibits in the near future where people will get to interact with the objects.

While the project is self-funded at the moment, Aanchal and Navdha are seeking funding to gather a team to collect stories and give a token amount to people who travel to research objects.

“Every one of us should be empowered keepers of our own histories, whether they were oral or material based. We hope that this website will encourage people to explore their histories further,” says Aanchal.

To share a memory of an object or view more exhibits, visit museumofmaterialmemory.com.

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