Inheritance of loss: Partition Museum to open in Delhi on Thursday
The Partition Museum, set up at the restored Dara Shikoh Library Building (DSLB) at Kashmere Gate, will be inaugurated on May 18.
A confluence of letters, documents, clothes, photographs, and other memorabilia sourced from families whose members migrated to India in the aftermath of the subcontinent’s Partition will give visitors to Delhi’s first Partition Museum a peek into the manner in which the Capital experienced the world’s largest migration.
These exhibits will be on display at the Partition Museum at the restored Dara Shikoh Library Building (DSLB) on the Ambedkar University campus at Kashmere Gate. The museum, to be inaugurated on May 18, will open doors to visitors soon after with the initiation of bookings from May 20.
The museum is managed by The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust (TACHT) which set up a Partition Museum in Amritsar earlier. The trust adopted the heritage building inside the Ambedkar University campus as a part of the Adopt a Heritage initiative in March 2021. Conservation work at DSLB was undertaken by the Delhi government’s department of art, culture and language.
The museum has six galleries focusing on the national movement leading up to Independence, Partition, and its aftermath — Towards Independence and Partition, Migration, Refuge, Rebuilding Home, Rebuilding Relationships, and Hope and Courage. Each gallery is peppered with audio-visual testimonies, black and white photographs, archival newspaper clippings, sculptures, installations, portraits, documents and other memorabilia.
“Partition survivors suffered a lot. It’s important to remember them so that the horrors of the past are not repeated. The museum also focuses on stories of hope and courage since it’s important to give the message that despite the magnitude of the tragedy, Partition survivors didn’t carry the bitterness with them and became nation builders. Survivors despite suffering so much started afresh and continue to recall their past ties fondly,” said Kishwar Desai, chair, TACHT.
Installations depicting Partition trauma
Even before one enters the museum, the lobby area leading up to the galleries gives a glimpse into what the museum has to offer. Through works of art and photographs focusing on the tragedy of the Partition and the resilience of the survivors, the lobby depicts a continuum of the past and the present. A papier mache sculpture of a horse, Zuljanah, carrying a load of skeletons and bones by Kashmiri artist Veer Munshi is placed at the beginning of the lobby. The sculpture depicts the trauma and pain of millions who were compelled to abandon their homes for distant lands. At some distance, an upturned ‘Fallen House’, another of Munshi’s creations, depicts the unsettling nature of displacement.
Portraits of Partition witnesses
The walls of the lobby are lined with large sized portraits of Partition witnesses from Old Delhi. The images were clicked by artist Serena Chopra whose mother hailed from Mardan in present-day Pakistan. The larger-than-life pictures in black and white are coupled with testimonies of the survivors who recall their memories of Jawahar Lal Nehru’s first speech from the ramparts of Red Fort, stories of co-existence among different communities, and painful accounts from days when violence ravaged their localities.
As one enters the museum section housing the various galleries, a large black-and-white picture of a young refugee boy sitting on the walls of Purana Qila clicked by American documentary photographer Margaret Bourke-White greets visitors. The first gallery on Independence and Partition is peppered with large cutouts of newspaper clippings, photographs, maps, stamps, documents, and information boards outlining the events that were unfolding in the country in the years preceding the Partition and until 1947. Exhibits and objects sourced from Partition survivors are placed at various points across all the galleries. The objects that were carried across the border and items intertwined in personal stories of Partition survivors serve as repositories of memories.
Showel and bowl used to inaugurate Punjabi Bagh
One of the exhibits enclosed in a glass box is a bowl and shovel that was used during the inauguration of Punjabi Bagh in 1959. A panel adjacent to the exhibit narrates how the locality got its name. Set up by the Refugees Co-operative Housing Society, the colony was initially known as Refugee Housing Society until then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru declared that the colony should be renamed as Punjabi Bagh. The objects were donated by Nawal Kant Sethi.
India Pakistan passport
Another unique exhibit at the museum is the special passport issued by the Indian government in 1955 that only facilitated direct travel between India and Pakistan. The passport, Desai said, demonstrates how the link between the two countries never broke.
Sitar that travelled from Lahore to Delhi
The division of the subcontinent triggered a mass migration of millions. While many had to flee overnight with no material possessions, some survivors managed to carry personal objects. One such object is a Sitar that charted a journey from Lahore to Delhi via Rajasthan. Savita Batra, a Delhi resident, grew up watching her father play the Sitar in Lahore. Post Partition, the family carried the instrument to Rajasthan and eventually Delhi, where Savita took up residence.
Hoping to learn the instrument, Savita took it for repair to Rikhi Ram, whose name was inscribed on the Sitar and who had now set up a shop at Connaught Place. Ram recognised the Sitar immediately. In the decades that followed, the instrument served as a family heirloom and has been donated by the Batra family to the museum.
While multiple galleries at the museum take visitors on a tumultuous journey across the borders and confront them with the horrors of the Partition, the gallery on hope and courage makes a shift and depicts how people across India and Pakistan continue to preserve and cherish their ties. This part of the museum is made of exhibits gifted by Pakistani residents to the second generation of Partition survivors and copies of sculptures that were gifted to Pakistani residents by Indians.
The Cricketer, a bronze sculpture made artist Amar Nath Sehgal was presented by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to the Pakistani cricket team during their India tour in 1961. The exhibit has been sourced from the Amar Nath Sehgal Private Collection, a repository of Sehgal’s artworks. Amid the turbulent nature of relations between the two countries, the gift served as a token of goodwill and demonstrated the continuance of Indo-Pak ties despite the geographical division of the subcontinent.
The museum also houses objects that travelled to India many decades after the Partition. Among them is a power meter that Priyanka Mehta, granddaughter of a Partition witness, brought to India. Mehta visited her maternal grandmother’s home in Lahore and was gifted the original power meter of the house by the Iftikhar family that was allotted the home after Partition.