Roundabout| Country roads, take me home
Travel and street photographer Graciela Magnoni creates a poetic photo journey in a book that travels through partitioned Punjab, 74 years after the great divide
“But, the world shall end, when I forget.” - Itylus, Algernon Charles Swinburne
Come August, Punjabis on both sides of the barbed fence that cleaves the land of five rivers will look back at the once composite culture of the region with a sense of loss and longing.
The madman in Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh who is among the mental asylum inmates being shifted to either country on the basis of religion will resurrect himself in collective memory. The indefatigable Bishan Singh who has forgotten everything only remembers his village. “Where is Toba Tek Singh? In India or Pakistan?” he pitifully asks. Not receiving an answer, he chooses to collapse on the no-man land between the barbed wires. This longing for home has not whittled one bit, and the third generation of those subjected to one of the most brutal and largest forced migrations in history are always eager to look for the villages and towns that were lost in the exodus whenever an opportunity arises.
“This is the poignant resistance that one finds in the literature penned on the Partition,” says Graciela Magnoni, who has brought out a poetic photo journey with the heart-wrenching title Watan (Homeland). Married to a second-generation Punjabi from a migrant family, the photographer dedicates the book to ‘Prem Lata and Nandy Singh, my dear Sass te Saura’ and adds: “They gave me unconditional pyaar and an adoptive Watan I love.”
Designed as a coffee-table book, it encases the love, passion, resilience and remorse of Punjabis in pictures of life as it is today in the villages of the pre-Partition Punjab. “The rural landscape, life and spirit are so similar that I just put in the photographs without mentioning the country they were clicked in,” says the photographer.
Pulled into the Punjab story
Graciela, who was born to a French father and a Uruguayan mother moved from one country to another with her parents. Thus, migration was something familiar to her. “I have lived in many countries, including France, Spain, Columbia, Panama and Brazil. The deaths of my parents in 1983 and 1989 and their burial in Brazil, a foreign land, made me think about what it is to die in a foreign land. What is it that makes us yearn for our homeland at the end of our lives? A similar feeling arose when I went to immerse the ashes of my parents-in-law in Kiratpur.”
Graciela has had an enduring interest in travelling and photography since she was 15. Her career began in the Brazilian Press in 1984. In 1990, she moved to New York and worked for Brazilian and Argentinian papers and magazines, covering the news. Moving to Singapore in 2003, she wielded her camera in cities of the region and the world. Graciela was to meet a young man of Punjabi descent, Mano Vikrant Singh, in New York and marry him in 1993. The couple has a son Sebastian, 24, and a daughter, Devika, 21.
Known for her candid photographs, Graciela says: “Photographing Sikhs in Punjab was an opening into the culture of my husband and his family. I did not know that it would evolve into a journey to the Punjab across the borders. I got pulled into the Punjab story, the drastic separation of people who had lived together and loved each other, the idea of a homeland or Watan erased from the map. I started identifying with the emotional connections and moments left behind.”
Train to Pakistan in 2019
The more she photographed Punjab villages in India, the more she yearned to cross into Pakistan from India by train to see the border and experience the crossing. Finally, it happened in February 2019. Looking back at the emotional journey, she says: “In Lahore, I visited my father-in-law’s home and his beloved Government College. Being a part of the Indian Hockey Team that had defeated the British in 1948, he was a hero for the family. This was like avenging what they did to India for 200 years and what they did to Punjab as they left.”
Photographing the villages there, she found the same hospitality, warmth and magical moments as in the Indian Punjab. The striking similarities in the images from both sides made it impossible to tell which is which and the idea of a book took shape. The book was seven years in the making, of which five were spent photographing and the remaining in putting together the book. Graciela read Partition literature copiously during the period and uses excerpts of poetry by Bulleh Shah, Amrita Pritam, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ustad Daman and Gulzar. “When I started photographing, I knew very little about the Partition, but I read a lot of literature,” she says. A passage has also been added from Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’ and spontaneous quotes by villagers help build the narrative.
Activist Salima Hashmi, the elder daughter of Faiz, says: “In Graciela’s work one senses a deep attachment to the terrain and its many avatars. These images speak of gentle exertions, of understated labour, of travails overcome, and a persistence of calm and longevity. She has explored and captured the enduring landscape, the stoic and tenacious farmers, the resourceful helpmate women, the shy young girls, the boisterous boys, the ebullient children, the people of Punjab sharing what can never be divided—forever Punjabis! She is a witness to this fact.”