The Lost Heer: Tracing Punjabi women lost in oblivion
Syeda Muhammadi Begum, Sarla Thakral, Hardevi Roshan Lal and Miss Sarda are just few women achievers from pre-Partition Punjab, which at least Punjabis should be familiar with but these names are lost in the records of not just the colonial era but also in the surnames of their husbands.
Syeda Muhammadi Begum was the first woman editor in Punjab who published a women’s weekly newspaper from Lahore ‘Tehzeeb-i-Niswan, writes Harleen Singh in an Instagram post with the picture of Syeda.
Harleen Singh, 23, a Toronto-based engineer, has found his passion in introducing such Punjabi women of pre-Partition Punjab to the world. Singh, born and brought-up in Delhi, is fond of collecting old magazines and books on India.
“During one such volunteer project on recording stories of Partition, I realised that there isn’t enough recorded history on women from colonial Punjab and if there is, it is not part of the discourse,” Singh says.
This realisation and curiosity to know more about Punjabi women prompted him to undertake the project ‘The Lost Heer’. He started this project on his Instagram handle @thesingingsingh last year in October with the picture of a Punjabi woman in ‘purdah’ looking down her ‘jharokha’ window in Lahore from John Lockwood Kipling’s album.
Now the project is in the process of becoming a book on stories of Punjabi women, Singh says.
Sarla Thakral, popularly known as Mrs Sharma, was the first Punjabi woman in India to be qualified as a pilot who got her licence after flying between Karachi and Lahore in 1936.
The story of finding the real name of Mrs Sharma is interesting because in old records women are identified with their husband’s surname, says Harleen. “It was a Yellow Book of who’s who of 1930s where I found Mrs Sharma. Then I found information on her family and her pictures too in the archives of a newspaper.”
Harleen says the story which he likes the most is that of Hardevi Roshan Lal. Hardevi was not just the first Punjabi woman to start her own magazine ‘Bharat Bhagini, but also the first Punjabi woman to write a travelogue ‘London ki Yatra’.
Hardevi became a widow at a very young, but she married Roshan Lal the second time, which was not common in late 1800s, he says. “There are very few snippets on Hardevi available in the books in India and I have not been able to find her picture yet, but the archives in the British Library in London have the editions of her magazine and the book, hence confirming her work.”
Singh, who is not a full-time researcher, spends most of his free time on the websites of the National Archives of India, British Library, National Library of Scotland and other archives of news websites to find the Punjabi women. He says he also relies on oral accounts and later confirms the same through archives.
Singh is not just focusing on women who went to college or pursued a career, his aim is to record and bring in discourse everything about women in colonial Punjab.
From the importance of ‘kotha’ as feminine space, to the cooking techniques used by Punjabi women in the ‘rasois’, dresses, jewellery, observing purdah and stories of Heera Bazar in Lahore, the red light district, find the mention in Singh’s research.