the lede HISTORY

Getting the Picture

The mystery of an iconic Partition photograph

By Anhad Hundal | 1 September 2016

On 18 August 1947, the American magazine Life carried a photograph of BS Kesavan, who would soon become the first national librarian of newly independent India. Captured by the photojournalist David Douglas Duncan, the image shows Kesavan, a young man with his hand buried in his hair, sitting at a table between two large stacks of books. The stack on the left is topped by a white placard that says “PAKISTAN,” while one atop the other says “INDIA.” The caption reads, “In the Imperial Secretariat Library, a curator tries to divide a 150,000-volume collection into equal parts for each new state.” In August of 1997, Time magazine—by then Life’s parent publication—reprinted the image in a commemorative issue for the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence.

The photo has been the subject of considerable confusion. In recent years it has gained prominence on the internet, where it is often incorrectly described as having been taken in the National Library, in Kolkata—not the Imperial Secretariat Library, which is in Delhi, and is now called the Central Secretariat Library. When I contacted the Central Secretariat Library, Y Avanindranath Rao, an information officer, confirmed that the photograph was taken in the library, in 1947. BS Kesavan’s son, the academic and essayist Mukul Kesavan, confirmed to me that his father was a curator there at the time.

Two years ago, The Guardian published an article captioning the image with the same wrong information about it being taken in the National Library. For this year’s Republic Day, Hindustan Times ran it in a piece about iconic Indian photographs, with the caption: “An image from 1947 showing the partition of books from India and Pakistan, at the Calcutta National Library.” Both outlets cite the Twitter account @IndiaHistorypic, which has over 200,000 followers, as the source for the image.

More is at stake here than the misidentification of a library. In fact, the partitioning of books that the picture purports to depict never happened, at either of the two libraries.

Anwesha Sengupta, a scholar who has written about the administrative fallout of Partition, told me over the phone that the only libraries that were divided were ones under the control of individual provinces—not those under central, or imperial, control. The Imperial Library and the Imperial Secretariat Library were both under imperial control, and thus were not partitioned. One collection that was divided, she said, was that of the Calcutta Madrasah Library, which boasted the world’s oldest Persian manuscripts. “It is sad, because those manuscripts were taken to Dhaka in open trucks, and the rain destroyed many of them,” she said. “And today, the Madrasah library in Kolkata only has catalogues from after 1947.”

Mukul, too, said that the country’s main libraries were never divided. For the Imperial Secretariat Library, he told me, “The division of library resources was mooted but not implemented.”

He said there was initially also a proposal to divide the books in the National Library between India and Pakistan, but “of course, that was not successful. I mean, on what rule of thumb would you partition books? It is impractical.”

But that still left a question unanswered: how had his father appeared in the photograph? Mukul was less sure of this. He recounted seeing the Time photograph in 1997 and showing it to his father, saying, “Look, there’s a picture of you apparently partitioning the National Library.” His father “just laughed and said, ‘you know that this never happened.’” I asked Mukul if his father meant to say that the partitioning never happened, or that such a photograph had never been taken at all. He confirmed that his father had meant the former.

Initially, Mukul speculated that the image might be doctored in some way. “Look at the internal absurdity of the photograph,” he said, adding that “the boards on the books are so white”—more so than is customary for pictures from that period. “It is a bad photograph” that is “framed ludicrously,” he said. “I’m astonished that a magazine like Time would publish it.”

But in a later email conversation, Mukul conceded that it was possible that the image was unedited—but still staged. Perhaps “the photographer wanted a dramatic picture illustrating the strangeness of partitioning a country, so with the help of two white boards marked PAKISTAN and INDIA he persuaded Kesavan (in Delhi) to participate in a dramatic enactment of a book partition,” he wrote.

I contacted Rahaab Allana, a photographer and the curator at an arts non-profit in Delhi, to get his opinion on the image. He also suggested that it seemed staged. “I was just looking at the literal, physical location of these placards—Pakistan on the left, India on the right, which is very much the correct geography,” he said. The placement of the books, he continued, also results “in a very balanced kind of image—the higher pile of books receding into the back with Pakistan, and the foreground of books with India, coming closer to the viewer.”

But he said that the doubts about the image’s veracity did “not take away from the reality of the situation.” He added: “That is about how you read an image. The work of any photojournalist includes editing and censorship.” This particular photograph, Allana suggested, strikes a powerful chord about Partition itself. “The role of the photographer is to suggest that this is a farce,” he said. “You cannot really partition India and Pakistan just like that. You can do it in a library, but lives are at stake.”

Anhad Hundal is an intern at The Caravan.

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