In October 2013, Aanchal Malhotra visited the home of her maternal grandfather in north Delhi’s Roop Nagar. She was accompanying photographer Mayank Austen Soofi, who was going to the house for a project he was working on. Malhotra, an artist who was living in Montreal and pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) from Concordia University at that time, had come to Delhi on a break.
The bungalow she and Soofi were going to visit, called Vij Bhawan, was where Malhotra’s mother had grown up. It had housed nearly three generations of a largely joint family and was built in 1955 by Chunni Lal Vij, the family patriarch who co-owned a jewelry business in Chandni Chowk. The house left Malhotra with the distinct impression that “everything had remained the same since its original construction.” She and Soofi spent several hours with her grandfather, Vishwa Nath Vij, and his brother, Yash Pal Vij, talking, about the architecture of the building and unravelling the history that surrounded it.
Suddenly, right in the middle of this conversation, Yash Pal got up and left the room. He returned shortly with a selection of old things, all covered in a fine layer of dust. Yash Pal then proceeded to segregate two objects from the assortment, perhaps assuming that no one would notice the separation. However, these two artifacts immediately caught Malhotra’s attention and she demanded an explanation. The gaz—measuring tape—and ghara—pitcher—were no treasure, her grandfather assured her. The only thing that made them distinct, he told her, was that they belonged to the pre-Partition era. Malhotra was intrigued. “I’d never heard somebody use that terminology in an everyday setting,” she later told me. Soon, Yash Pal began regaling Soofi and her with tales of the family’s journey from Lahore to Delhi. So immersed was he in the narrative, that Malhotra felt that, “he was in the room and he was not there at all.” Memories that had been locked away for far too long were now flooding his mind, and he seemed to be travelling in time.
Surely, Malhotra thought, there must be an archive in which memorabilia akin to the objects she had seen were stored, even if the memories could not be. Not long after her search first began, Malhotra realised that no such tribute existed. She was baffled by the lack of any space commemorating a seismic occurrence that had affected and displaced over 20 million people. Freshly acquainted—through the lens of her family— with what its absence meant, Malhotra became intent on creating one herself.
Over the weeks that followed the conversation with her grandfather, Malhotra was unable to shake the image of the two objects that had first piqued her curiosity. In 2014, she decided to begin documenting the lives of those who had survived the Partition and the objects to which they had assigned certain memories as they shifted into a post-Partition setting. The objects she photographed served as catalysts for conversations about the time that they represented, leading to a retelling of stories that required some extraction and gentle listening. This documentation became the subject of her MFA thesis. Nearly two years since she first embarked on this journey, Malhotra has now met and interviewed 25 people for the project—titled Remnants of a Separation—across Delhi and Lahore. In the beginning, the thesis was her way of honouring the sacrifices of her grandparents. However, as her research was underway, Remnants of a Separation metamorphosed into a people’s project: relatives began talking to anyone who called themselves a refugee from the 1947 Partition, and Malhotra welcomed this development.
What Malhotra did not know was that, at around the same time, Kishwar Desai, her neighbour in south Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave and an author who currently chairs the Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust, was working on a project of her own to address the same concerns that Malhotra had been consumed by. Desai was in the midst of planning and conceptualising what she would later call The Partition Museum Project.
For Desai, the museum symbolised an urgent need to create a tangible repository of stories that were slowly diminishing from our collective memories. Through this project, she hopes to evoke a sense of belonging for anyone who interacts with the archive. Working with a team of eight people, she aims to develop the organisation in incremental stages: collect data, create a bank of records and get people interested in the idea of a physical space that is devoted to the Partition. The museum will largely consist of personal possessions, and by extension, individual stories of those who lived through that time. All of these, Desai hopes, will eventually come together to weave a picture of life before and after the division was made.
Two women, inspired by the stories they had heard from their family were now using two different routes in pursuance of the same objective: preserving the memories of all those who had travelled across borders in 1947—one photograph, one object and one letter at a time. A chance conversation between Malhotra’s mother and Desai led to the idea of a possible collaboration, and the launch of The Partition Museum Project presented the perfect opportunity. Last Saturday, the India International Centre at Lodhi Road in Delhi was host to the event. The hall was packed yet silent. Desai and Malhotra came together, along with others, in front of a patient and eager audience, and presented the fragmented memories—both personal and passed down—that they were attempting to preserve through words and images, stories and echoes.
Sukruti Anah Staneley is an assistant photo editor at The Caravan.