This Introduction examines the contested histories of Partitions in South Asia with an emphasis on memory and the line, the map and the museum. The map is read variously as a decolonial device through the works of contemporary artists such as Gulammohamed Sheikh's ongoing project ‘Mappa Mundi’, which uses psychogeography as a cosmopolitan palimpsest for exploring the rich layered histories of artistic production, mysticism and magic realism. The line we read in relation to Radcliffe’s rather hasty decision to carve up India in 1947. In Mountbatten's words, the British really ‘fucked up’. The line had devastating consequences for the displacement of millions, leading to millions of deaths and lasting trauma. The legacies of such trauma are only just beginning to be recognised. In many ways artists such as Somnath Hore and Shilpa Gupta have led the way. Officially, the Partition Museum opened in Amritsar in Autumn 2016. Still very much a site of construction it aims to provide a much needed parallel to Holocaust memorials and the Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg. The Introduction also proposes the importance of iconopraxis, the criticality of the subaltern and the power of fabulation as ways of negotiating the genealogies of Partition.
This article attempts to think about Partition in terms of what Jacques Rancière calls a distribution or partition (partage) of the sensible, with deep, ongoing ramifications in the present. It examines the logics of images, and the relations between ways of sensing, knowing, and occupying space generated in the lead-up to Partition: in the encounters between ‘traditional’ image practices, the aesthetics of representative democracy, and new image technologies, including – but not only – those of mass reproduction. This makes possible a consideration of caste alongside religion as part of the same art historical story as Partition, and as part of the same aesthetic terms of struggle – albeit with different political outcomes – over how the ‘parts with no part’ were to become a part of, or apart from, the new nation. In the process, the article explores how the lessons of Rancière, whose generative ‘ignorance’ never takes him beyond Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Schiller, might be hijacked to the postcolony.
What are the challenges of Partition for the narratives of art history in the subcontinent today? What kinds of methods of analysis and modes of understanding are necessary to confront the indeterminate, yet proliferating forces of this experience? And what is the role of contemporary art in relation to the new critical historiography of Partition? This article responds to these questions through a consideration of two crucial themes – the status of history and the problem of the border – which signal numerous temporal and spatial dilemmas related to Partition's imprint upon the subcontinent today. By engaging with the tropes of history and the border, the article considers some of the possibilities (and limitations) of certain orientations towards Partition vis-à-vis the visual arts, and points ultimately to the intellectual necessity for a more rigorously dialectical approach.
In 2010, the author published a book titled ‘The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India’ (Duke University Press) in which she demonstrated how the deified body of Mother India and the geo-body of India – as iconised by the outline map – are put to work over the course of the long twentieth century by India’s ‘barefoot cartographers’ to transform the nation-space into a sacred pastoral landscape worth living and dying for. In this article, Ramaswamy takes up for consideration ten contrary watercolours also featuring the map of India that make up Atul Dodiya’s series ‘Tearscape’ (2001). Dodiya lives and works in Mumbai. Produced at the beginning of a new century, these works evacuate the glorious goddess from her occupation of the map of India, and populate it instead with abject figures that disenchant, even desecrate, the national geo-body. What is dared in transforming thus the map of the nation from a repository of pastoral plenitude into the dystopian address of the (female) abject? And to what end does Dodiya undertake such a risky manoeuvre, fifty years after the nation's geo-body was created out of the conflagration that was the Partition of India?
Zainul Abedin, the master-artist of post-1947 East Pakistan and current Bangladesh is an artist firmly marked by his iconic sketches of hunger and displacement from the famine years of 1943–1944 in wartime colonial Bengal. Abedin’s famine sketches triggered a milieu of social realism in pre-partition Bengal, a space shared with a growing left-wing cultural activism that patronised realism as progressive art. The late-1940s splintered this radical aesthetic, not only with the diffusion of the Left’s cultural agenda, but the displacement of artists like Abedin into post-partition East Pakistan. While the famine itself cast a long shadow on the socio-economic fabric of postcolonial Bengal, partition in 1947 refracted its shadows in multiple ways. In India, (West) Bengal bore the fault-lines of 1943 and 1947, constituting almost, the shadows of Nehruvian national-modern promise. In East Pakistan, Abedin’s visual ethic of social realism inhabited the multiple planes the artist negotiated across the long decolonisation in India and Pakistan: as a displaced refugee from Calcutta, as an artist-bureaucrat of post-1947 Pakistan, and the pedagogue-aesthete of post-liberation Bangladesh. Exploring Abedin’s continued interfaces with the famine of 1943, this article places him as that rare storyteller of decolonisation in South Asia, who both invoked and forged its shadows and afterlives.
This article reads anew Gieve Patel’s important 1985 essay ‘To Pick up a Brush’, entering into dialogue with the rich conversations among twentieth-century Indian artists Patel unfolds. Rather than focus solely on the generation after Partition and Independence in 1947, and rather than further intensify attention on artists of the past two decades, the period of the ‘long-1980s’ anchors both Patel’s text and this one. As such, the article revisits Patel’s provocations to invite us to join him in a double-take, one that might enable a new narrative of later twentieth-century art and criticism on the subcontinent.
Driven by direct conversations with contemporary Indian painters, Gieve Patel's essay engages with the struggle to pursue painting in contentious historical times, in an atmosphere of jostling camaraderie and dialogue across the Indian subcontinent. Written in 1985 for an exhibition of contemporary Indian art held at the Abby Weed Grey Gallery in New York, the essay addresses a series of productive problems facing Indian painters at that time, discussing audience, influence (of the past, the ‘West’, regional Indian visual cultures, and other painters), mysticism, form, materiality, colour, criticism, location, the figural, landscape, and the eternal problem of pink.
Exhibitions are often equated with the nation, and used to design and promote national identity. After Indian independence, during the Cold War, exhibitions co-designed by US and Indian practitioners were used to bring together two different countries for mutual (but discrete) national benefit. This article interrogates these ‘national’ exhibitions, attending to their transnational nature and positioning their creators as ‘cosmopolitan patriots’ whose plural identities were forged in the making of exhibitions and the material world. Focusing on the complex professional and personal relationships between Indian and US curators and designers, this article examines three major exhibitions of India held in the US: ‘Jawaharlal Nehru: His Life and His India’ (1965, Eames Office/National Institute of Design); ‘Unknown India’ (1968, Stella Kramrisch/Haku Shah), and ‘The Costumes of Royal India’ (1986, Diana Vreeland/Martand Singh). Together they highlight both the transnational nature of Indian nationalism and the limits of exhibitions as tools of the nation.
This article proposes an expansion of the field of Partition Studies to include the work of globally dispersed diasporic artists. Undertaking a detailed study of the work of three contemporary artists, Nilofar Akmut, Zarina Bhimji and Navin Rawanchaikul, this article suggests that the legacies of Partition traverse geographical boundaries and have been inherited by a generation who were not witness to its cataclysmic events. In specific artworks, Partition is variously directly or obliquely referenced, and provides a contextual frame for the construction of personal identities. Exhibited in Britain, these artworks also serve to remind audiences of the consequences of British Imperialism, and propose that the Partition of British India should rightly be included in narratives of British history.
The South Asian Network for the Arts (SANA), established in 2000, facilitated artistic exchanges across the highly contested borders in the region. SANA was made up of Khoj in India, Vasl in Pakistan, Teertha in Sri Lanka, and Britto in Bangladesh – all member organisations of the UK-based Triangle Network. The principal goal of these organisations was the development of cutting edge art practice in each country, but the signature gesture of the network was the pan-regional international workshop. SANA and aligned projects should be understood as the infrastructure – the institutions of patronage, material structures of transmission or travel, and frameworks of thought – for a South Asian art world that developed or was reconfigured to be regionally inclusive after 1997. This article builds upon the anthropology of infrastructure, which articulates the ‘politics and poetics’ of what seem to be largely matters of engineering. Examining art infrastructure requires the opposite operation: an integration of the materiality of artistic networks into a discourse preoccupied with their aesthetic and, to a somewhat lesser extent, political significance. For while the immaterial aspects of artist networks are, of course, important, conditions in the South Asian region, with its legacy of state opposition to the movement of both people and things across national borders, provide ample evidence for how equally important material networks can be for art and its circulation.
This article analyses two exhibitions of contemporary South Asian art, ‘My East is Your West’ (Palazzo Benzon, Venice, 2015) and ‘This Night-Bitten Dawn’ (24 Jor Bagh, New Delhi, 2016), that took up Partition as an everyday effect rather than a historical event. Departing from the national art survey model that has dominated museum and international exhibition venues such as the Venice Biennale since the early 2000s, both exhibitions focused on the complex afterlives of the Partition of 1947 and highlighted its recursive character. In so doing, they presented a critique of contemporary nationalism and globalisation through the trope of Partition, enacting what Gayatri C Spivak has called a critical regionalism against ‘identitarianism’. This regionalism is not a regional style, but an analytic mode, critical stance, and historically-informed approach to the region and its borders, nations and partitions. ‘My East is Your West’ and ‘This Night-Bitten Dawn’ imagined a region across shifting sites and scales, and claimed belonging to Partition, that is, to division and dislocation as the basis of identity, territory, community and society in South Asia.
This article is based on the research and development of a theatre drama in 2016, ‘Silent Sisters’. I consider how the Partition of India-Pakistan, when over ten million people were displaced, is remembered in diasporic contexts of Britain. These recollections and representations may be explored in terms of three main registers. The first broad context may encompass memories and artefacts that are directly from the period of mass displacement, the latter extremely rare in that most people were too caught up in the urgency of carrying only bare essentials, if anything at all. The second series of contexts may refer to free-floating representations, created in and on different time-spaces, but once embedded in semiotically rich contexts about a Partition recreated take on new meanings and resonances that can be equally emotive. Relatedly, the third case is of how objects and memories become part of a generative archive that encompasses a range of media on the theme of Partition – a canon that is potentially endless. In this case, the archive is pieced together out of ‘skipping memories’ and tendrils that remain, tangible and intangible. It is an intersensory and fragmentary archive that is not just retrospective but also future-orientated in terms of what the fragment might catalyse to create wider synergies, whether they be visual, narrativised, sung, embodied, recited, enacted, digitalised, imagined and/or created.
Theories of censorship tend to describe censorship as a force of proscription or exclusion, imposed from above: a supervening authority, a bureaucracy, the demotic mob, corporate media, etc, produces a barrier against talking, acting or behaving in the way we want to or what needs to be said. This article looks at cultural politics in India at two critical moments of its history: in the 1950s, when major state institutions of culture – the Akademis, the National School of Drama, etc – were first established under the ‘liberal’ aegis of the Nehruvian administration; and at the turn of the 1990s, when these institutions might be said to be undergoing a certain crisis owing to major shifts in the governmental arrangement, accompanied by severe challenges from civil society groups and the right. Taking up the relevant archives – the cultural seminars on dance, music, drama and film hosted by the Indian government in the 1950s; the artist-activist group Sahmat; the Haksar Committee deliberations of 1988–1989 – the article argues that this modernist vision of censorship as a form of interference in what is otherwise the potential, pure transmissibility of speech, is a fallacy. Censorship is inherent in any social contract. To the extent that each of the above institutions were created to instigate and support a culture and aesthetics of freedom, to the extent that they were mandated to infuse various cultural forms of the country with the liberal constitutional spirit, they also represent mandates for censorship. Rather than describing censorship in terms of ‘vertical’ prophylaxes between above and below, the article argues that censorship must be seen, rather, as a dissipated force, appearing where certain concentrations of power or agreements establish themselves, even if, or rather precisely, in the interest of supporting the liberal or inclusive ethos of free speech.
In 1950s India, the melancholic figure of the post-Partition refugee had asserted an obdurate presence in the work of artists such as Tyeb Mehta, Satish Gujral and Bhabesh Sanyal, among others. The artistic engagements that registered Partition through the recursive presence of the displaced body of the refugee have received some scholarly attention in recent years. Complementing this strand within art historiography, this article focuses on architecture photography and architectonic sculpture to probe the intersecting vectors of post-Partition displacement and the dematerialisation of the human body in abstraction during the protracted aftermath of terrifying uprooting. In tandem, the article seeks to conjoin the post-Partition and the post-war archive, not only to open up the field of post-war art to plural histories but also to foreground the art historical segues that such a reading necessarily stimulates. Although the intersections between post-war humanism and artistic conceptions of abstraction and figuration in the North Atlantic worlds have been central to revisionist histories of the post-World War II decades, the Indian subcontinent’s post-Partition art and history has not been part of this conversation. Thus, even as the subcontinent provides an intellectual home to this article, its conceptual vectors seek to advance the field of post-war modernism past its conceptual limits.
In the visual realm, the Bangladesh war of 1971 is bound up with images of communal violence and mass migration that recall the trauma of 1947 when Bengal was divided between West and East Bengal, India and Pakistan. As in the case of the 1940s famines and the Partition of India and Pakistan, the birth of Bangladesh churned out a large number of what Jacques Rancière calls ‘naked images’. Yet, contrary to Partition, the body of works that resulted from this war, whether in documentary photography or in formally experimental painting and print, is seldom examined, and that despite considerable artistic mobilisation. By analysing the responses of Indian artists, including that of Bhupen Khakhar and K G Subramanyan, this article asks crucial questions on the enduring role of partitions within South Asian artistic production. The article also probes India's changing role within the hierarchies of the international system and considers Indian artists’ position vis-à-vis the politics of the Non-Aligned Movement and Third-Worldism.
Mapping the complex temporalities set in motion by Partition for film representation and production, this article explores the aesthetic and narrative choices in vernacular cinema from early Pakistan. Here, both émigré and ‘indigenous’ film-makers in post-Partition Lahore embraced Punjabi to safely negotiate a regional market, revealing continuity with pre-national film output. Thematically, these films drew on folk tales and legends (qissa – dastan) popular in the subcontinent for centuries, whilst deploying mystical Sufism to fashion a distinctive form, that of the ‘rustic release’. ‘Rustic’ both in narrative content and technical treatment, these films reveal an imagery fabricated by infrastructural constraints. Visuals of an agrarian and highly stratified society are crafted commensurate with vernacular literary output from the region, and imbued with Sufi tropes of healing mystics, charismatic transgressors and annihilating love. Reading the partition classic ‘Kartar Singh’ (Saifuddin Saif, 1959), the author follows the crystallisation of a local aesthetic, through the interplay of location, film apparatus, contingency (Partition) and image, thus bringing forth the manner in which Lahore films are simultaneously products and re-enactments of Partition.
THIRD TEXT is published in print and online by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group