Raena Bents, Contributing Writer
September 25, 2022
Iron tongues rusted over, cholis hanging from the ceiling without bodies inside, a chess game played on a map of Northern India; these are the narrative-rich pieces sitting on display within the sleek walls of the South Asia Institute of Chicago.
The institute, which officially opened in 2019 in Chicago’s Chinatown, recently installed an exhibit entitled “Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories” by socio-political feminist artist Pritika Chowdhry.
The installation is an anti-memorial project commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Partition of India and reflecting on the experiences of the millions of people affected by the partition.
In 1947, as Britain’s nearly 200-year colonial rule in India came to an end, Britain divided India into two separate dominions: India and Pakistan.
Anti-memorials are these “transitory exhibits that memorialize the past,” said co-founder of the South Asia Institute Afzal Ahmad.
“As opposed to the memorials that have been erected that are permanent,” said second co-founder Shireen Ahmad..
Chowdhry’s “anti-memorial” does not oversimplify the partition, but rather legitimizes it and makes it more tangible.
The exhibit displays casts of old guns from the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka made from latex panels. It also displays a cast of the back of a mural wall from the Jalladkhana Memorial in Mirpur.
“It’s a huge project,” Shireen Ahmad said. “[Chowdhry] has documented thousands of stories” within the details of each piece.
The Partition of India birthed contemporary Pakistan, India and eventually Bangladesh. While the Partition meant independence for India from the British, it also subjected millions of people to mass violence and political turmoil.
“[The Partition] was done in haste, and it was done without consultation within three months and very secretively,” said Shailja Sharma, chair of the department of International Studies at DePaul. India was “divided into two political parts, but three geographical parts,” she said.
Pakistan was created as two parts: one to the west of India and one to the east.
“What resulted was just this mass population transfer and displacement of people,” Sharma said.
Often referred to as the holocaust of South Asia, millions of people died in the migration and displacement that followed the creation of the India-Pakistan border.
Chowdhry’s art conveys the emotional weight that this event and its modern implications carry. That burden, for many years, was not widely shared.
“People have talked about it as a political event, as a historical event, but not as an experience,” Sharma said.
Afzal Ahmad sees the duality woven into the effects of the partition as part of the reason the partition has not, until recently, been a common topic of discourse.
“There’s the good twin and the evil twin,” Afzal Ahmad said. “People want to talk about the good twin.”
Afzal Ahmad’s “good twin” symbolizes independence for India. The bad twin: the death, suffering and political animosity.
Not only does Chowdhry amplify the narratives of those directly affected by the partition 75-years-ago, but she also exposes the intersectionality inherent in the atrocity.
In the first bay as you enter the exhibit, six cholis — blouses traditionally worn by women in South Asia — hang in a circle.
“That alludes to the women who suffered during partition, [who are] some of the people who suffered the most,” Afzal Ahmad said.
Toward the back of the exhibit is another piece that uses a creative medium and unique artistic vision to amplify narratives crucial to understanding the partition’s historical relevance.
On the backdrop of a plain white counter sit 79 cast iron tongues spread evenly apart.
Iron is one of the main metals of the industrial revolution and a common instrument of British colonial power. The piece calls attention to the use of the English language as a tool used by the British to assert dominance in India, as well as in other former colonies.
Following the theme of tongues and speech, Shireen Ahmad, while discussing the exhibit, called attention to another key explanation of the overall underwhelming amount of discourse surrounding the partition.
“History is told by the victors,” Shireen Ahmad said.
While India may have gained independence, it was not until after the British “just bled the country dry,” Afzal Ahmad said.
Furthermore, the trauma caused by the events that succeeded the partition was enough to deter those who experienced it from talking about it.
“It’s only now that the second and third generations begin to talk about it,” Sharma said.
Shireen Ahmad has also seen this motivation in younger generations to bring light to this pivotal historic event.
“[They] are asking questions,” Shireen Ahmad said. “There are some excellent projects underway that do share the stories of the partition.”
As you exit the institute, there hangs one final sculpture: a jagged, neon pink line on a stark white wall, accompanied only by a small plaque that reads “Cracking India: The line that still bleeds.”
“Animosity as a result of the violence and the partition still persists in modern politics in both India and Pakistan,” Sharma said.
This animosity is “the line that still bleeds;” this animosity is what Afzal Ahmad and Shireen Ahmad hope to see heal.
“We have to somehow find some kind of reconciliation,” Shireen Ahmad said. “The more coverage you give [the matter],” the more awareness you’ll create “so that it doesn’t happen again.”
Awareness is exactly what this exhibit is creating.
“That’s the line that we’re taking,” Afzal Ahmad said. “We gotta talk about it.”
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Sosha • Sep 26, 2022 at 3:45 pm
This is such a crucial piece of history to shine a light on. Appreciate your investigation and insights here.
Nancy Hansen • Sep 26, 2022 at 9:44 am
A well written and important article. Thank you!