The lowest depths: Partition through objects of fictitious togetherness/Fictitious objects of togetherness)
‘In cities, the government had ensured that Hindu Pani (water) and Muslim Pani (water) were separately served at Railway stations and other public places, an arrangement that did not seem to invite popular protest’ (Rajmohan Gandhi, 2013)
‘Truth was supposed to hit home before a lie’ Wislawa Symborska
“ ….if history cannot solve our problems then we have to stop listening to it for solutions. For the only answer it has offered us is violence that refuses to meet, or hear, the other”
1930s Punjab was not an idyllic place for some communities, and separate water arrangements testify to it. Not only are these arrangements reminiscent of untouchability practices still prevalent in India till today, but Gandhi’s statement interrogates prevalent narratives of Hindu-Muslim amity which have seen a renewed visibility thanks to the large- scale collection of oral memories spearheaded by the 1947 Partition Archive and the Partition Museum recently set up in Amritsar.
In the 1930s, Hindus/Sikhs and Muslims were forced to drink from the same glass as a way to bring them together. In 1939, Mahatma Gandhi visited Punjab and emphasized the sameness of water: he declared ‘..are we all not Punjabis drinking the same water, breathing the same air and deriving sustenance from the same soil’.
Throughout my career, my practice has focused on waterscapes encompassing cities (such as Delhi, Hamburg, Shanghai, Patna, Varanasi and Milan) and semi-urban areas (river banks such as the Yamuna and the Elbe, Yangtze) and their mythological presences (I was not waving but drowning, 2005; Listener from West Heavens, 2010; You always step into the same river, 2014). In the present project, I aim to conceptualize my work focusing on the interplay between memory, postmemory and truth around the Freedom Struggle, Partition and subsequent events in Punjab. I deploy the trope of water to interrogate people, territories and the politics of water sharing, rivers and borders activated by the above historical moments. Drawing on local meanings of rivers and water of the land for each community
and Punjabis in general, I aim explore the notion of truth within ‘Punjabiyat’ (being from The Punjab) - which both Hindus and Muslims pride themselves here and across the border. My inquiry stems from the ways in which a nexus of opacity, denial and untruth appears to mark the relationship between India and a major event such as Partition. Through my show, I wish to explore how this nexus has emerged, what it means to understand history and the present through this nexus, and what are the implications in the context of the present political regime.
My work draws from research (through photography, video and other materials) I carried out at my ancestral village, Sri Hargobindpur, in the Gurdaspur District of Punjab. The village lies at about 50kms from the Indian-Pakistan border at Dera Baba Nanak (where a great deal of refugees entered the newly-created India, and stayed in camps until they moved to other regions of India) and 50kms from the holy city of Amritsar.
While waiting for the deliberations of the Boundary Commission, in 1947, all inhabitants of Sri Hargobindpur village and the district - Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs - experienced a state of great uncertainty as the fate of the district Gurdaspur remained undecided. This limbo state ended with the announcement that the village would be part of India, a decisionresulting in virtually all Muslims moving to Pakistan and some Hindu landowners moving to Delhi and Bombay. My family and my father, Mahendra Bhalla, was part of the latter movement. My father, who later became a known writer/poet/playwright, was 14 years old when he left for Delhi. He was in the process of writing his memoirs on the village when he passed away last year.
Partition was not the only traumatic event in this region however: Sri Hargobindpur village bears the mark of a fierce battle fought by the sixth Sikh Guru, Hargobind Sahib, against Mughal forces in December 1634. Although heavily outnumbered, the Guru was victorious and legend has it that all Muslims in the area were massacred. Repenting the violence perpetrated against the Muslims, the Guru built a mosque (the only mosque been built by a Sikh), called Guru ki Maseet or Guru’s Mosque. The mosque has been declared a UNESCO historical site. It is partially functional however, as until recently no Muslim families lived in the village – while recently some settled in the outskirts of the village.. Thus, the Imam from Chandigarh has been invited every year to offer prayers on Eid at the mosque site. However today, the mosque is looked after by Nihangs, the Guru’s army, who still attire themselves as if for a war. There is a well in the mosque courtyard, and it is unclear whether this is used by all faiths and castes.
Through my practice, I aim to bring together my father’s archives and memoirs with the present inter-faith communities’ dynamics around the Guru’s mosque in order to explore the history of Hindu-Muslim enmity and friendship pre, during and post-Partition. More broadly, I want to explore notions of truth within the Punjabiyat geocultural context: what does truth mean today, and how did Partition affect this notion, how does postmemory help us in establishing a notion of truth(s)? In order to address these questions and how they are currently being addressed or erased in the public domain, deploying water as an agent of cleansing, purifying, washing, and blessing in all religions, but also one that shows our lowest depths. What is water’s ability to uplift us?