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More Than 75 Years Later, Partition’s Painful Legacy Persists for Artists

Since its independence in 1947, India’s blank canvas has dramatically transformed in color, size, and texture as a result of a checkered, often violent, and constantly evolving post-colonial history.

When England decided to let go of its crown jewel 75 years ago, its rushed departure resulted in the unceremonious division of its Indian territories into three parts, with the Hindu-majority mainland becoming India, flanked by two Muslim-majority regions which became West and East Pakistan. The two ends of Pakistan were further partitioned in 1971, leading to the birth of Bangladesh in the East.

Lines drawn on maps decided the fate of millions and caused untold death and destruction. A region known for centuries of peaceful communion despite differing religious beliefs, cultures, foods, dress, languages, and rulers, was suddenly and arbitrarily torn asunder overnight.

In the wake of these violent acts, artists from the region drew, painted, designed, embroidered, and creatively reimagined their homeland’s numerous configurations for posterity.

Three-quarters of a century on, this has resulted in a rich legacy of work that can be loosely classified as “Partition art,” a tendency that captures both the negative and positive aspects of life after the traumatic events of 1947.

On the one hand, artists have focused on the discomfort of migration, the anxiety of displacement, the emotional scars caused by exposure to abject violence, hatred and fear, and the subjugation of women and other social minorities in propagation of false notions of honor. On the other, artists have also shown how invisible similarities between various communities exceed geographical divisions, exploring the deep and unfettered ties to the land of one’s ancestors and relationships that endure beyond religious splits.

At first, the mantle of documenting this phase of history lay with those who experienced Partition firsthand. Many could not bear to speak of it, but some captured what they witnessed in detail.

On fragile scraps of paper, Sardari Lal Parasher sketched the despair evident on scores of refugees he supervised in a transit camp in 1947. Satish Gujral caught the angst of survival in a haunting 1959 self-portrait where his sharp-featured visage, replete with furrowed brow, peeks out from a shroud-like garment, behind a skeletal figure. Pran Nath Mago sensitively painted the anguish of veiled women mourning a deep loss in Mourners (1950). Krishen Khanna showed the mental and physical despondency of sudden displacement from one’s home, through his painting titled Exodus (2007), where a tonga (horse-drawn cart) carries his family and all they hold dear, over “difficult and uncertain terrain,” as he once described it.

While those artists worked in a figural mode, others after them would take up Partition using the language of abstraction. S.H. Raza returned to the wound in his “Zamin” (Land) series from the 1970s, in which he painted in angry swathes of reds, browns, and yellows. Even without any figures present, these paintings manage to evoke an open wound. It’s a mode not entirely dissimilar from what appears in Zarina’s Dividing Line (2001), which denotes a contested border and a festering gash in equal measure.

A related wound appears to have barely scarred over in Jogen Chowdhury’s 2017 painting Partition 1947, in which a shaky line recalling the border drawn between East Pakistan and Bengal strikes a writhing body. Chowdhury is among the many artists who lived through Partition and has since returned to it in his art. His family moved from East Pakistan to Bengal, and in this painting, he alluded to the economic hardship faced by Bengalis forced to make their lives from scratch in West Bengal.

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