Pritika Chowdhry’s ‘anti-memorials’ honor unseen victims of Indian partition, 75 years later

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNNChicago, United States

Through silent but burning installations, artist Pritika Chowdhry counts on the violence that spreads across generations: mass displacements, rapes and riots stretching back to the winding borders that divide a nation. For 15 years she made works based on the partition of British India into an independent India and Pakistan in 1947, as well as the bloody nationalist conflict that followed in East Pakistan, which broke away to become the Bangladesh in 1971.

Mixed-media works range from latex casts of historical objects, such as monuments and weapons, to poetic recreations of sites where acts of brutality and death took place. Chowdhry calls his works “anti-memorials” – objects that do not simplify world events or the lives of those most affected, but rather bring their memory to life. They are intended to draw attention to those who have been left behind by history, such as unreported victims of massacres and women victims of sexual violence who have lived in silence.

Seven of the installations are currently on display at the South Asia Institute in Chicago, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the partition of India.

Chowdhry’s installation “Memory Leaks” records some of the deaths resulting from violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims since partition. Credit: Courtesy of Pritika Chowdhry/South Asian Institute

At the exhibition, titled “Unbearable Memories, Untold Stories,” the artist invites visitors to play imperial power through a familiar game of strategy – chess – sitting atop a map of the divided region. How much damage can line drawing inflict? In this case, the demarcation triggered a refugee crisis of incalculable proportions as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs fled across the new borders in opposite directions. Between 500,000 and 2 million people died in the exodus, scholars say, and the resulting religious tensions have continued to shape the region’s political and social climate ever since.

“The violence of partition still haunts India’s current geopolitics,” Chowdhry told CNN before his show opened.

This idea underlies his installation “Memory Leaks”, a collection of 17 copper vessels called “dharapatras”, which traditionally pour water or milk over sacred idols in Hindu temples as offerings. Each of Chowdhry’s hanging dharapatras depicts a different riot that has broken out between Hindus and Muslims since partition, and is engraved with the count of the death toll. The most recent riot she referred to took place in Gujarat in 2002 and left hundreds dead, with Muslims torched in their homes after a deadly train attack on Hindus was blamed on extremists Islamic. Chowdhry calls the event a “pogrom” – an organized massacre of an ethnic group.
Installation "Memory leaks" is composed of 17 copper containers called "dharapatras."

The “Memory Leaks” installation is made up of 17 copper containers called “dharapatras”. Credit: Courtesy of Pritika Chowdhry/South Asian Institute

In an attempt to heal these deep divisions, Chowdhry invites visitors to pour water into the vessels. It drips over fragments of burnt books written in Urdu, the native language of Muslims in India and Pakistan.

The arrangement of the 17 dharapatras in an unbroken square symbolizes how the past seeps into the present in a cyclical fashion. Pouring water is a way “to put out the fire, but also to make an offering,” Chowdhry explained.

Memories that fade

Remembering the human impact of these events becomes more difficult as the years pass, the memories fade, and the silence lingers in many families who endured them. Chowdhry, who is now based in Chicago but grew up in Delhi, experienced this firsthand with a family that is often silent about their own losses. The families of the artist’s great-aunt and uncle were devastated during their migration from Karachi to Delhi, with many relatives killed and a daughter kidnapped and never found.

In an ‘anti-memorial’, Chowdhry created a replica of a brick well found at Jallianwala Bagh, a garden in Punjab where British soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed Indian protesters in 1919, catalyzing the independence movement from India. In another, Chowdhry hangs a circle of women’s blouses made of skin-like material and sewn with border lines to show how partition led to mass sexual violence. Some 75,000 women were abducted and raped during partition, as were hundreds of thousands more during the nine-month war for an independent Bangladesh in 1971.
Chowdhry's facility

Chowdhry’s installation “An Archive of 1919: The Year of the Crack-Up”, which focuses on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. Credit: Courtesy of Pritika Chowdhry/South Asian Institute

“These survivors (from 1947) are mostly gone. And of course the female survivors haven’t spoken,” Chowdhry said.

In Bangladesh, some of the women victims of sexual violence were publicly honored and referred to as ‘birangona’, meaning ‘brave woman’, but they were still stigmatized after coming forward.

“When they’re back in their communities, they face a lot of ostracism and criticism for revealing something so terrible. So it’s like a no-win situation,” Chowdhry said. “If the nation tries to honor them individually, they are targeted in a different way. And if the nation ignores them, it erases their narrative, then that narrative is lost.”

“So how do you commemorate them? How do you commemorate the experience? she added. “For me, it has become my life’s work.”

Intertwined stories

Chowdhry also incorporated national monuments celebrating independence or commemorating the dead in the three post-partition nations, such as Minar-e-Pakistan Tower, Lahore, Pakistan; the Shaheed Minar, in Dhaka, Bangladesh; and the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial in Amritsar, India. She brings them together at her exhibition in Chicago with casts of the monuments created at each site using layers of latex and cheesecloth, which hardened into panels over a period of days.
A work by Chowdhry "Broken column" series, modeled on the Minar-e-Pakistan tower in Lahore.

A work from Chowdhry’s “Broken Column” series, modeled after the Minar-e-Pakistan tower in Lahore. Credit: Courtesy of Pritika Chowdhry/South Asian Institute

Textured with the markings of each monument, they are imperfect copies. Like memory, some details are retained while others are lost. But together they – like the three countries of former British India – form an interconnected history.

“They’re almost like sister nations. (It’s a) very, very violent story,” Chowdhry said.

Chowdhry grew disillusioned with India as she came of age. “It was founded on the principles of being a secular nation, that all minorities are welcome here. I grew up believing in this secular idea,” she said. “But in my teenage years I saw that everything was falling apart…And (when) the pogrom of 2002 happened, then any illusion of a secular nation was gone, because it was obvious that India wasn’t going to be able to live up to that ideal.”

Although she only began to examine the effects of Partition through art as an adult, she slowly came to understand its impact within her own family, especially as her mother came to talk about their losses. The title of Chowdhry’s show, “Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories,” nods to experiences too painful for the individuals who endured them to consign to history. Chowdhry thinks this is where the art can come in handy.

An installation view of Pritika Chowdhry's exhibition

An installation view of Pritika Chowdhry’s “Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories” exhibit at the South Asia Institute in Chicago. Credit: Courtesy of Pritika Chowdhry/South Asian Institute

“I had to interview my mother for several years to get the details,” Chowdhry explained. “At first when I asked her, she just brushed off the question. ‘Why do you want to know? I don’t want to talk about it.’ And of course you have to respect that.”

“And then she saw over the years how committed I was to the issue. And then she opened up a little more, and a little more.”

Unbearable memories, untold stories,” is on view at the South Asia Institute in Chicago until December 10.

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