Pritika Chowdhry’s ‘anti-memorials’ honor Indian Partition’s unseen victims, 75 years on

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNNChicago, USA

By way of quiet however searing installations, artist Pritika Chowdhry reckons with violence that ripples by means of generations: mass displacement, rape and riots tracing again to the snaking borders that cut up a nation. For 15 years, she has made artworks based mostly on the partition of British India into an impartial India and Pakistan in 1947, in addition to the bloody nationalist battle that adopted in East Pakistan, which cleaved off to turn into Bangladesh in 1971.

The mixed-media works vary from latex casts of historic objects, like monuments and weapons, to poetic recreations of web sites the place acts of brutality and demise befell. Chowdhry calls her works “anti-memorials” — objects that don’t simplify world occasions or the lives of the folks most affected, however as a substitute concretize their reminiscence. They’re meant to attract consideration to those that had been ignored of historical past, such because the unreported casualties of massacres and the ladies subjected to sexual violence who’ve lived in silence.

Seven of the installations are at the moment on view on the South Asia Institute in Chicago, coinciding with Monday’s seventy fifth anniversary of the Partition of India.

Chowdhry’s set up “Memory Leaks” tallies a few of the deaths ensuing from violence clashes between Hindus and Muslims since Partition. Credit score: Courtesy Pritika Chowdhry/South Asia Institute

On the exhibition, titled “Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories,” the artist invitations guests to play the imperial energy by means of a well-recognized recreation of technique — chess — sat atop a map of the divided area. How a lot injury can drawing strains inflict? On this case, the demarcation triggered a refugee disaster of incalculable magnitude as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs fled throughout the brand new borders in reverse instructions. Between 500,000 and a pair of million folks died within the exodus, in accordance with students, and the ensuing spiritual tensions have continued to form the area’s political and social local weather ever since.

“The Partition violence still haunts the current geopolitics of India,” Chowdhry advised CNN forward of her present opening.

This concept underpins her set up “Memory Leaks,” a set of 17 copper vessels known as “dharapatras,” which historically drip water or milk onto sacred idols in Hindu temples as choices. Every of Chowdhry’s hanging dharapatras, represents a distinct riot that has erupted between Hindus and Muslims since Partition, and is etched with tallies of the numbers killed. The latest riot she referenced befell in Gujarat in 2002 and resulted in lots of of deaths, with Muslims torched of their houses after a lethal practice assault on Hindus was attributed to Islamic extremists. Chowdhry calls the occasion a “pogrom” — an organized slaughter of an ethnic group.
The installation "Memory Leaks" is composed of 17 copper vessels called "dharapatras."

The set up “Memory Leaks” consists of 17 copper vessels known as “dharapatras.” Credit score: Courtesy Pritika Chowdhry/South Asia Institute

In an try to heal these deep divisions, Chowdhry invitations guests to pour water into the vessels. It drips down onto fragments of burned books written in urdu, the native tongue of Muslims in India and Pakistan.

The association of the 17 dharapatras into an unbroken sq. symbolizes how the previous leaks into the current in cyclical style. Pouring water is a manner “to extinguish the fire, but then also to make an offering,” Chowdhry defined.

Fading recollections

Remembering the human impression of those occasions turns into tougher as years cross, recollections fade and silence persists in most of the households that endured them. Chowdhry, who’s now based mostly in Chicago however was raised in Delhi, has skilled this first-hand with a household that’s typically quiet about their very own losses. The artist’s great-aunt and -uncle’s households had been devastated as they migrated from Karachi to Delhi, with many relations killed and one daughter kidnapped and by no means discovered.

In a single “anti-memorial,” Chowdhry created a duplicate of a brick properly discovered at Jallianwala Bagh, a backyard within the Punjab the place British troopers killed lots of of unarmed Indian demonstrators in 1919, catalyzing India’s independence motion. In one other, Chowdhry hangs a circle of girls’s blouses manufactured from a skin-like materials and stitched with border strains to point out how Partition led to mass sexual violence. A reported 75,000 ladies had been kidnapped and raped throughout Partition, as had been lots of of hundreds extra within the nine-month warfare for an impartial Bangladesh in 1971.
Chowdhry's installation "An Archive of 1919: The Year of the Crack-Up," which centers on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.

Chowdhry’s set up “An Archive of 1919: The Year of the Crack-Up,” which facilities on the Jallianwala Bagh bloodbath of 1919. Credit score: Courtesy Pritika Chowdhry/South Asia Institute

“Those survivors (from 1947) are mostly now gone. And of course, the women survivors didn’t talk,” Chowdhry mentioned.

In Bangladesh, a few of the feminine victims who confronted sexual violence had been publicly honored and designated “birangona,” which suggests “brave woman,” however they had been nonetheless stigmatized after coming ahead.

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

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

Intimately linked histories

Chowdhry has additionally integrated nationwide monuments celebrating independence or commemorating the useless within the three nations that emerged from Partition, such because the Minar-e-Pakistan tower, in Lahore, Pakistan; the Shaheed Minar, in Dhaka, Bangladesh; and the Jallianwala Bagh memorial in Amritsar, India. She brings them collectively at her Chicago exhibition with casts of the monuments created at every web site utilizing layered latex and cheesecloth, which hardened into panels over a interval of days.
A work from Chowdhry's "Broken Column" series, modeled on the Minar-e-Pakistan tower in Lahore.

A piece from Chowdhry’s “Broken Column” sequence, modeled on the Minar-e-Pakistan tower in Lahore. Credit score: Courtesy Pritika Chowdhry/South Asia Institute

Textured with the markings of every monument, they’re imperfect copies. Like reminiscence, some particulars are retained whereas others misplaced. However collectively, they — just like the three nations of former British India — kind an interconnected historical past.

“They’re almost like sibling nations. (It’s a) very, very violent history,” Chowdhry mentioned.

Chowdhry grew to become disillusioned with India as she got here of age. “It was founded on the principles of being a secular nation, that all minorities are welcome here. I grew up believing in that secular idea,” she mentioned. “But in my teens, I saw that all breaking down… And (when) the 2002 pogrom happened, every illusion of a secular nation by then was gone, because it was obvious that India was not going to be able to live up to that ideal.”

Although she did not start analyzing Partition’s results by means of artwork till maturity, she has slowly come to know its impression inside her circle of relatives — particularly as her mom has come round to speaking about their losses. The title of Chowdhry’s present, “Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories,” nods to experiences which might be too painful for the people who bore them to consign them to historical past. Chowdhry believes that is the place artwork can carry the load.

An installation view of Pritika Chowdhry's exhbition "Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories," at the South Asia Institute in Chicago.

An set up view of Pritika Chowdhry’s exhbition “Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories,” on the South Asia Institute in Chicago. Credit score: Courtesy Pritika Chowdhry/South Asia Institute

“I had to interview my mother over several years to get the details,” Chowdhry defined. “Initially, when I asked her about it, she just brushed it off. ‘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 bit more, and a little bit more.”

Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories,” is on on the South Asia Institute in Chicago by means of December 10.