Dr. Rituparna Roy is the Initiator of the Kolkata Partition Museum Project (KPMP) and the Managing Trustee of the KPM Trust. The KPM Project, as mentioned in its website, seeks to “memorialize in the most comprehensive way, the specificity of Bengal’s Partition history and its aftermath, to emphasize the continuities between West Bengal and Bangladesh… and to involve public participation in its programs.” In a telephone interview with Arna Dirghangi, she explains what inspired her to take up this extremely important project and where the future of this effort lies in the contemporary state of affairs.
AD: What sparked your idea of having a separate Partition Museum for Bengal?
RR: It happened on my first visit to Berlin, in 2007. By then, I had relocated to Amsterdam, leaving my academic career in India. That visit was a short one, for just about a day, and besides visiting the Charlottenburg Palace, we could manage only a 4-hour ‘Historical tour’ with Berlin Walks. One of the stops in that tour was the open Holocaust Memorial designed by Peter Eisenman, also known as Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It was a bright October day. As I walked through those stelae, I remember sitting down at a random point… struck by two thoughts: first, the enormity of the crime against the Jews, in a way I had never felt before; and second, wondering, why on earth did we not have a similar memorial for Partition in India. 2007 was the 60th year of Indian Independence and Partition. Both the Holocaust and Partition happened around the same time; and yet, Partition was seen primarily as the historian’s domain, a highly academic subject with little exposure in the public sphere.
The thought struck me then, but I didn’t do anything about it in the following years. I was very preoccupied with my personal life. On the research front: I did my postdoctoral research at IIAS, Leiden (on West Bengali Partition literature), after my doctoral work in India on Partition fiction in English (published as South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh by Amsterdam University Press, in 2010).
It was in 2016 that I started to think concretely about the idea I first had in 2007. I was trying to do two things then: a) planning an international Conference to be held in Kolkata in 2017, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Partition; b) undertaking independent research that would help me in the museum project that I had in mind. I hoped to present some of my research findings at the Kolkata Conference in 2017.
To this effect, I revisited Berlin – this time on a self-sponsored research trip, to study its Holocaust Memorials. The first day, I went to see the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. It is a much sanitized memorial, and yet the visit was extremely disturbing. I also visited the Jewish Museum Berlin and the Topography of Terror. Berlin was to be my first stop among many others. I wanted to visit other Partitioned countries to have a wider perspective on the issue, and wanted to study their museums to try and understand the specific memorialization practices involved in the making of such museums and to gain insights that could be useful for the project I had in mind. But soon after, we returned to India, and I couldn’t visit the other countries that I thought of. But the Conference in Kolkata did happen in 2017 – thanks to my distinguished co-conveners, Prof. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (University of Wellington, NZ & Director, NZIRI) and Dr. Jayanta Sengupta (Secretary & Curator, Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata; he was also then the Director of the Indian Museum), and the institutional support that they could garner. I first broached the idea of a separate Partition Museum for Bengal in a Roundtable at the end of that Conference. The experience of Partition and its aftermath has been very different for Punjab and Bengal, and I always felt that Bengal needed a Partition museum of its own. After I visited the Amritsar Partition Museum in December 2017, a few months after the Conference, I became more convinced of this.
(Dr. Ray’s detailed Report in The Wire on the Amritsar Partition Museum can be read here.)
AD: What were the lessons you learned from your Berlin visit?
RR: The Holocaust and the Indian Partition of 1947 were very different from each other – not the least being the fact that there were clear victims and perpetrators in the Holocaust, which was not the case with our Partition. And the forced migrations here, though fatal in countless cases, were almost always sudden, and cannot really be compared with the clinical orchestration of the ‘Final Solution’ by the Third Reich. But in both cases, lives were lost in the millions: 6 million Jews, 2 million Hindus/Sikhs/Muslims. And in the latter case, what also happened was the largest migration in human history.
Having made that qualification, I must say that the 2016 Berlin visit was a turning point in my life. If the 2007 visit was my original moment of inspiration for KPM, then the 2016 visit motivated me in a whole new way to pursue this project.
Coming specifically to your question, there were three major take away points for me, from my 2016 Berlin visit: 1) The majority of the museums that I visited were ‘citizen initiatives’ after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The citizens were not only the initiators, but were very much a part of the entire process of thinking, deliberating and debating as well. 2) Secondly, the Germans were very brave in acknowledging their shameful past – which is often the first step in healing, for people dealing with an inheritance of pain. And they remembered that history both from the victim’s and the perpetrator’s perspectives. 3) The third point is really a subjective response: I just felt that architecture, installations and artworks were somehow better equipped in conveying the unspeakable than literature. It was actually a very unnerving experience for me… because I had always believed in the power of Literature, and here was I, feeling for the first time, that it was inadequate.
(Dr. Ray’s article on her Berlin visit, published in The Wire, can be read here.)
AD: Is it possible to represent the Bengal Partition outside the prism of Communalism?
RR: Yes, I firmly believe that it is possible to do so.It all depends on how it is conceptualized. We can be both honest and innovative in memorializing our past. Let me give you an example:
There was this Museum in Berlin that I visited called the ‘Topography of Terror’, in what used to be the former SS headquarters: it memorializes how the Nazi terror unfolded from 1933-45. Apart from the main museum building, it has an open-air permanent Exhibition of the terror years, symbolically on glass panels, which can be accessed by anybody by coming down a flight of stairs (on two sides) from the main street. It is the equivalent of the innumerable hoardings or posters that we see on the streets, but as a causal out-in-the-open History Museum. Here we have this concept of mummifying History and relegating it to an especially high pedestal. Back there, I saw that the entire process has been made easily available to whoever was interested to read/ know it: a student, a citizen, a tourist. And it was like saying “Yes, this is our past. This is what we did.”
Doing something like that requires a lot of courage. I am not sure whether we can muster it; but we are definitely trying to go beyond the usual discourse of Partition: that of rupture and violence. For seventy years, that has been the story, and rightfully so – since that was the defining characteristic of the event. But now, after more than seven decades, it is high time that we came out of it, while of course not forgetting to recognize and accept what had happened.
It is very important to remember that rupture apart, there has also been another side to Partition: continuity. The living heritage that is shared between the borders – in terms of language, literature, food, fabric and the performative arts. It is so quiet and normal a continuity, so much a part of our daily lives, that we do not even think of it as a separate area to look out for. What we hear, what we eat, what we wear – we don’t give these things much thought. I prize my Dhakai saree and so does a woman in Khulna, I listen to (the music band) ‘Dohar’ and so do they, and we eat the same fish. This is the continuity that we need to remember while also acknowledging the rupture. We have a shared identity. Our political identities as nation-states have been very different, but our histories are not just political histories, and lives lived on the ground have very little to do with it sometimes. Our lived realities can accommodate a lot more things in common. We would like to highlight this aspect in our museum as well.
The museum, in fact, I believe, can play a very significant role in abetting communal tension, especially during a communally charged time as we are witnessing.
AD: What kind of displays do you envisage for your museum?
RR: KPM will be a history museum. Hence, everything that one expects in a new-age history museum would be there: from the visualization of history (wall texts and illustrations) to the use of traditional (newspapers, photographs) and digital archives (both audio and video); installations and art work; and hopefully AR (Augmented Reality).
Given the specific history of the Bengal Partition and its aftermath, in which refugee life features very prominently, the museum display would also obviously include objects/ items related to refugee life; but it would also go beyond it to convey what the partition meant in broader cultural terms. We hope to change not only the discourse of Partition (related to Bengal) but also received notions of what a Museum should ideally be.
AD: What are the long term, and given the current situation, the immediate goals of the KPM now?
RR: The ultimate goal of KPMP is of course to build a Partition Museum in Kolkata, which will comprehensively memorialize the partition experience of Bengal. We have had several events in the two years of our existence, and we plan to have several more in the next two years. They will pave the path for the museum to be.
In the ever increasing communal atmosphere we are living in, it is imperative to remember that we are much more than our political histories. Hence, in our programs – since we also want to highlight commonalities – we hope to continue collaborating with Bangladesh; and we would also like to use the medium of art to emphasize our commonalities. We do need to have our own physical space, but given the pandemic, everything at the moment has to be conducted online anyway.
AD: If you could shed light on the events organized by the KPM Trust since its inception on and from August 2018.
RR: We have had all our major events in August, it being the Partition commemoration month. In August 2017, I first broached the idea of a Partition Museum in Kolkata in an international Conference; in August 2018, our Trust was registered; in August 2019, we had a four-day Commemoration of Partition through Films, Goutam Ghose was our ‘Advisor’ for the overall program, which opened with a lecture on Ritwik Ghatak’s Komol Gandhar (1961) by Prof. Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay. In August 2020, we planned a seven-day Art Exhibition at KCC (Kolkata Centre for Creativity), showcasing the work of five contemporary artists from Bengal, who work in different mediums and engage with Partition in varying ways.
We, however, have also had other events. Our Inaugural event was held on 26 February 2019, at the Jadunath Bhavan Museum and Resource Centre, Kolkata (which is a unit of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences). The four-day Commemoration through Films, from 16-19 August 2019, also happened there. This event was sponsored by Tata Steel. Over a period of four days, we screened eleven films – including both features and documentaries – from both sides of the Bengal border. Our chief guests of honour were the Bangladeshi filmmakers Tanvir Mokammel and Akram Khan.
I am extremely proud of this event, because we could apply our major aims there: apart from focusing on the partition experience from both sides of the border, we collaborated with Bangladesh and could also ensure public participation in the program (through a Masterclass with Tanveer Mokammel).
Owing to the pandemic, we couldn’t have the physical Art Exhibition at KCC. But we had a webinar on 17 August 2020 with four of the five the participating artists – Paula Sengupta, Vinayak Bhattacharya, Debasish Mukherjee and Amritah Sen (another artist, Dilip Mitra, was not available that day). The event was moderated by Reena Dewan (Director, KCC); Dr. Rajasri Mukhopadhyay, the Curator of the Exhibition, introduced the artists; and I spoke briefly about KPMP at the beginning.
When we started out two years back, we had initially thought we would rent space in an existing museum to conduct all our events in the first few years. But as it turned out, we are travelling – as in; our events are being held in different cultural spaces, depending on the nature of our programs.
We had planned two events earlier this year, which were slated to happen before the 7-day Art Exhibition in August. One was a two-day workshop and internship in July named “Chronicling Resettlement”, to do with the digitization of the Prafulla Kumar Chakrabarti Papers (PKC Papers) housed at IISG, Amsterdam, which we will be soon hosting on our website. We had the workshop online on the designated days. The other was an event centering around a conversation with Guneeta Singh Bhalla (initiator of ‘The 1947 Partition Archive’) – that was planned at a very important cultural institution in early May. That could not happen, owing to the pandemic; but later in the year, Guneeta invited me in their online series on Partition, so the conversation did happen in a way. Five events in two years is not bad for a citizen initiative. Next year, too, we hope to have several events.
[To know more about the KPM Trust visit their website https://kolkata-partition-museum.org/%5D
Arna Dirghangi is an undergraduate student of English at Presidency University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.