One of the most striking images from the ongoing show, ‘Postcards from Home’, is of Indian artist Bharti Kher. She peeks out from behind a mannequin at her studio in Gurugram, and only half of her face is revealed. In sharp contrast is the photograph of Saba Iqbal, a printmaker from Pakistan. She stares up front at the camera as if beckoning it closer to tell her story. There is something common between the two images—the eyes of both the artists captivate you, being evocative and unhindered in their expression.
You come closer to the scrolls on display, drawn by the images, and then start to read the text, which contains snatches of memories of the Partition, passed down to these artists from their families. 47 of them—25 from India and 22 from Pakistan—have, in turn, entrusted these stories to fellow artist, Manisha Gera Baswani, who has been photographing artists from both sides of the border for her ongoing series, ‘Artists Through the Lens’. The project started nearly two decades ago and she has now built a repository of images that intimately document studios of artists and denizens from across the art world in the Indian subcontinent.
The ‘Postcards from Home’ series grew organically from this project when she visited Pakistan for a solo show of her paintings. “I told my friends to take me to artist studios to photograph them.Koi plan nahi tha of documenting memories of the Partition. It was all very random,” says Baswani. The Gurugram-based multidisciplinary artist had grown up hearing stories of her parents’ homes in Quetta and Sargodha, and how they had to flee from their ‘home’ overnight. “In Pakistan, I heard stories similar to the ones enmeshed in my heart. And I felt that I simply had to document them. I was being given this privileged access as I hailed from the art world as well, and I recognised that honour,” she adds.
There is a poignant story shared by Iqbal of her grandfather, Major Ibn-e-Hassan Sharique, who had grown up in Delhi and had to move to Karachi after the Partition. In the 1950s, after being posted in Karachi’s Malir cantonment, he had a chance encounter with his dear friend, Roop Chand, from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, who had come to the country as the Indian ambassador to Pakistan. The next day, Iqbal’s grandfather was summoned to the headquarters for an explanation as to why an Indian national had been allowed into the cantonment area. However, a senior in command stepped in to save him, and stood firm that no borders of Partition lines could stop two old best friends from meeting each other.
Then, there is a piece of text by Zarina, taken from the catalogue, ‘Zarina Hashmi: Recent Work’ (2011), published by Gallery Espace, New Delhi. It reflects on how she became aware of borders while studying maps, and the first border she ever drew was of the one between India and Pakistan. “I didn't have to look at the map; that line is drawn on my heart. I have crossed many borders, they affect people who have lived the separation. I continue to work with geographical maps and not just maps that had personal significance but also maps of regions played by ethnic conflicts,” she said.
The ‘Postcards from Home’ project was first shown at the inaugural edition of the Lahore Biennale in 2017. Thereafter Salima and Moneeza Hashmi, daughters of poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, invited Baswani to exhibit at the Faiz Festival in Lahore. “It was probably the first public art project on the Partition by an Indian, exhibited in Pakistan. My library of collecting stories kept growing bigger as I exhibited the project at various venues including colleges,” writes Baswani in her artist note.
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The series took on different shapes and forms as it was displayed across the world, from the Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2018, the India Art Fair in 2019 and recently at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, where it was shown as a year-long exhibit till March 2023. At the India Art Fair, the 47 postcards were displayed in sacks of wheat, with visitors encouraged to pick a card. At the Kochi Biennale, and now at the Museo Camera, the memories have been displayed as scrolls, arranged in a maze of sorts. The visitors can have a private moment with each of the stories as they are unable to see each other in the labyrinth. Baswani, however, can see them all, and has been privy to many wet-eyed moments. 80 percent of the people inevitably recount their own Partition stories to her, thereby adding an emotional personal layer to the show.
“For the longest time, I believed that art could heal, but never thought that art could have a social impact. But when I showed at the Lahore Biennale, I felt that in a small way, I could make a difference,” she elaborates. Even at the Faiz Festival, people, who could not read English, would pick up a card as it represented some aspect of ‘home’ to them. “In Kochi, many people from the southern states would say that they had read about the Partition in textbooks, but had never heard personal stories behind them. That’s when I realised that even in our own country, a project such as this could shift perspectives,” adds Baswani. When she showed the work at Jindal University recently, young students took the cards to their hostel. “The project speaks at many levels to people across the world. I don’t say this with arrogance but with all humility. My mother had rightly said that yeh project khuda ne aapka haanth pakadwa ke banwaya hai [God has held your hand and made you do it]. I simply listened to my heart, which is how I paint and take photos,” says Baswani.
In a way, the ‘Postcards from Home’ series has also become an important piece of art history by documenting stories of masters such as Satish Gujral and Vivan Sundaram, who are no longer with us. Their memories of such a significant moment in India’s history stays on with us through this project. “I realise this now after losing a lot of friends, including young friends like Anjum [Singh]. In a few years, all of us will be gone but this project will live on through these beautiful voices. It is a legacy I will leave for my nation after I am no more about a world that we once lived in,” she says.
While Baswani has been privy to memories of the Partition, she has herself lived through another key moment of global history—the covid-19 pandemic. That has had a deep impact on her practice as well. For the longest time, she thought that her two projects— ‘Postcards from Home’ and ‘Artists Through the Lens’ were running parallel to her painting practice. However, the three started coming together during the pandemic. “During the lockdowns, I sat down with seven to eight hard drives, containing images of artists in their studios taken between 2001 and 2019, which I had thought I would compile during my old age. I sat on one couch for eight months, morning to late night, so much so that I had to go through intensive physiotherapy because of this static posture for so long,” recounts Baswani. However, thanks to this exercise, today she knows every single image and the stories behind them.
Around this time, the artist was plagued by many health issues, and had to undergo acupuncture. “I was being pinned to heal,” she says. Baswani started to draw parallels with her parents, who still speak of their home in Pakistan with so much love. “The way I am being pinned to recover, the same way my dad and mom—92 and 83 respectively—tell these stories repeatedly to heal,” she adds. “There is a phrase in Punjabi calledlaang jawa,or to hop across. My father still says, ‘If I can hop across the fence to go home’.” That’s when a visual of a fence occurred to her—what if the fence gathered moss to become an extended garden? “My father wouldn’t see the fence but simply walk across the garden. This has resulted in a new series of beautiful painted and pinned fences, titled ‘If Fences Gathered Moss’. This is how all the dots in my practice are getting connected together,” says Baswani.
‘Postcards from Home’ can be viewed at Museo Camera, Gurugram, till 13 August