The Kolkata Partition Museum & its VIRTUAL avatar (V-KPM)

By Indranil Halder

On 15/08/2022, as I celebrate India’s 75th Independence Day at the Indian Consulate, Castlereagh Street, Sydney, Mr M Gupta read the address to the nation by Hon’ble Indian President of India Smt. Droupadi Murmu who stated, “India as the country is completing 75 years as an independent nation. Fourteenth August is observed as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ so as to promote social harmony, unity and empowerment of people. Tomorrow marks the day when we had freed ourselves from the shackles of colonial rulers and decided to reshape our destiny. As all of us celebrate the anniversary of that day, we bow to all those men and women who made enormous sacrifices to make it possible for us to live in a free India.”

At the same time, I cannot stop wondering about the dark side of Indian independence — the Partition.

On 15/08/1947, India’s freedom came with shock, horror and disbelief for many, especially in Bengal and Punjab – the two provinces that were partitioned to create a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. A British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who knew very little of India’s geography, was roped in for the task of dividing the subcontinent.

While Independence was ushered in, first in Karachi and then Delhi, on 14th and 15th August, respectively, the general population in Bengal and Punjab felt the trauma of the Partition. Hundreds of thousands lost lives- family members, friends and neighbours, after the Radcliffe line was announced on 17/08/47. The burden of a painful memory of the creation of two new nation states in the subcontinent became real .

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Today, there is a Partition Museum in Amritsar, Punjab, to revisit the trauma of Partition, but not in Bengal. Even though Bengal played a significant role for independence and lost significant number of lives and astronomical wealth, there has been no public memorialization of the event and its aftermath. The Kolkata Partition Museum Project (KPMP) aims to fill up this lacuna – by establishing a Partition Museum in the city, focusing on the Bengal experience.

KPMP was initiated in 2016 by Dr. Rituparna Roy, a literary scholar of Partition. She was greatly inspired by the Holocaust Memorials of Berlin. In August 2017, Roy first broached the idea of a Partition Museum in Kolkata at an International Conference to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Partition, at the Indian Museum. Her visit to the Amritsar Partition Museum soon after, in December 2017, reaffirmed her belief that Bengal needs a Partition Museum of its own.

The formal journey of the project began with the registration of the Kolkata Partition Museum Trust (KPMT) in August 2018. Its members include Jayanta Sengupta (Secretary & Curator, Victoria Memorial Hall); Tapati Guha-Thakurta (Professor of History, Centre for Social Science Studies, Patuli); Abhijit Pathak (Chartered Accountant, ‘Mookherjee Biswas & Pathak’); Neelina Chatterjee (Advocate, ‘ANS Associates’) and Rituparna Roy (a literary scholar of Partition, as Managing Trustee).

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The project has two principal aims: to memorialize the specificity of Bengal’s Partition experience, its aftermath and afterlives, in the most comprehensive manner possible; and to emphasize the cultural continuities between West Bengal and Bangladesh, through their common living heritage – i.e. food, fabric, language, literature and the performance arts. And it hopes to do this by engaging the public in interesting ways.

KPMT strongly believes in the importance of the Arts in preserving cultural memory. In its two previous major physical events in 2019 and 2021, at Jadunath Bhavan and KCC respectively, that belief was showcased through the medium of films and visual art. The events were supported by Tata Steel and the Emami Foundation. This year, to mark the 75th anniversary of India’s Partition, a Virtual museum will be launched at ICCR Kolkata on 24th August.

The Virtual Kolkata Partition Museum (V-KPM) is a collaboration between KPMT and AUR (Architecture Urbanism Research), an architecture firm with offices in New York and New Delhi, headed by Aurgho Jyoti, an Indian architect living in the US and India. KPMT and AUR acknowledge the 1947 Partition Archive in facilitating to bring together Rituparna Roy (Managing Trustee, KPMT) and Aurgho Jyoti (Founder and Creative Director, AUR) through an online event in 2020.

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The multi-disciplinary team of V-KPM includes (apart from Rituparna and Aurgho) historian Anindita Ghoshal, artist Debashish Mukherjee, architect/scenographer Sayantan Maitra Boka, architects Subhradip Roy and Arefin Moinuddin, and research scholars Sumallya Mukhopadhyay, Swagatalakshmi Saha, Asmita Ray, Mohana Chatterjee, Gitanjali Roy and Firdousi Akhtara Basid. Infosys Laureate, Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Canada-based Pakistani oral historian Anam Zakaria have been advisors to the team.

The Virtual museum will, on the one hand, considerably advance the work of the future physical museum; and on the other, garner interest for it in the present.

It will have all the resources – archival, audio/visual and literary – that a traditional museum has, but augmented through the virtual environment. The details of the content and glimpses into its unique design will be revealed on the 24th at ICCR Kolkata.

The V-KPM will be free to access and hopes to become an indispensable educational resource for the Partition of Bengal for all interested in the subject. And the black and white photos from Raghu Rai’s priceless images in the book: Bangladesh: The Price of Freedom brings tear to my eyes.

I wish this project the very best. I would like to see the virtual museum become a reality and lit up with tricolour just like our Opera House in Australia sooner than later. May it be successful in its mission!

Jai Hind