Liberating Memory: Art and the Partition of India

Artist Pritika Chowdhry is not afraid of confronting history. Her sculptural installations deal with our past as it really is: a living, ever changing story that is a force in the world. How we see and understand history is, after all, the way we believe our present to be. And this is nowhere more powerful than in Chowdhry’s Partition Anti-Memorial Project, a series of artworks dealing with the Partition of India and the Bangladesh Liberation War.

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Pritika Chowdhry's Partition Anti-Memorial Project : art as 'Counter Memory'

Chowdhry’s form is the anti-memorial. These are installations that do not reify our collective understanding of the past. Instead, they deconstruct and complicate this narrative. By first understanding the Partition of India, we can see how powerful the artist’s work is in presenting art that acts as a counter-memory — a term borrowed from Michel Foucault that reminds us how our recollections of the past are always being renegotiated, with possible alternatives vying for prominence.

Rather than giving us simple histories, Chowdhry’s anti-memorials take us deeper into these experiences. Her work undoes the hegemony of recognized memory and brings us in contact with those histories too long hidden. Her work reveals that the explanation peddled so far is a dim hint at a much larger web of contrasting viewpoints. Whose view is the one true history?

The History of the Partition of India

The Partition Anti-Memorial Project is a series of nine installations the artist has created for the Partition of India.

They also open to the greater history of 20th century partitions in general — when the relatively young nation-state repeatedly required new waves of secessions, communal violence, and war to make space for itself.

Unmaking the Monument

In Broken Column: The Monuments of Forgetting, Chowdhry presents latex and silicone casts of memorials across India dealing with colonial massacres, declarations of independence and the suppression of Bangladesh independence.

These casts give us architectural detail of these sites, what the artist calls a “skin” of the memorials. They are the flesh of a counter-memory — not unlike a tannery with hides hanging to be processed. It is an anatomy of a certain history, rendered not in the impressive artifice of stone, but the perishable material of skin. Her pieces in Broken Column (the name is a reference to Attia Hossain’s novel about Partition as seen through the eyes of a Muslim girl) show the violence that is not openly spoken of,
namely the use of rape as a weapon of war and the widespread sexual violence that women endured — a topic the original memorials are silent on.

Mass Migrations

The Partition of India in 1947 and the Bangladesh Liberation War some two decades later led to immense waves of human migration and displacement. Despite the millions displaced, there exists no memorial to these victims. In Silent Waters: The Uncounted, Chowdhry corrects this.

Silent Waters is made up of 101 black ceramic vessels in the shape of feet spread out as if from a crowd of people walking. The number refers to an auspicious amount of money to make in offering to a temple, per Indian tradition. The feet contain saltwater. Water is an important element in Hindu, Muslim and Sikh ceremonies and funerary rites. But saltwater is a bad omen, as when a village well turns salty. As the saltwater evaporates, the residue is all that remains — a poignant reminder of how
memories of trauma, if not brought into official histories, will pass with the death of the victims. Yet there is always a residue of these memories.

Who Draws the Borders?

The broader question of borders is interrogated in Chowdhry’s Remembering the Crooked Line: The Skin of the Nation. This effervescent installation combines clothing made out of textiles and animal products, hung to appear as if occupied by ghosts. Various game boards, including chess and pacheesi, are set up around the space.

Kites made from pig guts hang above the scenes, illustrated by the crooked lines of partitioned borders. Maps also appear on game boards and cloth panels that hang like drying clothes. Through multiple childhood games, the artist unites partitions from Ireland to Korea to India and beyond — while reminding us that children, that everyone, must go on living under political realities others have created. One can also hear girls sing Ring-a-ring-a-roses, along with the voices of their mothers, whose
somber tones contrast the children’s. Behind this, there are historic independence speeches from India, Pakistan, Israel and the Irish Republic. The movements of history loom over the personal moment of a childhood game.

The Beginning of a Century of Partition

Where did all of this violence come from? Chowdhry expands her view of partition, diving into the origins of the 20th century’s deep history of struggle in An Archive of 1919: The Year of the Crack-Up.

The installation features 14 spittoons, reservoirs of memories, engraved and enameled with the names and maps of events that came in a wave after the fighting of World War I — the Russian Civil War, the Irish declaration, and many others.

This is anchored by a depiction of the Martyr’s Well in Jallianwallan Bagh — a park where British soldiers fired on 5,000 peaceful demonstrators. Many chose to leap down the well to escape the bloodbath. Of the 2,000 dead, 150 were found drowned in the well. A ghost-like video montage loops through images of Jallianwallan Bagh — the alleyway British soldiers blocked, the bullet holes preserved in the walls, and depictions of Martyr's Well from cinema.

The Century of Partitions

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Palestine, Ireland, Vietnam and Korea, the terrors of mid-century India and Pakistan (and later, Bangladesh) seemed to reappear. Chowdhry ties these experiences together lucidly in What the Body Remembers: The Invisible Women. In haunting sculpture, she highlights how in these wars of partition women so often suffer extreme sexual violence — a fact official memorials often elide.

What the Body Remembers breaks this silence. The pieces depict the lower halves of the female body in a twice-life-sized scale, showing the dehumanizing gaze of rapists. But they also humanize the women — particularized through shape and pose, racialized through color. The figures are all in states of schoolyard play, softening the traumatic content for viewers. But this also refers to Freud’s idea of the screen memory — an anodyne moment from childhood that blocks memories of trauma. Here the screen memory is both personal and societal, as entire nations use an official narrative of war as a screen memory to block out the intense shame that facing a history of weaponized rape would bring. Amid the play is the sound of a steam engine train coming and going. During Partition, trains would often arrive on the other side of a border bearing a gruesome cargo of dead bodies — passengers fleeing to a new country only to be massacred in transit.

The Origin of Chowdhry’s Anti-Memorials

Chowdhry began her anti-memorials in 2007 with Queering Mother India: History is a Woman’s Body. In this early installation, she broke down the image of Mother India — a powerful symbol of the dutiful wife and mother, as well as a symbol for the nation. The use of this image became particularly prominent after independence, and yet despite rallying under this version of the divine feminine, women suffered incredible brutality on both sides of the border during Partition.

Larger than life ceramic sections of a female body are placed across the space. Here, the feminine has been torn apart. It is only by reconciling the myth of Mother India with the treatment of real women that the image can be gathered together again.

The Past Lives On

The horrors of Partition happened decades ago, but so much suffering does not simply end. This history always threatens to be revived, as in 2002 when a planned pogrom was carried out against the Muslim minority in Gujarat, India by right-wing Hindus while Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of the state. Chowdhry explores this post-Partition Hindu-Muslim violence in
Memory Leaks: Traces and Drips.

Seventeen copper dharapatras (Hindu ceremonial pots) hang from an overhead railing, dripping water into copper havans (used in Hindu temples to light holy fire) containing burnt books written in Urdu, the language spoken by Muslims in India and Pakistan. It is like past events leaking into the present, releasing trauma and triggering new conflicts, drip by drip. Names and dates of Hindu-Muslim conflicts since Partition are etched in the dharapatras, along with tally marks, counting the dead. A red prayer mat with burnt Urdu newspapers and a Quran on a traditional wooden book holder sit to the side. Viewers are invited to pour water into the dharapatras, mirroring a Hindu ritual of offering water to the dead or dying. And so, this anti-memorial both bears witness to these tragedies while also offering a ritual for these two communities to heal from the ongoing wounds.

Remembering What We Wish We Could Forget

Chowdhry’s This Handful of Dust: Bones, Guns, and Stones (a name borrowed from Feroze Ahmed-ud-Din’s collection of poetry) gives us a contained and safe place for a counter-memory to the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, when the violence of Partition reappeared with added force.

The Pakistan army’s mass murders and mass rapes still weigh on the psyches of Bangladeshis. In the end, 10 million people fled the country, with 30 million more internally displaced. Estimates put the death toll somewhere between 300,000 and three million.

In this installation, long strips of fabric hang together from a square framing with illustrations of the bones unearthed from mass graves in the decades since the war, as well as stones and firearms. It is a silent area to contemplate the history of the war. But it is a place you can enter and, when you are ready, leave.

Speaking History

Colonialism leaves many traces that you can touch and absences you can’t help but feel. Yet it also creates more conceptual binds. And for British colonialism, this is best seen in the global spread of the English language. Chowdhry takes up this ethereal form of control in The Masters’ Tongues: Dialectics of Language.

Chowdhry’s installation shows 79 cast iron tongues representing the 54 Commonwealth countries and 25 territories still under British governance. Chowdhry allowed the iron to rust over time, a the technique also points to a way to turn the introduction of English against its initial purpose.

As a lingua franca, English is now the most effective way for many post-colonized people to communicate with each other. Just as they were united by a common history of British rule, they are now united by the trace that the rule left behind — English.
As an anti-memorial, The Masters’ Tongues provokes viewers to consider the tools at their disposal to tell their own history.

Matching Scales

Chowdhry’s works often employ the same sweeping scope that memorials so often take. Through sculpture and the inclusion of the broader culture using intertextual references, her work sets itself in a broader cultural battle over the way history is created, utilized and distributed.
There is a sense when viewing one of her sculptural installations that you are seeing into a hidden history, perhaps a truer one. It is a history held in the memories of millions, though it finds no official sanction. What caused the Partition of India and what it led to can be glimpsed in timelines, records, and newspaper headlines. But this history is something much more human than a pile of information. This traumatic history is felt by living, breathing humans. It is part of the fabric that weaves billions of lives.
It is through art that we can come to understand this human dimension.

In short, what Chowdhry creates is a space to contemplate the voices of those who have been made mute. She challenges us to understand not only the failures of official histories, but also our own complicity in them. She renders the official history void, and in its place, she gives people a chance, once again, to tell the story of what happened.

See Pritika Chowdhry's art installations in the US :

Coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the Partition, the installations will be part of solo shows at South Asia Institute in Chicago, the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, and at the Art Show International in 2022!

Author: Jonathan Clark is a writer and organic farmer living in the Burned-over district of New York. His work appears widely across the internet and in print. You can find more of his work at

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Liberating Memory: Art and the Partition of India