A Visual History of the Partition of India : A Story in Art

A decade ago, a group of us girls having staged our first play ‘Toba Tek Singh’ found ourselves excited at an invite extended to us by the Government College, Lahore.  In the week that we spent across the border, we gathered many memories and in particular an emotional visit by a dear friend to her Nana’s home is what stayed with us. Right from finding the house to meeting the new occupants and finally realizing nothing had changed in the house, emotions ran high and my friend couldn’t find a way to control her tears. Performing Toba Tek Singh had not taught us what our friend’s experience did. Overwhelmed by the hospitality of our Lahori-friends, the only question I pondered over the years was – was the Partition truly inevitable?

I realise that we in India and Pakistan grow up with different textbooks that give us different historical perspectives. So here are 10 artworks (interspersed with artist-experiences) that narrate the story of our divide impartially & capture the ongoing legacy of loss, desperation and separation.

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India in the Second World War

By the end of the War, Britain’s place in the world had changed dramatically and the demand for India’s Independence could no longer be ignored. Britain’s devastated economy could not cope with the cost of ruling the over-extended empire. A Cabinet Mission was dispatched to India in early 1946. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee described its mission in ambitious terms:

My colleagues are going to India with the intention of using their utmost endeavours to help her to attain her freedom as speedily and fully as possible. What form of government is to replace the present regime is for India to decide; but our desire is to help her to set up forthwith the machinery for making that decision.

1945, the last phase of the Second World War saw  many more young recruits from Punjab. Painted by Pran Nath Mago, who was also an Art Critic and Art Historian from Lahore. Post-Partition, he moved to Delhi.

Hindus Vs Muslims

In the backdrop of the Quit India Movement and the Civil Disobedience, the tension between Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi reached its height. Communal Violence on the streets began to escalate. People moved away from, or were forced out of, mixed neighborhoods and took refuge in increasingly polarized ghettos. Tensions were often heightened by local and regional political leaders.

Tyeb Mehta’s paintings are filled with images of violent separation, falling figures and fractured forms. They reflect the death and dislocation that followed the Partition in 1947. When Tyeb was a child, he saw a man getting slaughtered on the streets just below his house. A mob had gathered around a young man and smashed his head – because he was Muslim. Witnessing this, a young Tyeb fell ill and continued to be haunted by what he had seen.
His award winning “Falling Series” was inspired by this childhood memory.

Nehru, Jinnah & The Separation

The first series of widespread religious massacres took place in Calcutta, in 1946. As riots spread to other cities and the number of casualties escalated, the leaders of the Congress Party, who had initially opposed Partition, began to see it as the only way to ‘rid themselves of Jinnah and the Muslim League‘. In a speech in April, 1947, Nehru said,

“I want that those who stand as an obstacle in our way should go their own way.”

The British  began to speed up their exit strategy and on the afternoon of February 20, 1947, Attlee, announced  that British rule would end on “a date not later than June, 1948.”

Struck by poverty, famine and the ravages of war, a group of artists of the time rejected the lyricism and romanticism of the Bengal School of Art that depicted “beauty” in all forms.  They felt the need to develop a visual language that would express the anguish, suffering and crisis of urban society. Six among them formed the Calcutta Group.  Paritosh Sen was among the founding members. Paritosh Sen was born in Dhaka and after the Partition, moved to Calcutta.

Dividing India

In early June, India’s last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten stunned everyone by announcing August 15, 1947, as the date for the transfer of power—ten months earlier than expected. This rush led to even more chaos.
Cyril Radcliffe, a British judge assigned to draw the borders of the two new states, was given barely forty days to remake the map of South Asia. The borders were finally announced two days after India’s Independence.

Flag of Independence

On the evening of August 14, 1947, Nehru made his most famous “Tryst of Destiny” speech:

“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”

But outside the well-guarded enclaves of New Delhi the horror was well under way. That same evening, as the remaining British officials in Lahore set off for the railway station, they had to pick their way through streets littered with dead bodies. On the platforms, they found the railway staff hosing down pools of blood.  As the Bombay Express pulled out of Lahore and began its journey south, the officials could see that Punjab was ablaze, with flames rising from village after village.

Artist Jimmy Engineer from Pakistan, immortalises his fierce love for his native land on his canvases. He is famous for his Partition Series where he uses large canvases to depict the ghastly scenes of migration. This particular painting, is an ode to those thousands of men and women who lost their lives and didn’t even get to see the flag of Pakistan.

Announcement of the Partition

Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims started their journeys to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.

A detail from another Jimmy-Engineer painting in honour of the men, women and children who lost their lives in the struggle of 1947.

What followed, especially in Punjab, the center of the violence, was one of the great human tragedies of the twentieth century. As Nisid Hajari writes in his award-winning book, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition:

“Foot caravans of destitute refugees fleeing the violence stretched for 50 miles and more. As the peasants trudged along wearily, mounted guerrillas burst out of the tall crops that lined the road and culled them like sheep. Special refugee trains, filled to bursting when they set out, suffered repeated ambushes along the way. All too often they crossed the border in funereal silence, blood seeping from under their carriage doors.”

Krishen Khanna grew up in Lahore. In 1947, Khanna’s family moved to Shimla as a result of the Partition of India. He was deeply affected by not only the change in his personal life, but also the chaos that reigned around him. His early works are reproductions of the scenes that were indelibly imprinted in his memory during this period.

The Plight of Women and Violence

The Partition triggered riots, mass casualties, and a colossal wave of migration. Millions of people moved to what they hoped would be safer territory, with Muslims heading towards Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs in the direction of India. As many as 14-16 million people may have been eventually displaced, travelling on foot, in bullock carts and by train.

The Partition of India and the associated agony of the refugees impacted a young Satish Gujral who’s trauma manifested itself in the art works he created at the beginning of his career in 1947.

Estimates of the death toll post-Partition range from 200,000 to two million. Many were killed by members of other communities and sometimes their own families, as well as by the contagious diseases which swept through refugee camps.

The tragic event of 1947 brought pain and suffering to every household in Punjab. It made every woman a sufferer. Who shall console whom ? | Pran Nath Mago moved from Lahore to Delhi and joined other eminent artists of the time (also refugees) in founding the Delhi Shilpi Chakra.

Women were often targeted as symbols of community honour. Around 100,000 were raped or abducted. Urvashi Butalia’s “Other Side of Silence” narrates a bone-chilling incident where a father takes the extreme step of killing his daughter, fearing she would be raped or converted.

An artist, sculptor, muralist and writer, SL Parasher was the vice-principal of Mayo College of Art, Lahore, when Partition happened. He had to stay at a refugee camp, where he left behind his landscapes and began drawing the torment of Partition. As corps commander of Ambala-based refugee camp, Parasher was witness to the emotional torment which the refugees were going through. ‘Refugee Woman’ was made from the soil of the Ambala camp and is a testimony to the unspeakable violence inflicted on so many women during the time.

Remembering the Partition

The year 2017 witnessed a series of events remembering the 70 years of the Partition of India.  In Amritsar, the Partition Museum opened its doors to the public, re-igniting memories and stories of the “largest migration in history”. This was also the year when the  much-awaited book, ‘Remnants of a Separation’ by Aanchal Malhotra hit the shelves and the hearts of all those who read it. Another initiative, 1947Archive is documenting letters, photos and keeping all other memorabilia safe in a digital archive for we must remember to remember. The effect of the partition and its violence cannot fade from the memory of those who saw it. Artists who experienced the tragedy often revisit the time – perhaps in the hope of coming to terms with it.

Artist Anjolie Ela Menon fled Rawalpindi with her family when she was only 7. Her painting “Mataji” (grandma) shows a old woman whose pain and grief are palpable.

Mataji – could be anybody’s grandmother and in the context of the Partition, it is easy to imagine the root of her sorrow. Millions of people were forced to flee their homes and those who fled across the new border continued to live with the memory, enduring displacement and loss.

In the shadow of 1947

Seven decades on, well over a billion people still live in the shadow of Partition. As the memory of the brutality of Partition fades, the two countries that have fought 3 wars since 1947, engage in a colourful flag ceremony as the sun sets over the Wagah border post that lies midway between Amritsar and Lahore.  As William Dalrymple puts it:

In Delhi, a hard-line right-wing government rejects dialogue with Islamabad. Both countries find themselves more vulnerable than ever to religious extremism. In a sense, 1947 has yet to come to an end.

Those words find manifestation in Reena Kallat’s 2017-art installation at Memories of Partition [an exhibition at the Manchester Museum]

Light Leaks by Reena Kallat | More about the sculpture

1947 changed lives forever and greatly impacted India’s art landscape. Many artists who witnessed the Partition could only manage to turn to their art and trust it to narrate their experiences to future generations.

We were ONE people. One parted. Now we are TWO

– Gulzar

Featured Image: “Carrying Home” by Nilima Sheikh.

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