A thought-provoking installation at the first Lahore Biennale, Postcards from Home is Manisha Gera Baswani’s tribute to childhood memories of artists and their ancestors from India and Pakistan, two countries who share much more than a common border…
As I tucked my five-year-old into bed, I wondered about the lullaby mothers in Pakistan were singing to their babies. Perhaps a modern rhyme or a folk song of the land. Or maybe, a lilting tune her Ammi used to hum to her. A couplet that carries the whiff of her ancestral village in undivided India. When India and Pakistan were one. When boundaries and borders didn’t slice through our lives. That lullaby, a faint reminder of roots, childhood and lovely memories. And, the similarity maybe…
How significant is that line that divided not just a nation but the lives and longings of so many. A line that didn’t give anyone enough time to ponder over the next step. A line that truncated love affairs, filial bonding and uprooted people from their motherland. This also is the line to inspire several treatises on art and literature. Not only for the pathos attached to the demarcation, but also as a tribute to the belonging and memories made by it.
At the first Lahore Biennale held last month, Postcards from Home, an art project by eminent artist and photographer, Manisha Gera Baswani (one of the few Indian artists to be exhibiting there) probed into this sensitive yet lovely aspect of roots and childhood with an Indo-Pak connect. And interestingly, not a word of acrimony or discord emerged out of the participating artists and their ancestors. “Indian artists, with a Pak-connect, could only come up with the beautiful memories of their lives from across the border. Pakistani artists did the same. At the heart of it, it is peace and love that drives each and every one of us,” says Baswani at her Gurgaon home.
Visibly moved by the response she got from the intellectuals and visitors in Lahore, where her installation was put up at the Shahi Hamman, after a painstaking restoration by the Agha Khan Trust, Manisha says that the project is a tribute to the fond memories her parents had of their halcyon time in Pakistan. “Every time Sargodha or Quetta popped up in conversations, it was a reminiscence with love,” the artist ponders. This is also a heartfelt initiative to document the stories erasing with every passing generation. “The fragility of time… another aspect of the installation.”
While the artist has been photographing eminent and veteran Indian artists in their private work studios for the last 16 years, it was her visit to the Sanat Art Gallery in Karachi that piqued her into launching the Pakistani leg of the project. Also, she attended the Seher Foundation Camp at Jaisalmer in 2007 (organised by Sanjeev Bhargava) and met several Pakistani artists, with whom she stayed connected throughout the years. Friendships and interactions with her contemporaries and seniors from across the border made her take this up seriously from 2015. The project, a set of 47 postcards (25 Indian artists and 22 Pakistani) has been etched with a fond memory of childhood or youth, spent in the ancestral land and which sometimes have been related by the mother, sister or grandfather of the existing artist. On the other side is the portrait of the artist photographed by Manisha herself. “I sent out messages to the artists bearing Punjabi and Sindhi surnames to find out whether they had any Pakistani connection, from pre-Partition India through their parents and grandparents. The stories that came out left an indelible impression on my mind. Voice records and letters came as well. May be soon, I will collate it all into a book, to hold on to the memories. What will we leave our children with?” questions the artist. Those at the show were piqued by how the postcards were displayed. One postcard each from India and Pakistan were rested on one sack filled with wheat, a food staple of both nations. Each sack leaned against each other. The imagery was evident. Two countries resting on each other for support and love. A visitor could carry the postcards home. “It is a happy memory they take back with them.”
Like when artist Ahmed Khan, from his studio in Karachi, has recollections of his childhood spent in Shahjahanpur. “…I can still relive the taste of puri-halwa my dear friend Naval Kishore’s mother used to make for me… My childhood memories are filled with my house in India that we left and never went back to. In my prayers, I still ask for dua for my friend Naval Kishore.”
Or when Waseem Ahmed puts across a poignant memory of his mother, Rabia Bibi, from his studio in Lahore, about playing with her Hindu and Muslim friends around the Ajmer Sharif Dargah. “Ammi often used to describe the map of her beloved city of Ajmer to us rather lovingly. So, when I made a pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharif, it felt like a déjà vu. My mother was there as I prayed.”
Artist Krishen Khanna fell in love with his wife Renu in Kashmir, where both their fathers, professors of Lahore College, had gone for a retreat. “In Lahore, we lived next to Government College and played hide and seek in the Goldberg garden. Kichi was the name she gave me. Some things remain the same, some change drastically, and yet every state can be wonderful. At 93, I still have Renu and I am crazy about her as I was when she was 6. And, I miss Lahore…”
Vignettes like these infuse heart into Manisha’s project. Drawn to the elderly because with them lie the treasure trove of memories, she says, “The youngsters need to know about the roots and homes of their ancestors. This is life, this is world.”
Thankful to Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (the project was funded by them) and Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi, a friend for the last 20 years who helped Manisha with the logistics of setting up the installation at the Shahi Hammam, the artist affirms that art bridges boundaries. If anyone were to be at her show at the Biennale, they would recognise this aspect. It could be road straight out of Chandi Chowk or Chauri Bazar in Purani Dilli. “The way we talk, the roads, the topography, everything is similar. Even the language. I felt at home there even more because of the warmth the locals showed to us,” recalls Manisha.
Postcards, a signet of the years gone by, with stories that childhoods were made of. Recollections and memories that still tug at hearts, no matter what the nationality is. But maybe, the stories that never got printed tell a wee bit more about the heart-wrenching reality of the divide. Of a child whose Sikh mother and Pakistani father were torn apart. Who pined to meet his long-lost mother just once, when the borders opened… “Her last wish was to hug her first-born once. But when he reached, it was too late. Who will tell these painful stories? The stories that still haunt the simple people of both the nations,” rounds off the thoughtful artist.