A note from Colleen & Shailen: We found ourselves in Kochi, India, in December 2018. Fortunately, our vacation coincided with the opening of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Kochi has an incredible art scene that occupied our time in the best possible way. One evening, as we sat down for a coconut-based seafood dinner (as one does in Kochi), we came across a stack of postcards titled “Postcards from Home” by Manisha Gera Baswani. It peaked our interest immensely, since each card captured a story inspired by an artist, either from India or Pakistan, who was personally affected in some way by the India-Pakistan partition in 1947. Here Manisha shares with us how the project came to be.
Your parents were born and raised in pre-partitioned India. Can you tell us more about your childhood and heritage?
I grew up imagining my mother's childhood in a faraway fantasyland called “Fort Sandeman.” Somewhere in arid Baluchistan, a sprawling bungalow housed the Tibek family. My mother told me of a small zoo full of exotic animals and of trees bearing badaam and zardalu.
My young mother, Amrit Varsha, a witness to five fragrant seasons of spring at Fort Sandeman, would walk hand in hand to school with her friend Kanees Fatima. The little girls would glance sideways with fascination at the rifle-toting guard at the home gate.
My nana, Kanshi Ram Tibek, was DSP (Deputy Superintendent of Police) of that region which was inhabited mostly by pathans. A larger than life personality, he towers through the fading sepia photographs in the fraying family album. With his fluent Pashto and local garb, he mingled with the locals as another young, handsome pathan.
Shouts of “Bhaag Gaye Bhaag Gaye” was a frequent wake up call for the Tibek siblings. The family’s pet rabbits frequently staged escapes and were promptly replaced the next morning by a new pair if they had gone missing.
“Fort Sandeman”? “The name of a small town in Baluchistan”? I would wonder if it was a figment of my mother’s imagination, for it certainly sounded like one. Thanks to Wikipedia I found it hiding behind its new name, given in 1964. There it was Zhob the fortress, once named after a British Official. My heart leapt, and every image stitched from the threads of my mother's memory came alive.
Born to parents of pre-partition India, my childhood memories were embellished with stories of their homes in Quetta and Sargodha respectively. On the terrain of my heart, Pakistan is an island, abode of my forefathers, floating away on the tears of partition. To date, my parents refer to it as “home.” Given the numerous stories we grew up on about their childhood—my brother and I grew up in New Delhi—feeling “love” toward the land that was their home across the border.
How did “Postcards from Home” come to fruition?
A practicing painter, I have been photographing fellow Indian artists in their studios now for sixteen years. I had always nursed the desire to start the Pakistan leg of my project “Artist through the lens.” The opportunity came when I was invited to exhibit a solo of my paintings at Sanat Gallery in Karachi in 2015.
I asked myself why it had taken me so long to come here? I was struck by how this place felt so familiar. This land had been kept alive through the memories of my parents that became our bedtime stories that were smuggled by them when they crossed the borders during Partition, leaving behind love and land. It was a home I had dreamed about throughout my childhood and now, finally, I stood on its soil to savor the sweet air.
Post my exhibition opening, days were spent at artists’ studios, conversing over innumerable cups of tea and coffee and viewing their art works. What I did not realize then was that an indelible mark on me and on my art practice was being formed through these encounters.
Most artists that I was meeting had an India connection through parents and grandparents. I realized that their stories of love, loss and pain were shared on both sides of the border—just different characters. It made me reach out to fellow Indian artists, who like me, had been impacted by the partition.
I sent out messages to those bearing Punjabi and Sindhi surnames, some photographed many moons ago, asking them if they or their kin had “crossed over” during partition. Most replied, opening their hearts, some sent me anecdotes, others shared an intimate memory they had grown up with. These fragile, tender reminisces were to take the shape of “Postcards from Home.”
You’ve called “Postcards from Home” an interactive project. Can you elaborate what you mean by this? What do you hope viewers to gain from this project?
“Postcards from Home” traverses the borders and brings “home” the artist photographed. 47 artists (coinciding with the year of partition, 1947), 25 from India and 22 from Pakistan, all photographed by me in their creative spaces over the last few years. All artists have a history with partition personally or through family. They have shared the tugs their heart feels when they remember the “home” they lost.
“Postcards from Home” has been shown at the Lahore Biennale 2018 as well as the India Art fair 2019. At both the venues, I chose to display the cards in sacks of wheat. Wheat is the staple diet of both the Punjabs (Indian and Pakistani). Also called kanak in Punjabi which means gold. Kanak is a word my parents still use and I heard it used by the elders in Lahore when I visited homes.
Each sack carried a postcard of an Indian and a Pakistani artist. The viewer was invited to pick one or all 47 cards bearing the stories of artist’s lost homes. One pair after another in a trail. Each pair leaning against the other. Sacks filled to the brim with “golden” wheat. Complete in themselves and yet leaning against each other for love and support which can’t go wrong in any relationship, community or state.
“Postcards from Home” returned to Lahore for the Faiz festival in November. Ali Raza in a curatorial brilliance created a tree like structure built with curved iron rods where the cards hung like leaves from wire branches. He then placed the cards in a circle of individual stacks under this structure. The viewers were required to bend 47 times to collect all cards, a homage to the year of partition. The orchestrated circumambulation was an interactive performance likening itself to a spiritual ritual. The process of viewing the project became an interactive project indeed.
“Postcards from Home” is more than just photographs and interviews. It’s a reminder to cherish what is precious, to acknowledge the little things that define us and to celebrate the love that turns four walls and a roof into a HOME.
How important do you think a project like “Postcards from Home” is, especially with the rise of nationalistic sentiments in India and worldwide?
I had no intent or objective behind this project. It grew organically over borderless conversations, cups of tea, and shared tears.
I have no message to give except for us to learn from our past, give each other love whether in personal relationships or those of our states and nations. I do know the almighty didn’t put us here on this earth to feud.
I also feel that the next generation will be more open to learning about our common past. Such interactive projects aid this process by presenting the common sentiments that remain undivided by political ink.
How has this project affected you personally?
It has given me invaluable friendships on both sides of the border. It has made me more empathetic towards those around me. I appreciate and marvel at my parents and their positive attitude toward life despite the severe difficulties they went through.
I birthed the project and this wise child has been my teacher. “Postcards from Home” is not about a political divide. It is about friendships, neighbors, local playground and familiar tea stalls. The smells, the sounds, the shared laughter and sorrows. It’s about losing yet keeping home alive through memories smuggled across bloodied borders.
My story is set in memories that are now 70 years old, but it is being written every day for many. So many get displaced and so many lose homes. Those who are trapped in houses that stopped being homes have lost too.
What surprised you the most throughout the process?
To understand that nothing is impossible if we “really” want to do it. The universe reaches out to help when we need it to. It is important that the ask from the universe must come from one’s heart.
Can you tell us about other projects you’ve worked on in the past?
I have been documenting my teacher and Guru, Mr. A. Ramachandran, now for almost thirty years. Hopefully someday it will become a book.
My camera has been a close companion that I carry to artist studios, art camps, show openings and get together with artist friends. This accelerated the adventure of photographing artists in their elements by a fellow artist.
I have been photographing fellow artists in their creative spaces for sixteen years. This ongoing, self-funded labor of love has now become a large archive of artists shot in their creative spaces by a fellow artist. I have called the project “Artist through the lens.”
The project over time traversed borders and I had started the Pakistan leg when I went there for a solo show of my paintings at Sanat gallery in 2015. It is from the project “Artist through the Lens” that “Postcards from Home” was born.
What do you hope to work on in the coming year? Are there any next steps for “Postcards from Home”?
I am very organic in the way I approach my life, work and even parenting. Rumi said (to paraphrase him), start walking and you will find your path. My documentation of my guru Mr. A Ramachandran, my photography project on the documentation of fellow artists from India and Pakistan in their studios, “Artist through the lens” and finally “Postcards from Home,” all have found their own meaning and life as I have gone about doing what I love doing.
I am sure the project will give me answers to where it is headed. I have many artist friends from both sides of the border who have a shared past. I am very keen to continue the project on partition if I manage funding as this will entail travelling to various countries where the Indian and Pakistani artist friends are now based. Inshallah…very soon.
All photos by Manisha Gera Baswani.