1947 marked the birth of two nations, India and Pakistan, as British colonial rule was transferred to sovereign states that together formed the bulk of what was once British India. The states were partitioned along religious differences with India’s population being largely Hindu and Pakistan’s Muslim. Amongst the obstacles, however, were 565 princely states scattered throughout the region that, although under British rule, did not belong to British India proper. A lapse in colonial authority meant these states would technically regain their independence. The months leading up to partition were filled with intense diplomatic wrangling as these states were given the option to join either India or Pakistan. All but 11 joined India.
The consolidation process wasn’t always smooth. In October of 1947, when Pathan tribes-men from Pakistan threatened to overrun the Kashmir valley, its Maharaja requested military assistance from India, which granted the request only after he signed documents acceding the territory, with its largely Muslim population, to India. Troops were flown in; the raiders were pushed out of the valley and a ceasefire zone established. After agreeing to refer the border dispute to the United Nations, the Indian government also promised to hold a plebiscite, a regional election in which Kashmir’s populace would decide to whom they would pledge allegiance. Also part of the cease-fire agreement was the understanding that Pakistan would withdraw its forces from the area. Neither side fulfilled its commitment.
According to the work of New Delhi-based filmmaker Amar Kanwar, the conflict in Kashmir represents a border anxiety running throughout India. For Kanwar, this political crisis is but one example of the country’s many unresolved social and political tensions. The exhibition will feature three of Kantar’s films, which are a mixture of documentary, poetic travelogue, and visual essay.
Narrated by Kanwar, A Season Outside (1998) uses India’s northern borders as the inspiration for a personal and poignant meditation on the source of a violence acculturated through centuries of ethnic and religious conflict. Ritual military patrols and ubiquitous coils of barbed wire mark the point where the historic Grand Trunk Road traverses the international border where “only the butterflies and birds are free to cross or rest on the wire as they do not disturb the circuit.” The white line running across the road has its origins in the communal conflict that led to the Partition of India. It is also the symbol Kanwar has chosen to begin his search for new insights into the age-old yet omnipresent need for a politics of non-violence.
Produced specifically for this exhibition, To Remember (2003) is a portrait of Birla House, the site of Gandhi’s assassination, which occurred January 30, 1948. Located in Delhi, Birla House has become a gallery and shrine attracting hundreds of visitors daily. This short silent film is an homage to Gandhi as well as the visitors who embody the spirit of his pacifist teachings.
A Night of Prophecy (2002) was filmed in several diverse regions of India (Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, Kashmir) and features music and poetry of protest and tragedy performed by regional artists. The sources of anger and sorrow vary from inescapable, caste-bound poverty to the loss of loved ones as a result of tribal and ethnic assertion for autonomy that led to violent confrontations with the government. A stunning glimpse of India’s diverse ethnic groups and topography, A Night of Prophecy is particularly telling as an investigation into the notion of a pluralist state which seems to recede against the backdrop of a surge in militant, Hindu nationalism. Clearly, the historical turn of events, from non-violence to nuclear armament, suggest a deep ambivalence about Gandhi’s legacy. Then again, when turning the other cheek, he never specified to the left or right.