A Confluence of Stories is a display which explores themes of identity, language and collective memory using objects from the British Museum collection to tell a very personal story.
As Collection Managers we have a different relationship with the objects in our care to our curatorial colleagues. While curators are mostly concerned with telling the story of objects, we are primarily engaged with the practicalities of caring for objects in storage and on display.
The story of an object does not end with its acquisition into a museum collection. I prefer to think of it being the next step in its lifetime. As custodians of collections we too become a part of the object's history. We may work to create a new display for it in our galleries, improve the conditions of its storage and even accompany it across the world so that it can be exhibited elsewhere. When you're responsible for the care and access requirements for a collection of more than 300,000 objects, it is virtually impossible to know each individual object in detail. The Middle East collection at the British Museum covers a geographical area far beyond the confines of what we term 'the Middle East'. The incorporation of the Islamic collections in the early 2000s expanded that area into anywhere with a large Muslim population. Crucially for me, we have a wonderful selection of objects from the Indian subcontinent, the land where my paternal family originate. This summer I was afforded the chance to break the fourth wall of the curatorial world – and use the collection to tell my stories.
Over the past seven years my work in the Middle East department has enabled me to interact with objects which serve as a direct link to my South Asian heritage. The objects themselves act as portals to places I rarely get to travel to but am deeply connected to. Whether installing a Mughal painting of a Sufi saint venerated by my ancestors or auditing a selection of Islamic seals collected by employees of the East India Company, this interaction has enhanced my experience and ultimately made my own job more rewarding. Being able to connect with South Asian history in a tangible way has always been a highly emotive experience and the privilege of my position has not been lost on me. As a young boy, my father brought me to the British Museum to view objects from Indian and Islamic history. This trip had a profound effect on me and my father remarked at the time that, with my love of history, looking after 'our' heritage should be something I should aspire to. Little did we know that 20 years later I would be doing just that!
In October 2018, The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World opened to the public and a special feature of this space is the biannual rotating displays of works on paper. I have played an active part in delivering the vision of our Islamic curators in these displays and, over time, my curatorial colleagues have observed the passion I have for our collections and have positively engaged with my insights, which have largely been informed by the personal connection I feel to many of the objects. As a result of this, I was given the opportunity to tell my stories by curating three displays in a space which I had as yet only interacted with as a Collection Manager. The displays – A Confluence of Stories, Links in the Chain and Bridging the Divide on Film – are each thematically unique but also embody stories which have a personal link to my cultural heritage. Since this year sees the 75th anniversary of the Partition and independence of India, my intervention could not be more timely for members of the British South Asian diaspora who, like me, have inherited a sense of pain and loss from our parents and grandparents who lived through that tumultuous event.
What was the partition of India?
On the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947, Britain's Empire in India ceased to exist and two independent nations, India and Pakistan (East and West) were born. The Partition agreement between the British Indian government, the All-India Muslim League and the Congress Party resulted in what was arguably the largest mass migration in human history, resulting in the displacement of 14 million people. The new boundaries, hastily drawn along predominantly religious lines, forced many millions to abandon their homes and flee from one side of the new frontier to the other. Punjab in the West and Bengal in the East were split into two according to their Muslim and non-Muslim majority areas. Hindus and Sikhs were forced to migrate to India, and Muslims to Pakistan which resulted in the deaths of at least one million people due to communal riots and sectarian violence. My family, Punjabi Muslims living in India experienced this traumatic event firsthand. My grandfather fought as a soldier in the British Indian Army and a member of the largest volunteer force in history (2.5 million Indians fought the enemies of the British Empire with 80,000 lives lost), was captured during the Second World War by the Germans before escaping from a prisoner of war camp in occupied France. After making his way back to India, he would witness the traumatic exit of the British and the Partition of his homeland.
A Confluence of Stories
Three displays, A Confluence of Stories, Links in the Chain and Bridging the Divide on Film are each thematically unique but also embody stories which have a personal link to my cultural heritage. In A Confluence of Stories I explore themes of identity, language and collective memory using objects from the Museum collection interspersed with my own belongings. On this journey, I reflect on my engagement with emotionally resonant objects that have helped inform my identity as a British Punjabi. Just as the five rivers of the Punjab converge and become one in the mighty river Indus, the objects in this display each contribute to the complex multicultural links that have shaped my identity as I see it. Identity is complex and I believe that possessing a plethora of multicultural links in your ancestry is a source of strength which should be celebrated. The genealogical journey that resulted in my birth and shaped my identity takes in many tumultuous events such as the Partition of India and post-war commonwealth migration to Britain's industrial North.
A silver cuff-bracelet and a selection of postcards
One of the objects in the display which illustrates the clear link between events of the past and our present is a silver cuff-bracelet. The inscription on this bracelet in the Gurmukhi script of the Punjabi language is the name of my paternal ancestral village, Talwandi Kanungoian ਤਲਵੰਡੀ ਕਾਨੂੰਗੋਈਆਂ, in Hoshiarpur District, Punjab, present-day India. My family are Punjabi Muslims and had lived in this village for several centuries in harmony with their Hindu and Sikh neighbours. When Partition was announced my great grandfather did not intend to leave his home in India but as the violence escalated he took the decision like millions of other families to migrate across the new border. At the time, he did not expect this to be a permanent move. I had this object made as a reminder of how identity can be reshaped due to events beyond our control, and of the journey my forefathers took when they left Talwandi during Partition, to permanently settle in Chak 386 JB in Toba Tek Singh district, present-day Pakistan. When selecting personal items to include in this display I felt that this object embodied the message I wished to convey – that objects can act as portals to lost homelands.
While reflecting on the migration of my family from India to Pakistan, I was conscious of the millions of others who were forced to leave their homes due to Partition and I decided to include a selection of postcards from the collection to provide a snapshot of major population centres in 1947 which links nicely with my bracelet. While most of Northern India experienced mass migrations and outbreaks of communal violence because of the division of the subcontinent, the demography of several cities was drastically altered. They had for centuries contained sizeable populations of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and numerous other minority communities. Once the lines were drawn, many found themselves in the 'wrong' country, which led to millions of Hindu and Sikh residents fleeing towards India, and Muslims towards Pakistan.
An Indian miniature painting and a CD case
This painting depicts one of the great tragic romances of the Punjab, the story of Sohni and Mahiwal. Forced to conduct their affair in secret, each night Sohni would wade across the river Chenab using a clay pot as a buoy to reach her lover Mahiwal on the far bank. Unbeknownst to Sohni, on this occasion her pot has been replaced with an unbaked one by a jealous relative. Once in the middle of the river, the pot dissolved and she drowned. I included this object in the display because it conjured up a happy memory of a song I had heard as a child. I was introduced to this folk tale through a famous Qawwali (a devotional song) by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948–97). Nusrat was a renowned exponent of the Qawwali style of Hindustani classical music and his song “Oh disdi Sohni yaar di ghareya” narrates the story we see depicted in this painting in the form of an imagined dialogue between Sohni and the clay pot.
Oh disdi Sohni yaar di ghareya
Look there is the dwelling of my beloved! (exclaims Sohni)
Main ki karan kanda door ni ariye?
What can I do if the shore is so far away? (the pot replies)
Since the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan provided my earliest cultural education thanks to my father's extensive catalogue of CDs and cassette tapes, I thought it was only appropriate to include one in the display alongside the painting.
Using the objects in this display I hope that I have enabled you to travel with me on what has been a highly emotive and personal journey during a very important year for the British South Asian diaspora.
A Confluence of Stories, Links in the Chain and Bridging the Divide on Film are on display in Room 43 until Sunday 14 November 2022.
The Great Partition: The making of India and Pakistan. Yasmin Khan. Yale University Press. 2007.
Remnants of a Separation: a history of the partition through material memory. Aanchal Malhotra. Harper Collins. 2017.
Partition Voices: Untold British Stories. Kavita Puri. Bloomsbury. 2019.