By VITTORIA BENZINE, March 2022
Memorials can slip beneath conscious perception, rooted deep in the collective psyche. Reassessing them could re-shape society. “People who work in the fields of memory are not about forgiving and forgetting,” stated Pritika Chowdhry, a Chicago-based artist who’s made a medium of homage. Chowdhry founded the Partition Memorial Art Project in 2007, a collection of anti-memorials that engage viewers to process traumatic geopolitical events. Centered around the partitions of India that created Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Partition Memorial Art Project totals nine projects so far, each sprawling universes.
“The partition is a very pungent onion to peel,” Chowdhry remarked to me. In 1947, war-ravaged England cut its colonial losses in India—but not without a partition. Their Radcliffe Line incited chaos, hacking through cultural complexities, complicated topographies, and actual properties—even creating enclaves. Chowdhry notices echoes of its conflicts in ongoing riots across the region. Her anti-memorials seek to heal divisions and halt violent cycles. Grounded in years of research, she said, “It’s a whole process of learning, creating, and then sharing and educating.”
The "Broken Column" triangulates Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, the Jallianwala Bagh memorial in Punjab, and the Martyred Intellectuals monument in Dhaka. Viewers can catch the installation remotely with Art Show International Gallery. Chowdhry invented a solution for the physical distance between these real-world monuments, taking skin-like casts of their facades. Inspired by Focault, she’s distilled counter-memories down to the last tobacco stain. “All the sediments of human interaction with the monument is now captured into the the latex and silicone panel,” she explained.
Although these memorials honor specific events, they all covertly reference the Partition. Erected in the 1960s, Minar-e-Pakistan celebrated the newly formed Pakistan. At that site in 1930, Indian leaders of all creeds once declared their commitment to a free and undivided India—Purna Swaraj—motivated in part by the 1919 Jallianwalla Bagh massacre where British General Dyer opened fire on 5,000 innocent protestors.
Fearing a united front, England began polarizing. They offered elections, but took censuses according to religion so areas could only elect leaders of the dominant faith. The Muslim League radicalized by the 1940s. “Partition happens in another seven years,” Chowdhry said. The Radcliffe Line created India and Pakistan, but the latter was split into East and West, entirely separated by India. Culturally and physically distant, tensions brewed, religion and language the wedges. East Pakistan declared its independence in 1971, igniting the Bangladesh War of Independence. The Martyred Intellectuals monument honors 1,200 minds executed in “a violent effort to suppress the Bengali independence movement.”
“Britain was using this partition motif as a formula,” Chowdhry said. “Divide and rule.” These nations remain locked in continuous conflict. “What does it do when these panels touch and are side by side in close proximity?” asks “Broken Column,” elucidating the intertwining human histories amongst Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. Chowdhry shared stories from her own lineage—her mother’s family migrated from Karachi in the thick of the madness. Her father's family is from Bengal, and migrated to Calcutta in the first partition of Bengal in 1905-06. Her father was in the Indian Air Force and was deployed in the 1971 war to Dhaka.
“Both of those family histories are important,” she clarified. “They’ve had some impact on my work. But it's not exactly like I am making the work because of that.”
February 2022 marked the 20th anniversary of the Gujarat Pogroms of India, a catalyst that brought Chowdhry to The Partition Memorial Art Project. "They were the bloodiest anti-Muslim pogroms that I as an adult had ever seen in India,” she recalled. Prior to starting graduate school at UW-Madison in 2006, her practice focused mostly on “individual trauma like rape and domestic violence.” At school, Chowdhry attended an impactful seminar on cultural memory and began “reading about larger geopolitical events that traumatize a nation.” The Gujarat Pogroms came to mind.
Official narratives state the violence began with the Godhra train burning incident, where a mob of 1,000 Muslim people allegedly attacked Hindu right workers returning from Ayodhya, setting their train on fire. Anti-Muslim counter violence ran rampant the next three days. Chowdhry said the Chief Minister of Gujarat—now the country’s Prime Minister—promised free rein to Hindus within the timeframe. Official counts state that 58 people died in the Godhra Train Burning Incident, and over 2,000 people died in the Gujarat Pogroms.
“I realized this is not an historical event, an aberration in the history of South Asia,” Chowdhry said. “The rioters are saying the same slogans and propagating the same hate speech that was prevalent in 1947.”
Some accounts state there was no mob, no fire in Godhra. There’s evidence supporting exaggeration—the Hindu right has vocally boasted their ability to spur riots in hours. Chowdhry wondered whether the mob was as big or aggressive as it’s made out to be, noting India is a democratic country. It’s legal to protest. More importantly, she emphasized, “Even if there was an angry Muslim mob and they set fire to the train, that still does not justify a pogrom that killed 2,000 Muslims.”
Her anti-memorials refrain from rage. “I don’t do that lazy stuff," Chowdhry smiled. Vitriol only fuels further violence—it’s more important to be happy than to be right. “You may actually be right, but if you approach it righteously you will turn everybody off,” she said.
Inspired by Asghar Ali Enginee and Paul Brass, Chowdhry created “Memory Leaks," an anti-memorial of seventeen Dharapatras—copper pots—etched with dates and places of Hindu-Muslim riots, followed by infinite streams of tally marks whose subtext states “the actual casualty numbers are uncountable.” Dharapatras are used in Hindu temples to drip water or milk on deities from spouts from spouts on the bottom. She’s arranged havans beneath them—copper trays used for fire rituals. In “Memory Leaks” they’re padded with hand-torched Urdu books and newspapers from Lahore. Chowdhry invites everyone, including members of the Hindu right, to activate the anti-memorial by pouring water through the pots.
“It’s a symbolic dousing of that arson fire that decimated so many Muslim houses and shops,” she explained, eschewing blame rhetoric’s “created amnesia.” Domination can never permanently quash disagreements but, gentleness is a challenging sell for a society high on anger.
Assuming her life’s work over the past fifteen years, Chowdhry admits she owns this history more than her ancestors would have wanted. Her grandparents withstood the partitions, and her parents disowned them. “I want to carry that history, but from a larger perspective,” she said. “There is unresolved trauma in the collective psyche of these three nations. I feel that artwork has the power to change things—albeit slowly and gently.”
She’ll never fully complete the Partition Memorial Art Project—“Broken Column” alone could continue indefinitely. As society repeats the same cycles, new monuments appear imminent. Tensions in Kashmir are simmering, another symptom of incendiary leaders. With these anti-memorials, maybe Chowdhry’s also mourning a homeland she never had. Her efforts locate a greater sense of belonging amongst the efforts to unify our greater human family. Future monuments could prove audacious, joyful. For now, she’s satisfied seeking a softer way. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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