Artist Pritika Chowdhry On Her Partition Anti-Memorial Project

In an exclusive interview, Chicago-based Indian artist Pritika Chowdhry highlights her process of creating Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories – her ongoing exhibition at The South Asia Institute, Chicago. By Karan Kaushik

15th August 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the emergence of India and Pakistan as independent nation-states. The partition triggered the largest and most rapid migration in human history. Over 20 million people were displaced in an unprecedented mass migration in history. Approximately 2 million people died in the communal violence across the new border, called the Radcliffe Line and over 3,00,000 women were abducted during the partition riots.

Often called the Holocaust of South Asia, the partition is central to modern identity and geopolitics in the Indian subcontinent. Struck by the widespread lack of awareness of the partition’s enduring impact, Chowdhry began creating various artworks around this subject.

Evoking corporeal bodies through a myriad of materials, Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories highlights generational resilience and resistance. We caught up with the artist to know more about her exhibition. Here are excerpts from the interview.

T+L India: Please tell us about your exhibition Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories.

Pritika Chowdhry: the Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories exhibition commemorate the 75th anniversary of the partition. Through experiential art installations, it investigates the Partition of India in 1947, which created Pakistan, and eventually, Bangladesh in 1971. The exhibition is open at the South Asia Institute in Chicago from August 6 – December 10, 2022.

T+L India: How did you come up with the idea for the exhibition?

Pritika Chowdhry: The exhibition is a solo retrospective of the Partition Anti-Memorial Project, which I founded in 2007, on the 60th anniversary of the Partition. The sculptural artworks in this exhibition excavate the counter-memories of 1947 and 1971, through temporary anti-memorials. The exhibition’s title alludes to the painful and silenced narratives that have been elided from mainstream discourses of the Partition.

T+L India: What was the idea behind anti-memorials?

Pritika Chowdhry: So anti-memorials are in many ways opposite of large state-sponsored monuments. Anti-memorials are often created by individuals that are non-state actors, are usually made of fragile materials and not brick, or stone, or marble, and usually critique the nationalist hero narrative of an event.

James E Young describes an anti-memorial as, “Anti-memorials aim not to console but to provoke, not to remain fixed but to change, not to be everlasting but to disappear, not to be ignored by passers-by but to demand interaction , not to remain pristine but to invite their own violation and not to graciously accept the burden of memory but to drop it at the public’s feet.”

T+L India: Did you speak to partition survivors for the project? How was the experience? Please tell us about the research that went into this project.

Pritika Chowdhry: I spoke to some Partition survivors from my immediate family. That generation doesn’t really like to talk about the traumas they experienced in 1947. But gradually, over many conversations, I was able to piece together what my extended family endured.

My research for the Partition Anti-Memorial Project is much broader and deeper than my own family history. It is comprised of academic books and articles written by Partition scholars, historical fiction and literature about the Partition, feminist historiography about the Partition, and popular culture like films and tv serials about the Partition. I commend Urvashi Butalia’s book, The Other Side of Silence to anybody wanting a deeper understanding of the Partition from a gendered perspective.

T+L India: What is the creative process that you follow while working on your projects?

For her most recent works “Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories” Chowdhry investigates the Partition of India in 1947, which created Pakistan, and eventually, Bangladesh in 1971.

Pritika Chowdhry: My creative process usually begins with an idea or concept which I then research for quite a while. At some point in the research, I begin to articulate and visualize the work through drawings. Then I start making objects in the materials that make sense to realize the concept. I also start writing about the work to clarify my own thoughts and start to think about possible titles for the works.

T+L India: Would you like to tell us about your upcoming projects?

Unbearable Memories Unspeakable Histories
Chowdhry’s work titled “Remembering the crooked line” displayed at the exhibition Unbearable Memories Unspeakable Histories

Pritika Chowdhry: I am currently working on a series of drawings about the Radcliffe Line. I will continue to work on the Broken Column project when I travel to India hopefully in late December or early January. And I will soon be re-launching a couple of my early Partition works in the form of digital artworks with NFTs.

T+L India: What are your favorite destinations in the world?

Pritika Chowdhry: India! I am yet to see many beautiful places in India, and I have a long list of places I want to visit in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. I loved visiting Lahore and Dhaka, and really want to go back and visit Karachi too.

T+L India: When was the last time you visited India? Would you like to share any memories from your last trip?

Pritika Chowdhry: The last time I was able to visit India was in 2016, so it has been too long. My daughter was born in 2017 and then the pandemic prevented me from visiting my family in India. However, that will change in a few months as soon as my daughter is fully vaccinated.

T+L India: What are some of the destinations in India that are on your bucket list?

Pritika Chowdhry: There are so many – Kashmir, and other cities in J&K, Varanasi, Simla, Ooty, Mangalore, Hyderabad, Kerala, Assam, Rajasthan, and many more.

T+L India: Why do you love India?

Pritika Chowdhry: I believe in India, and in the underlying spirit of Indians to live up to the secular ideals on which India was founded.

All images: Courtesy of Pritika Chowdhry

Related: 75 Reasons Why We Love India

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