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News Category: Partition

Visiting Artist Profile: Imran Channa

Lik Likoti  Oil on canvas, plywood box, 76x52x8inches, (each box) Imran Channa, 2012, Lahore.


Spring 2018 Visiting Artist Imran Channa is a contemporary artist from Pakistan. His art practice interrogates the intersection between power and knowledge. Channa’s primary focus is on the documentation and dissemination of historical narratives and events. He explores how fabricated narratives can override our collective memory to shape individual and social consciousness and alter human responses. 

In this interview, we discuss how he first became interested in installation artwork and the benefits of making art abroad. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website


What was your artistic background like?

I started my artistic practice soon after I graduated from The National College of Arts, Lahore in 2004. Then I enrolled again in their MA program and graduated in 2008. Since then, I have been continuously practicing and showing my work nationally and internationally. Besides my art practice, I am an art teacher at the Department of Fine Arts and Visual Arts at National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan. The combination of teaching and practice has led to my approach being more research based.


You also do a lot of installation work. When did you start that?

During my studies at The National College of Arts I trained as a painter and as a result I was making a lot of 2D work, but when I presented my work in galleries I always felt that works were detached from their surroundings. I became more interested in the surroundings, in ideas about place, locations and contexts. It became a starting point for me to think about and create installations that were more site specific.

My first installation was Lik Likoti, which means hide and seek. It consisted of large (about 4 x 6ft) oil paintings on canvas, based on historical photographs. I placed each painting inside a loading box and that’s how they were presented. The viewer couldn’t see the whole painting, only a fragment of the painting was visible.  

This type of work elicited a strong reaction from galleries, collectors and audiences. I realized that it is important to question the notions of contemporary art produced and displayed in galleries in Pakistan, because lack of funding and alternative or experimental art spaces means that artists have to rely on commercial success to survive financially. As a result of this, the works that are produced are beholden to the demand of the galleries system. 

When I moved to the Netherlands for the Jan van Eyck Academie fellowship in 2016, I really engaged with my research based practice. I also started to further enjoy and experiment with the challenges of making installations. This has led to me digging and investigating a bit like an archeologist.


How did you begin to do your artwork on Partition images?

My work interrogates archives and amplifies the influence of subjectivity by relating historic photographs to the present . I started making work on the images of Partition that I found in Life Magazine. When we seek the visual evidence of this monumental event in history, it’s surprising that we only find a small body of photos, mainly captured by western photographers like Margarete Bourke White. These photos are a visual record of Partition; the tremendous scale of widespread violence, the physical and psychic displacement, all the horrors that Partition produced. I am interested in a lot if things- the endless persistence or presence of images, duration, time and memory.  For me, the photograph is a rectangular form that is disconnected from a flow of time. I believe that an interesting photograph doesn’t belong to any one time, but instead is a confrontation or provocation that invites us to consider the coexistence of multiple times.


Do you see yourself also going into other historical events in the future?

I came to Europe because I think it’s very important to travel for long periods of time. By creating a physical and mental distance from your country, you are able to take another look at reality, which you might have otherwise missed because you are so close to it. This experience has broadened the ways in which I approach my practice. I have visited many libraries, museums and collections, and this has shifted my attention to the way we look at images.  Now I am not only collecting and organizing archival material but also collecting and organizing experiences, and trying to present what was previously invisible.


The work you do with the Erasure, it’s a very physical act. Could you describe your experience, because you’re creating these very beautiful images that could be sold in a gallery, then you’re erasing it. What is the feeling that you have as you’re erasing these very detailed images?

A memory from my childhood is of erasing. It’s like you are hiding something when you have made a mistake. This has led me to think about collective erasure by societies when dealing with bigger mistakes made historically and how certain power structures need to dissolve, hide or erase historical documents in order to render the mistake forgettable.

I make exact copies of drawings with pencil on paper based on historical documents then deliberately erase them. What is left on the paper are just the traces of drawing. It’s actually a painful process for me as I’m putting a lot of effort in one drawing knowing that inevitably I will just erase it. I have adopted this creative process of destruction as I think it leads to a new kind of inscription. This work talks about both larger and smaller ways in which history is rewritten and how inaccurately or incompletely documented history continues to inflict psychological pain on people, altering modes of living. The process of fabrication is continuously affected by power and ideology, and in a way I become a part of those situations.


I know that you’ve been doing some archival research with maps. Do you know what direction it’s going in?

I am still in the process of collecting the materials.  I’ve been focusing on 16th century prints and maps, especially in Europe. I see them as active agents in the creation and dissemination of knowledge in 16th century Europe. I am expanding my focus on photographs and starting to look at images produced before the invention of the camera. My aim is to de-codify the symptoms produced by these objects in different times, cultures and locations.


What did you do while you were at Harvard? Could you describe some of your experiences?

I attended many seminars and events to fuel my conceptual and philosophical understanding of art and my own practice. I frequently went to the Astronomy Department at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics because in my practice the concept of time and its complex dimensions feature prominently. They had two evenings – one was a lecture on black holes and the other was an Observatory Night- when they opened their larger telescopes on the roof top for the public to observe and experience the stars and planets differently.


Do you have anything else that you would like to share about what’s next for you?

I have a lot of projects I’m working on right now. My studio acts as a poetic laboratory where images reincarnate, survive and sustain different kinds of lives. I aim to bring my interest in chemical sciences into focus. I am very interested in alchemy and the process of transmutation. Currently one of the things I am interested in is the small elements of life- like dust and water, as a container for memories.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Partition Stories: Meeting the ‘Flying Sikh’

“On 28th April 2018, I Interviewed Mr. Milkha Singh (Flying Sikh), one of the finest athletes India has ever produced” beamed a very excited Akshay Veer, a Partition ambassador at the Mittal Institute, Harvard University. Akshay was part of a 55 student cohort that worked on a project titled, ‘Looking Back, Informing the Future – The 1947 Partition British India: Implications of Mass Dislocations across Geographies.’ As part of this project, student ambassadors collected and documented oral stories from survivors of the Partition. 

“He was born in a district called Muzaffargarh, now in Pakistan, in the year 1927. He did not know his exact date or time of birth, as there was hardly any documentation at that time, but estimates that he was around 16 or 17 years old when the Partition happened. He studied up until the fourth standard in a mosque near his village. Although the majority of people in his village were Muslim, there was no feeling of insecurity or being threatened. Everyone lived peacefully together” Akshay recalls from his conversation with the stalwart athlete. “Mr. Singh remembered life before Partition and described it as slow compared to city life today. The people in the village focused on farming and livelihoods and were very simple. When the Partition happened, they had no information and found out from villagers who were talking about fleeing their villages. Nobody was aware that Pakistan was formed. There was also news of trains running between India and Pakistan with many people being slaughtered on their way from one place to another. Mr. Singh’s family too was killed back in Pakistan, while he managed to somehow make his way to a refugee camp in Delhi, and started life again from scratch.”

Akshay was one of the many student ambassadors who worked on the Partition project that has, over the last year, collected almost 2,000 oral stories from survivors and families affected by Partition across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The project hopes to learn about the complexities of large-scale human migration and resettlement, and use these lessons to inform current cross border displacements.




Getting to the ‘Why’ of British India’s Bloody Partition

By Alvin Powell, staff writer, The Harvard Gazette

The birth of Hindu-led India and Muslim-ruled Pakistan in 1947 from what had been British India was horrifically violent, the start of a religious conflict in which millions died and millions more fled across the new borders toward safety.

The great sorting that occurred after the Partition of India remains the largest forced migration in human history, characterized not just by the bloodshed and tears with which it is often associated, but also by often-overlooked acts of courage and kindness, according to Harvard scholars studying it.

Partition’s echoes still resonate, and not just in the memories of remaining eyewitnesses. They are found in the two nuclear-armed nations’ postures toward each other, in the continuing dispute over their common border, in their modern demographics, in the reduced but still significant religious minorities in each nation, in the neighborhoods that arose where refugee camps once stood, and in the lessons learned that affect similar migrations such as that of Syrians currently fleeing civil war.

Since the fall of 2016, Harvard’s Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute has been taking a new look at Partition, which researchers say remains fertile ground for researchers despite prior work by scholars.

“What we’re trying to capture is this moment in time,” said Jennifer Leaning, the FXB Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It is an extremely important part of world history.”

Researchers now can deploy tools enabled by advances in technology, computing, and data science, that let them ask fresh questions and take different approaches to answering old ones. In addition, research that relies on memories of eyewitnesses to the 70-year-old episode gains urgency with each passing year.

“Obviously, it’s urgent because those who lived through this trauma inevitably won’t be with us much longer,” said South Asia Institute Director Tarun Khanna, whose family resettled from Pakistan to northern India at the time. “Partition is a super-extensively studied issue, but also it’s my perception that there are many angles that are utterly unstudied.”

Map of Partition Routes

Millions took to the land, sea, and air to escape religious persecution in the Partition of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The project is designed to appeal to scholars from across Harvard in a way similar to that of the institute’s 2013 project on the Khumb Mela, a massive, eight-week religious festival that occurs every 12 years and brings millions of people daily to the banks of the Ganges River. Scholars participating in the Khumb Mela project examined the event from viewpoints involving religion, public health, urban planning, government administration, security, and commerce. Steering the current project are Leaning and Khanna, who is also Harvard Business School’s Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor.

“Our power is to bring to this project, this topic, to people who would not normally look at it,” Khanna said.

“Looking Back, Informing the Future: The 1947 Partition of British India” is supporting four avenues of inquiry. One, led by Leaning, is examining the humanitarian implications of migration, focusing on relief efforts and resettlement of refugees by different levels of government, as well as non-governmental organizations.

A second, led by Khanna and Karim Lakhani, Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration, is seeking to collect and analyze the oral histories of 3,000 survivors, with an emphasis on those not represented in earlier histories: women, minorities, and the poor. The third project, led by Rahul Mehrotra, professor of urban design and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, is examining Partition’s impact on cities, including some of the subcontinent’s largest urban areas, like Bombay, Calcutta, Dehli, Lahore, and Karachi.

The fourth (but not final aspect, since Khanna anticipates more in the future), examines the geopolitics emerging from Partition, focusing on analysis of political speeches by leaders of India and Pakistan delivered on the international stage. That is led by Asim Khwaja, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Sumitomo-FASID Professor of International Finance and Development, along with Khanna, Lakhani, and Prashant Bharadwaj, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego.

That project will benefit from the tools of modern information technology and data science, which allow not just the large-scale, big-data analyses of traditional information, but also increasingly allow analysis of unconventional data sets, like the content of political speeches where common themes emerge from word choices and language analysis.

The work, aided by institute staff including project manager Shubhangi Bhadada and research assistants Saba Dave, Nabil Khan, Rasim Alam, and Ajay Kumar, is being done in collaboration with partners in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, which at the time of Partition was part of Pakistan. Those local partners include scholars, project staff, and an army of research assistants who act as “ambassadors” to conduct structured interviews with Partition survivors.

In addition to the research, the institute last spring sponsored weekly seminars on Partition-related subjects on campus and has held meetings on the project in Cambridge, Providence, London, New York, Karachi and Lahore, Pakistan, and Delhi, India.

Though the Partition project began early last year, one of its investigations, Leaning’s exploration of Partition’s humanitarian aspects, had a head start. More than a decade ago Leaning started exploring refugees’ experience during migration, how they were handled on arrival, and what sparked the religious and ethnic violence.

SAI Partition Team Meeting

Partition team members Rahul Mehrotra (clockwise from center) Diane Athaide, Saba Dave, Shubhangi Bhadada, Nabil Khan, and Rasim Alam pore over Partition interviews and documents. Photo courtesy of Shubhangi Bhadada.

“Some people moved hundreds of miles to the border, and the violence precipitated their decision to leave,” Leaning said. “[The violence] became quite intimate in these rural villages.”

In research published in 2008, Leaning and colleagues, including Kenneth Hill of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, argued that Partition affected many more people than previously thought.

Instead of the 14.5 million thought to have moved from country to country in previous estimates, Leaning and colleagues said up to 18 million may have moved, and between 2.3 and 3.2 million likely died in the violence. Research published in 2008 by Bharadwaj, Khwaja, and Atif Mian reached similar conclusions, saying there were 17.8 million migrants and 3.4 million killed.

At the time of Partition, the setting was ripe for a breakdown of order, Leaning said. Nascent Indian and Pakistani governments were still getting their feet under them, while the former colonial power, Britain, was broke and exhausted after World War II. Britain was demobilizing troops who might have proven useful in responding to such a large-scale humanitarian disaster and preparing for an exit from the region, Leaning said. Despite unrest for months before Partition, British officials were “surprisingly unprepared,” Leaning said, and preparations made at the local and provincial level were swamped by the numbers of people moving.

“The problem was the numbers were overwhelming,” Leaning said.

Making things worse, she said, was that among those demobilized were former soldiers who had served in the British Indian Army, arriving home with not only military training, but also with their weapons.

Leaning said that might explain something that always puzzled her about Partition: the relatively high death rate. Many more were killed then might have been expected in a similar setting. But if demobilized troops took part in organized attacks on refugees, those attacks would have been particularly deadly.

“An enormous number were demobilized but not disarmed,” Leaning said. “This was not just mass hysteria violence. There was a high level of organization and lethality.”

Results from the Partition project’s more recent investigations will likely come out later this year, and a book presenting the results is planned for next year. Khanna said he expects inquiries on the subject to continue beyond that, possibly for several years.

“We started this on the 70th anniversary,” Khanna said, “I’m hoping by the 75th anniversary of Partition we would really have published quite a few things and been able to showcase what we learned from a long-running project.”

This article was originally published by The Harvard Gazette on April 6, 2018. 

“Social” Media: How Old Newspapers Help Us Understand Partition

Whenever my Pakistani family and acquaintances discuss the original ‘Brexit’, the 1947 transfer of governance to the new states of India and Pakistan, we mostly talk about communal tensions among Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, or focus on contemporary political shenanigans in the region. Though most branches of my family were directly affected by the events of 1947, we rarely discuss its personal and familial impact. This interplay of easy conversation and silences around the Partition is a trope in the inheritances of history and family mythology in many Pakistani and Indian families.  

The academic industry around Partition, however, has recently begun to understand that individual and social experiences, as Ilyas Chattha says, are “Partition history’s integral subject, not just its by-product or an aberration”.

We learn more about this world-changing event from the stories of men, women and children who were not in the top tiers of the Muslim League or Indian National Congress parties whose history has come to define this seminal event in the world’s memory.  

As a researcher on The Mittal Institute’s collaborative Partition project, my goal has been to find and understand several pairs of opposites – care and violence, survival and death – as they co-existed in South Asia immediately before and after August 1947. In this massive, under-documented humanitarian episode, the ‘human’ element needs to be better represented in all its complexity.  


Picture 1 of 29

The echo chambers of nationalism present a challenge in developing a three-dimensional model of how the millions of people were affected by Partition, making it harder to conceptualize a true ‘people’s history’. A significant portion of this historiographic focus, certainly in the English language, has been on what would become ‘Indian’ stories, for a variety of reasons.

In the case of Pakistan, at least, the archives that could give shape to a subaltern narrative are lost, scattered or obscured behind concentric circles of privacy, without a will to even look. The country’s fledgling bureaucracy, as well as citizenry, lacked the pre-existing infrastructure and wealth that existed across the border, resulting in a relative flattening of Partition narratives in circulation.  

In the face of this, the rare academics who give time and attention to Pakistan have recently relied extensively on oral histories and also on media analysis to substantiate the description of the human toll of Partition – and, therefore, independence – beyond statistics (assuming these statistics even exist or can be traced).  

Newspapers, along with radio, in Urdu and English, were the main platforms available for displaced people (and those concerned with them) to make a case for themselves. There are classifieds advertizing business opportunities and details of lost loved ones, and passionate letters to the editor that signal discontent to state authorities.

Government organs and functionaries also relied on the tools of media to communicate with their new citizens, as they sought to shape that very citizenry.

There were photographs of politicians in ‘charismatic’ mode speaking and posing among refugees, who were often shown in either classic images of destitution and despair, or occasionally as heroic survivors, much like the new state of Pakistan, which claimed as part of its mystique a resilience in the face of many threats to its independence and security.  

Of course, these resources were most available to those with certain privileges. In a region with relatively low literacy, and where rural areas were particularly affected by disruption and displacement, English and Urdu-language media were not truly representative of the struggles and joys of life of over five million refugees (and the deduction and absence of a similarly-sized population of non-Muslim evacuees).  

The themes that emerge from the layout and content of a newspaper like Dawn, even when addressing the needs of the less privileged, can at best merely hint at the overall picture of what the newly-realized Pakistan meant for the lived experience of each of its constituents, especially those whose experience resisted easy packaging within bigger stories of the successful and best-possible emergence of the Pakistani state.   

With this caveat, I have selected clippings from a newspaper with socialist-leaning bona fides called the Pakistan Times (edited by eminent cultural figure Faiz Ahmad Faiz) to show how news around the partition was expressed and shared by individuals, providing insight into the motivations and struggles that official histories have glossed over.  

To contextualize these clippings, it is important to note that Pakistan was caught up in a frenzy of ‘pioneership’. Reporting on the Partition, into 1948, shared space with tales of battle and suffering in Kashmir and Palestine/Israel, lending an almost cosmological significance to local problems, which seemed to be reflected on the wider global stage.

It is also important to note that newspapers, as the original ‘social’ media, contained multiple voices, including dissenting ones. Hence, we have a remarkably regular series of messages by West Punjab’s civil supplies department, announcements about open meetings with police, as well as expressions of dissatisfaction with government actions, and direct communications between estranged friends and relatives (including non-Muslims).  

Nabil carefully scanning old newspaper clippings

Nabil loading microfilm into the computer at Widener Library

In selecting these clippings, I have chosen to highlight stories of unexpected relationships as well as glimpses into the lived experience of refugees and those individuals and organizations in relationship with these displaced.  

The economy of displacement included, in small ways, the continuation of connections between Muslim and non-Muslim, as private transactions around property occurred before sufficient government management of property exchange between departing evacuees and incoming refugees.  

The elite and upper middle classes were called out for aspects of their lifestyles during the ongoing emergency, and daily requests for aid to the national fund for refugee assistance (alongside reports of conspicuous donations made by schools, professional associations, townships etc.) emphasized generosity as a civic virtue of the new regime.

Newspapers facilitated communication in a period where other media were not as reliable. Refugees drew attention to the difficulties they faced in navigating their new lives. The government of Indore in India even used Pakistani newspapers to connect with potential incoming migrants. 

This archive, like most, is a static one, so we do not know the antecedents or after-life of any of these pieces of newspaper art and literature (what, for example, was the Hindu or Sikh refugee’s response to the Indore announcement?); nonetheless, these excerpts allow us to focus our lines of inquiry as researchers on the texture of the social fabric of the newly formed dominions, with neatness and linearity in some cases, and deep complexity in others. 


Nabil A Khan is a Visiting Scholar at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, led by Professor Jennifer Leaning, at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. This is the first in a series of blog posts about SAI’s Partition Project.