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Partition pangs, etched forever


A master artist’s work is thrown open to the public in a newly-created museum in south Delhi as a much-needed visual reminder of what the victims of history suffered. A TSI report Photos by Mukanda De
TSI | Issue Dated: August 4, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Sardari Lal Parasher | Mayo School of Arts | Indo-Pak partition | ICCR | Khushwant Singh |

Artist, writer and philosopher Sardari Lal Parasher was 43 years old when Partition cleaved the subcontinent and uprooted thousands. He had to leave behind his all in Lahore as he, like hundreds of other refugees, boarded a train out of newly-created Pakistan.

He was the vice-principal of Mayo School of Arts (now the National College of Art, Lahore). He fled with his life, a set of clothes and a newspaper clipping of a sketch he had done of Rabindranath Tagore.

Soon after arriving in India, Parasher took up the job of the supervisor of a refugee camp in Baldev Nagar, Ambala. On his daily pre-sundown peregrinations around the camp, he saw people with grief and a sense of loss writ large on their faces. He sketched, with pen and pencil, whatever he saw on any piece of paper that he could lay his hands on.

Parasher devoted the next few years of his life to visually documenting the agony and horror of Partition, recording scenes at the refugee camp.

These sketches and line drawings that Parasher made in the 1940s and 1950s serve as artistic snapshots of a moment in time in India's history. It was as if he knew he was documenting the trauma revealed by a population being shaped into a nation.

Little evidence is available of the events that accompanied Partition. But thanks to Parasher’s art, we know what the victims would have felt as they survived the cataclysmic event and observed its human ramifications.

His sketches and line drawings, particularly those that he created right after Partition, are now been retrieved from years of oblivion and dusted for viewing by the present generation of Indians for whom Partition is only a an event, but one that India can never leave behind.

With the help of Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), Parasher's children - four daughters and a son - have put many of the works on display in the newly-created gallery at the artist's house in New Delhi’s South Extension. Many other pieces are still waiting to be framed, archived and exhibited. The museum was opened to the public by minister for external affairs Salman Khurshid on July 18.

There will never be another opportunity to enter this world with works of art carrying more authority, or as much capacity, to bring this lost past into the present. Entirely realist in concept, it makes one wonder if Parasher, having gone through so much change himself, recognized here that he was recording images that would soon vanish from view.

“The 1947 Partition into two countries of India and Pakistan was not only a political watershed but it was also perhaps the most tragic story of tortuous division of people and families across the line drawn on a piece of paper. The extent of psychological trauma affecting the people who crossed the line then has been a matter of human interest stories in several books written on partition by authors like Khushwant Singh and Amrita Pritam" said Dr Suresh K Goel, Director-General, ICCR.

"However, there have been very few visual impressions of the human sufferings,” Dr Goel said.

But for Parasher, who was born in Gujaranwala in Pakistan in 1904, the years following the Partition would have vanished into the mist of time.

According to Dr Goel: “Parasher had been an eminent artist in Pakistan with a huge international network and became a pioneer in starting art education in post-independence India by setting up several schools in Shimla, Punjab and rest of India. As commander of a refugee camp, he was first hand witness to the emotional torment which the refugees were going through, and drew several sketches of those refugees which are vivid in their depiction of the agony of people who left their friends behind, whose near and dears had been separated from them and having left everything behind had no idea of what future holds for them. Parasher’s collection in that sense is a valuable piece of the history of modern India and a treasure of art".

Parasher's work spanned ten decades. It was in the year 1931 that Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore visited Lahore. The poet spoke these words while they were listening to the music of the Sikh minstrels and Parasher sketched – “Yes, you have got it. You have caught my expression. There is character and strength in it. I like it very much.” Their meeting marks its stamp on the development of Parasher’s art career.

The language of contemporaries continues forward in time:  in 1959, when Jawarharlal Nehru visited Parasher’s exhibition of sculptures in Delhi, he exclaimed, “Your works are very powerful.”  When Le Corbusier selected Parasher’s design for a steel sculpture mural in Chandigarh, he was struck by the intense significance of the forms of his design in relation to the architectural space. “Parasher’s design is ‘most’ interesting.” About this sculpture mural, author Mulk Raj Anand, writing in the art journal Marg, remarked - “a superb achievement of Parasher.”

Parasher’s murals at Nirman Bhavan and Kidwai Bhavan in Delhi were acclaimed as the most exciting, keeping as they aere with contemporary architecture trends. In the early sixties, Parasher was acclaimed as one of India’s most significant sculptors, muralists and painters. It was when Parasher was studying for his Masters in English Literature at Lahore that he met his teacher, M.A. Aziz of Mysore.

That proved to be a turning point in his life, for it was this teacher who saw the potential in him. It was under Aziz’s supervision that Parasher went through his initial training until he achieved proficiency in portrait, landscape painting and clay modeling. Later when he met V. P. Karmarkar in Bombay, the master sculptor invited Parasher to work in his studios at Tardeo, Warden Road and Deonar Road.

Parasher was the Vice Principal of the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore and after Partition, Founder Principal of the College of Art, Punjab, set first in Shimla and then later shifted to Chandigarh.

S.L. Parasher (1904-1990) is unique in his era, in most eras, in that he was a working artist who was also a working philosopher and therefore has left written text that can serve as a guide to the visual one.  He is also unique in that his early visual work was what was once identified as international, that is, within the European tradition.

Only after he began to organize the School of Arts in Simla in post-Partition India did he begin to consider, in his own words, “… that the aesthetic insights and realizations of ancient Indian culture could still continue to be relevant today even though they appear to be opposed in the extreme to attitudes of the modern world.”

It is tempting to say that S.L.Parasher’s art is a constant process of recovery; of bringing back into the world something important that has slipped away.  Since his artistic production, like his life, is so absolutely structured by Partition, it is also tempting to take a romantic national view of the process, allowing him discovery of a meaning of “India” just at the moment when the formerly self-evident needed to be.

Parasher Gallery houses the line drawings of Partition. This remarkable series, in private hands until the national retrospective of 2004 installed by SarNir Foundation, occupies a unique place in our history, a place universally felt but seldom mentioned.Parasher, who was the commandant of the Baldev Nagar Refugee Camp in Ambala, wrested, like everyone else, from much of what he knew and loved, he spent sleepless evenings walking among the refugees and often stopping to sketch the visible evidence of all that was lost.

In Parasher’s line drawings the emotion of those gone days, appears in every stroke. A despairing figure erupts from the frame. A crowd of covered women console one another on paper. Although always moving, these line drawings are not individual. Parasher was an able portraitist but he does not in these figures make anyone recognizable. In many ways these drawings function as photos -- snapshots of a moment in time in India's history.

There can be no denying that Parasher was a master.  Much of the gripping quality of his Partition line drawings and sketches is that they are, in all their grief, achingly beautiful. Parasher’s Gallery presents a very important moment in history in the form of Parasher’s Partition line drawings and sketches. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017