A musical memoir

Partition tales

Ever since I was a young girl, I have heard stories about partition as both sides of my family came from the part of Punjab that is now in Pakistan,” says singer and songwriter Sonam Kalra.

“It has been 70 years since the Partition and for many reasons, I now want to explore what partition meant, through music,” adds Kalra, whose mother's family came from Rawalpindi and father's from Sargoda.

Kalra, who has been researching the works of poets and writers from both sides of the border for the past one year, conceptualised a project – ‘Partition: Stories of Separation’, and recently performed at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre and Gurgaon’s Epicentre.

Using the voices of the poets of that time – Ali Sardar Jafri, Ustad Daman, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Amrita Pritam as well as personal accounts of people who survived the terrible ordeal, the experiential performance also comprised prose, art and videos. “The words of the Punjabi poet, Daman have resounded in my mind from the first time I read them. Laali akhiyaan di dasdi hai roye assi vi, roye tussi vi (The redness in our eyes shows, that we have cried and so have you). In many ways, these lines have been my stimulus for putting this project together,” she tells Metrolife.

 She realised how she felt deeply about the divide, when she moved to tears the first time she crossed the border on foot. “Even though I did not have to live through the pain of partition myself, I wept when I first crossed the border on foot, and even now I tear up when I talk to somebody about it. Perhaps, it lies embedded in the memory of my DNA. And perhaps, it is this pain that has led me to question this further,” says Kalra, who has performed at MTV’s Coke Studio and has shared the stage with legendary musicians like Sir Bob Geldof, Sufi Legend Abida Parveen at Muzaffar Ali’s World Sufi Festival Jahan-e-Khusrau.

She put together a poignantly powerful narrative with her team – artist and graphic designer Gopika Chowla, musician Ahsan Alimusician, poet Deepak Ramola, actor Salima Raza, theatre light person Manish Halder and video assistant Arshi. “The effort has been to weave together a retelling of this holocaust that tore our country apart but also, to speak of a way forward,” she says.

Considering that several compositions have portrayed Partition, how does she differentiate herself? “The very thought of what people went through – being uprooted, their lives changing, becoming homeless, refugees in an instant, what women went through – it's all heartbreaking. So, I want to talk about Partition, not to open old wounds but to talk about what happened so we can reflect on the fact that religion divided us. I really do believe we have a shared history and a shared grief and a shared love, so we hope to find a way to peace,” says Kalra.

Emphasising on the need to document oral history, she says, “Many of the stories we have heard from our grandparents will be lost with them and they need to be preserved, honoured and so they can serve as lessons for generations to come. I hope that in revisiting these stories through music, we are able to empathise, ponder and realise the way forward.”

What’s next? “In the future, I hope to travel with this performance to the other side of the border as well and I hope to keep adding to it. There are so many stories and so much to say that it has been a challenge choosing what to say in order to encapsulate it into one performance. I think it will keep evolving as we go along. But that to me is the beauty of anything you create. It must evolve,” says Kalra.

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