The Artists And Art We Lost Due To Partition

From writers like Manto to singers like Noor Jehan, the Partition bled talent
The Artists And Art We Lost Due To Partition

India's independence day was a time of celebration, of freedom and also a moment of rupture. The amputation of the subcontinent divided not just land and landscape, but artists and thus, art, too. The idealism of imagining a new nation into being was tinctured with flowing blood — 15 million people uprooted, 2 million dead, 75,000 women raped. In Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz's lament 'Subh-e-azadi' (the dawn of freedom), he writes:

"Yeh woh seher to nahin, jiski arzu lekar
Chaley the yaar ke mil jayegi kahin na kahin
Falak ke dasht mein taaron ki aakhri manzil," 

That this was not the dawn we had imagined, in whose hope we set out, to find the home of stars in the wasteland of skies. Meanwhile in Bombay, the home of another kind of star — the glittering cine-actors and labouring artists —  was wracked with a less poetic, more primal question: To stay or to leave.

[Partition] was when "Punjabification" congealed with a force on Bombay cinema, with the arrival of migrants displaced from their homeland, carrying pungent, idealised remains of home in their memory which would leak into their art.

Lahore, the capital of Punjab, was one of the major film-producing cities of undivided India, along with Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. The osmotic influence of Lahore over Bombay could be seen in how actors like Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand as well as singers like Mohammed Rafi, Noor Jehan and Shamshad Begum moved to the city by the sea, inflecting Bombay cinema with Urdu, fortifying the idea of a Hindustani lingo that belonged to both and was exclusive to neither. Often film scripts were written in Urdu. Film names were announced in the Roman, Devanagari and Nastaliq scripts, a trend that ran out of steam by the 1980s. 

Then, when Partition cleaved one film centre from the other, many filmmakers and artists, like Balraj Sahni and B.R. Chopra — elder brother of Yash Chopra — from Punjab, made a beeline for Bombay. "What was a Gujarati-dominated industry, after Partition, suddenly became Punjabi-dominated," said Kaushik Bhaumik, a cinema studies professor, when we spoke on the phone. This was when "Punjabification" congealed with a force on Bombay cinema, with the arrival of migrants displaced from their homeland, carrying pungent, idealised remains of home in their memory which would leak into their art in the form of accents, colloquial Punjabi lingo, fashion, song and dance — all of which would condense into what is now considered the aesthetics of "Bollywood".

From Shadowlines to Border Lines

If artists like A.K. Hangal moved from Pakistan to Bombay, then writers like Saadat Hasan Manto, actresses and singers like Noor Jehan, Patience Cooper, Swaran Lata and her husband Nazir Ahmed Khan; directors like W. Z. Ahmed and Shaukat Husain Rizvi; composers like Rafiq Ghaznavi, Firoz Nizami and Ghulam Haider — whom Lata Mangeshkar calls her "godfather" — singers like Malika Pukhraj and Mukhtar Begum, moved in the opposite direction. In a time before the internet made art ubiquitous and accessible, the dislocation of the artist meant the dislocation of their art, too. While films from India were being screened in Pakistan — until 1965, when they were banned — Pakistani films did not get the necessary traction back in India. Many directors who moved back ended up remaking the films that had been successful during their years in Bombay. 

The uprooting and migration away from Bombay itself was a tenuous, fragile trickle. "No one knew at that time that these boundaries were going to be permanent," film historian Salma Siddique said during our Zoom conversation. In fact the official borders were only announced two days after Partition. "These artists were still negotiating, hoping the leaders would come to an understanding and they wouldn't have to move. Even the Punjabi filmmakers and studio owners of Lahore didn't move exactly at the time of independence. They moved a little later," Siddique noted. With news of bloodletting, property destruction, and violence, many fled hoping to return at a later time, for the border was still porous. There was an "India-Pakistan" passport that people could hold in those days. However, as evacuee property was redistributed and the borders and politics hardened, this hope would drain.

While most of these migrations were within a year of Partition, poets like Josh Malihabadi, remembered as Shayar-e-Inqalab, the poet of revolution, decided to become a Pakistani citizen much later — in 1956 — disturbed by the dwindling future he saw for Urdu in India. Despite his close friend Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's pleas, Malihabadi decided to leave, a decision which many close to him noted that he struggled with, longing for those he left behind — in Bombay, Hyderabad, Lucknow and Delhi. 

The Trail of Broken Dreams

Similarly actress Meena Shorey — born Khurshid Jahan — who skipped between Lahore, Karachi, and Bombay in the pre-Partition decade, decided to shoot a film in Lahore in 1956, travelling with her then-husband, director Roop Shorey. An interfaith marriage, theirs was an image of cosmopolitanism, with Roop making screwball comedies in Bombay and Meena playing characters, which according to Siddique, embodied "a disregard for received ideas of feminine elegance". 

Once in Pakistan, however, she signed more films and realising that moving across the border was becoming increasingly difficult,  decided to stay put in Lahore. Her husband, a Hindu with no remaining moorings in Pakistan, returned to India. In 1957, Meena, now separated from Roop and re-converted to Islam, was granted Pakistani citizenship. The first Pakistani actress to model for Lux soap, she was called the 'Lux Lady of Pakistan.' She continued to use Meena as her screen name, but mostly got supporting or negative roles. As the decades leaked, she was left penniless and bitter. She was, after all, an ageing actress with a penchant for crossing borders — religious and regional. A small stipend by the Pakistan Arts Council helped her survive and in the memoir she published in the mid-1980s, she wrote, "After listening to my story, no respectable girl will join films. Let alone respectable, even the bad ones won't."

Many artists who made the move from Bombay to Lahore ended up following the breadcrumb trail back to Bombay. Nasir Khan, actor Dilip Kumar's younger brother, shifted to Lahore after Partition and then starred in the first-ever Pakistani film Teri Yaad in 1948. In the aftermath of Partition, the film industry in Pakistan was in ruins. Its two main studios —  Shorey Studios and Pancholi Pictures — were owned by Hindus who left for India, and the studio itself crumbled into dust in the ensuing violence. Cobbling together resources and completed in record time, Teri Yaad, released on Eid-ul-Fitr, must have seemed technologically inept to audiences who were used to the glittering films from Bombay that were still showing in Pakistan. Teri Yaad didn't find takers and Nasir Khan, after another unsuccessful attempt as an actor in Pakistan, boomeranged back to Bombay, trying to stain himself with the stardom his brother achieved here.

Similarly, producer and director Mehboob Khan and his brother-in-law, director A.R. Kardar went to Pakistan after Partition, only to quietly return to Bombay and resume work. Kardar introduced many seminal artists to Bombay Cinema, without whom we would never conceive of the movies — the music director Naushad, lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri, actress Suraiya. Mehboob Khan would go on to direct Mother India, India's first Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee. 

The Amanat of Noor Jehan

Born in 1926, Noor Jehan began singing around the tender age of six. A disciple of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, she started acting in Punjabi movies from the age of ten. In 1938, she moved to Lahore, and in 1942, acted opposite Pran in Khandaan, a major hit which catapulted both her and the director, Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi to Bombay. She and Rizvi, after months of teasing each other, bubbling with unresolved sexual tension, would get married four years before Partition. 

Noor Jehan and her husband — a staunch Muslim and a supporter of Muhammad Ali Jinnah — left for Pakistan in September 1947 as violence broke out in Bombay. They renovated the decrepit Shorey Studios on Multan Road in Lahore, and created, instead, Shahnoor Studios, the first post-Independence Pakistani film studio. It was here that Noor Jehan became the most prolific singer in the country's history and the first female director of Pakistan.

According to Naushad, her move to Pakistan — a move that helped Lata Mangeshkar ascend to becoming the queen of playback singing in Bombay — limited her as an artist: "Noor Jehan no longer enjoyed the supreme advantage Lata did, of music directors hailing from 13 states of India bringing to her vocals a treasure trove of tunes. Thus, Noor Jehan fatally typified herself as a Punjabi-Urdu singer, while Lata Mangeshkar became the cosmopolitan voice of all Hindustan, representative of each praanth (province) from Maharashtra to Odisha."

When in 1965, India and Pakistan were at war, she sang 12 war songs, jungi tarana, for Radio Pakistan, encouraging the youth to join the army, validating their sacrifice, celebrating their victories over a country of which she, too, was once part. 

Then, 33 years after Partition, in 1982, Mallika-e-Tarannum, the queen of melody, visited India and was reunited with Dilip Kumar. They had both acted in Jugnu (1947) as young 20-somethings before Noor Jehan slid away. Though rifted by circumstance, they remained friends. She called him "Yusuf saheb" — Mohammed Yusuf Khan being his birth name. Introducing Noor Jehan to a delighted audience in Bombay's Shanmukhananda Hall, Dilip Kumar said, "Madam, aap 35 years baad India aayee hain, aur hum 35 saal se aapka intezaar kar rahe hain," lamenting that she'd come back to India after 35 years, years during which we were kept waiting. He insisted she sing his favourite ghazal, 'Dil Hi Dil Mein Sulag Ke Bujhe Hum'. In a glittering black sari, she took to the stage, dripping sultry words, kindling old wishes to meet with old friends in new countries and for the relationship between these war-ravaged neighbours to smoothen: "Allah kare hum dono mulkon ki taaluqaat aur badhe. Aur itna sawar jayein ke hum log aksar mil-baitha karenge." 

Noor Jehan noted that the artist's artistry belongs not to the artist but the audience. "Yeh aap logon ki amanat hai, chaahe vahan ke ho, ya yahan ke, (this art is for you as a people to cherish, whether the people are from here or from across the border)," she said. The words she used to describe her music — amanat, haq, something for us to cherish, to have a right over — speaks of a promise that a political border would refuse to harden into a cultural one, a promise that has now frayed entirely. 

The Alchemy of Trauma

How does one decide, in a moment of startling clarity, to unmoor oneself and shift countries? For a screenwriter, journalist, and essayist Manto, who lived in Bombay between 1936 and January 1948, it was an immediate jerk. "He left Bombay on an impulse and kept wondering for the rest of his days if he had made the right decision," wrote Khalid Hasan, who translated Manto's essays on the Bombay film world in Stars From Another Sky, in his introduction. 

This impulse for dislocation had a snowballing context. In one of his essays, Manto recalls listening to radio with Shyam, an actor and Manto's best friend. They heard Sikh refugees recall horror stories and when Shyam was leaving Manto said, "I'm a Muslim, don't you feel like mudering me?" Shyam replied, "Not now, but when I was listening to the atrocities that Muslims had committed … I could have murdered you." 

"If there had been no Partition — no politics — the industry would have been richer in music, writers… There would have been more talent." — Yash Chopra

Communal tension simmered at Bombay Talkies, where Manto worked. In a decision intended to encourage goodwill, all senior posts were given to Muslims. This has the opposite effect, building resentment and fear. Manto stopped going to the studio, and one night, when Shyam was busy shooting, the writer packed his bags. Shyam came to see Manto in the morning. "Going?" he asked, looking at the bags. Manto replied, "Yes." 

The complicated part of Manto's story is the mental and emotional fugue of this dislocation, it was in Pakistan — under strained economic and emotional circumstances and a desperation for money — that Manto was at his most productive. For a period in 1951, he was banging out a story a day, a book a month. These are the stories and essays that gilded his mythical status as a counter-cultural icon — too progressive for the conservatives and too reactionary for the communists. The conditions he was living in resulted in a stress-induced alcoholic daze for which he was finally committed to an asylum. In 1952, in the appendix to Yazid, a collection of essays, he wrote, "Wherever I live, I will carry Bombay with me." In 1955, after bouts of liver cirrhosis, he passed away. 

When we celebrate Manto's work, are we not, then, also celebrating his loss of being? It is the Partition that made it possible for Manto to give us the scalding satire of Toba Tek Singh, for example, but how we wish he did not have to burn himself sick with anguish and desperation, to reproduce trauma as text. 

What Do We Do with Partition Stories?

While Manto was writing about partition and Prithviraj Kapoor was staging his quartet of plays on Partition at Prithvi Theatre, however, there was no space to express the anguish of the moment cinematically. The films produced in 1947 — and for years to come — were determinedly turned away from the need to mourn the artists who left, the people who lay in the death fields and burning trains. We were, instead, trying to collectively imagine our nation, an experiment in democracy, into existence. The films were part of that mission. Its ability to reach the masses was seen as essential by the artists themselves, which was why cinema was not slotted under the Ministry of Culture, but the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. 

The lesions of partition ran so deep, so wide, that no one had the temerity to make a film on Partition for years. According to Bhaskar Sarkar, a film and media studies scholar, between 1947 and 1962, only seven films openly discussed partition. Often, it was referenced allegorically, what Sarkar calls a "melancholic obsession". For example, stock footage from Partition was used in Shabnam (1948), a Filmistaan superhit, which had nothing to do with Partition. As producer-director B.R.Chopra put it, "It was such an experience that those who had lived through it, could not go on living if they were made to endure it a second time [on screen]." In 1961, Yash Chopra made Dharmaputra, a Partition film and it failed at the box office. Author and activist Urvashi Butalia noted that it was, perhaps, because even then, Partition wasn't a subject that could be considered 'entertainment'. 

When M.S. Sathyu's Garam Hava (1973) was held by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) for eight months because it feared the film would fan communal unrest, it felt like a warning to other filmmakers attempting such stories. It was only in the Nineties with films like Mammo (1994), Deepa Mehta's Earth (1990), Anil Sharma's Gadar (2001), Sabiha Sumar's Khamosh Pani (2003) and Yash Chopra's Veer Zaara (2004), that Hindi cinema started stepping out of what historian Gyan Pandey called our "collective amnesia". 

Yash Chopra had once said, "If there had been no Partition — no politics — the industry would have been richer in music, writers… There would have been more talent." Part of thinking about this moment, when India slid away from its colonial masters, is to be able to hold both the hope and hubris of becoming a democracy alongside the wreckage and rawness of pain the moment produced. To hold them both simultaneously, without diminishing either — this is the discomfiting cultural legacy of Partition. Anything less messy is a disservice. 

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