A lot has been written and said about the 60th anniversary this year of the Partition of India. It can be easy to forget as we see the footage that places these events squarely in the past – the Viceroy and Vicereine in New Delhi, Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, thousands of refugees on roads in the Punjab – that India and Pakistan are still living with the absurdities of their hurriedly drawn border.
Some or these absurdities are thrown into sharp relief by Amar Kanwar. A filmmaker who has garnered acclaim in the art world while remaining largely below the radar of film critics, Kanwar presented a suite of three soul-searching films about India at the Whitechapel Art Gallery through August and September to coincide with the exact anniversary of Partition and its aftermath. The first, A Season Outside (1997–8), shows us how silly nationalism can be: guards, strutting like cockerels around the 12-inch painted line that marks the India–Pakistan border at Wagah, lower their flags at exactly the same time to avoid giving the impression that either is capitulating. They shoot deathly glances at one another and slam the gates, to the cheers of crowds on both sides. And this happens every evening. In a field lush with crops soldiers parade up and down the patch where no plants grow – this barren strip is the border. Kanwar points out in his mournful voice-over that the tree on the left is Indian, while the two in the middle are Pakistani. Except that he doesn’t use the word ‘Indian’; he says it ‘belongs to us’.
Kanwar is more than just a dispassionate observer; he has his own instinctive loyalty to one of the two sides. And he’s not even sure the violence in 1947 was unnecessary. He quotes the Sikh leader Guru Gobind Singh – ‘when all means have been tried it is rightful to draw the sword out of the scabbard and wield it with your hand’ – and wonders whether it’s sometimes justified to ‘arm your truth’. How can you respond to the threat of violence with moral integrity? Can it really be by lying down and surrendering? Kanwar’s curiosity and his feeling that these are real questions in need of serious answers led him to a Tibetan refugee camp. It stands on the outskirts of the city – a place where ‘all the margins have snuggled together’. A monk there convinces him that Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence can work, that ‘to be non-violent is not to withdraw but to intervene’. Outside, however, the conflicts continue, almost a tapestry of violence, from fighting rams to riots.
To Remember (2003), a much shorter film, is a tour around the house – now a museum – close to where Gandhi was assassinated. In alternate shots the corridors are empty and then crammed with visitors, pointing at pictures of the gun and the corpse, the assassin and newspaper reports from the following day. In the garden Gandhi’s last footsteps are mapped out in concrete casts. There is no sound, just a reverent silence, as though any human commotion would be unworthy of the site and the event.
With A Night of Prophecy (2002) Kanwar gives a voice to victims of poverty and racism from Bombay to Nagaland. They put across their despair through poetry or song, making it clear that India’s problems aren’t confined to a cross-border dispute. The country is wracked with internal divisions as well, from the ancient caste distinctions, which are still a source of bitterness, to regional struggles for independence. If anyone ever thought the dalits (untouchables) were resigned to their position in life or somehow happy to do the dirty work, they just have to listen to the man from Andhra Pradesh, tears running down his cheeks, singing about how the rest of society exploits his people.
It’s interesting that Kanwar’s work has ended up in a contemporary art gallery rather than an arthouse cinema. There’s no particular reason, as far as I can tell, that he should be seen as an artist rather than a documentary maker. I suppose all this proves is that the art world/film world distinction is an arbitrary one. In any case, these three films are interesting enough in their own quiet way: studied, thoughtful, occasionally morose. With A Season Outside, in particular, it seems as though Kanwar is not saying anything new, just adding his own personal reflections to the mountain of comment and presenting them rather movingly. At times the pace of his journey is too slow and the outcome all too predictable: the experience is a little wearying.
As state-of-the-nation snapshots these pieces are unremittingly bleak. It would be stupid to ask someone to be upbeat when they’re looking at the legacy of Partition or endemic poverty, but one of the incredible things about India is that the bulk of it held together after independence, something of which there's no sense in these works. It’s the largest democracy in the world and maintained its political integrity through the Cold War without much help from either superpower. A look at how this miracle happened in a world where chaos (as Kanwar reminds us) is so much easier to achieve: now that would be really illuminating.