Boundaries and Borderland by Nisha Kommattam

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Boundaries and Borderland by Nisha Kommattam

Violence is beyond words. Sexual violence constitutes the perhaps most unspeakable form of desecrated boundaries and human cruelty. Yet it finds its way into expression, sometimes into visual art, when words fail us. From a South Asianist’s perspective in the year 2009, it is clear that a substantial amount of academic work has been published on the riots and communal violence surrounding India’s Partition into the two nation-states of India and Pakistan in 1947. Historians, sociologists, and religious and literary scholars have, to a certain extent, given voice to a historical event that resulted in mass killings and the dislocation of millions of people.i Apart from the obvious geopolitical, demographic and socio-cultural consequences of a hitherto unprecedented mass migration across the Indian and Pakistani borderland,ii the psychological effects of those traumatic events on the people involved present a challenge to academic analysis.

Recent feminist scholarship has drawn attention to an understudied, if not silenced aspect of the violence associated with the Partition: the sexual violence against women and children on both sides of the newly established border between India and Pakistan.iii Waging war on the body of women is most certainly not a new

concept in history, or by any means a weapon exclusive to communal and political escalation in the South Asian sub-continent.iv Yet it is remarkable how, during the Partition, religious and ethnic differences and territorial interests of the various sides involved found a gendered battlefield on the site of the female body. Abduction and rape of women and girl children were noted and commented upon by contemporaries and the media, but rarely prevented by anything other than the murder or (forced) suicides of the women concerned. Tracing the Indian vs. Pakistani territories on the female bodies of the “other” served the purposes of radical nationalist interest groups on both sides of the conflict.v

As oral histories gain more attention within the field of South Asian Studies and elsewhere, there are now attempts to document narratives of survivors of the Partition riots. Some of those narratives are framed within recent models of trauma theory, some seem to be aiming more at historical/factual accuracy and documentation. The most compelling work in this field, however, is now emerging in the discourse of cultural So, when thinking about finding a discursive frame, a venue for re-assessing and re-working Partition violence, how can an academic enterprise, such as a conference, articulate its thoughts without acknowledging and giving voice to the very real psychological trauma of mass rapes and killings? Should academia be a forum at all for that voice? And if so, would a “mere” academic approach alone be sufficient to provide a space for the actualization of the pain of hundreds of thousands? Can it do justice to the victims? Is there an ethical obligation to do so? Then there is the level of language, too. How to articulate the inexpressible?

Which language would help us to interpret the events of the bygone days, which words could capture the devastating horror and brutality? By exposing female victims on both sides of the conflict, are we providing a long-wanted narrative space or are we possibly humiliating and re-traumatizing women survivors and their families?vii And, which medium would lend itself to this perhaps futile and painful attempt – a musical tune? A canvas? Or maybe the canvas of a blank page?

These and many more questions arise when reading about sexual violence during India’s Partition, and when thinking about what remains, in principle, yet another representation of gendered power dynamics in the Indian cultural context. The current generation of writers, film-makers, and visual artists are examining the politics and the poetics of the Partition from the standpoint of “postmemory”.viii The Partition has found numerous representations in post-independence/postcolonial literature and film both from the subcontinent and elsewhere. Pritika Chowdhry has founded an initiative titled the Partition Memorial Project which is comprised of an ongoing series of sculptural installations and a digital archive, Chowdhry’s installations function as temporary and mobile memorials for the Partition. What the Body Remembers constitutes the clearly gendered part of this project in which she displays a strikingly distinct female and feminist voice.

Chowdhry - a South Asian artist living and working in the US - and her work are located within a diasporic space. The sculptures inhabit and simultaneously create a safe space both in a South Asian context familiar with the Partition and its violent consequences, and within an American cultural context where sexual violence and abuse have become an everyday occurrence. Chowdhry’s sculptures bridge those two worlds through more than the link of sexual violence per se. They resonate with viewers on a number of levels: invoking child- hood nostalgia and violated innocence, displaying gravity-defying lightness and empowerment, joining vulner- ability and strength, using detachment to re-attach, playfulness to transport seriousness, physicality to reclaim what has been disembodied.

In What the Body Remembers Chowdhry creates an experiential space in which women survivors of politically motivated sexual violence can “speak”. Fragments of the female body, particularly the lower half of the female body, are presented in empowering, double-life-size sculptural forms, which are not only a gendered, but also a racialized depiction of the human body as a battlefield. These fragments are arranged in a space that is filled with unspoken memories. The earthy colors of the sculptures evoke associations of violated ground and transgressed territory, even blood on soil. The curvature of thighs and legs, the explicit depiction of carefully sculpted female genitalia sexualizes and characterizes an otherwise impersonal human shape, detached from its torso, detached from its head and face, but also its heart. Are these broken women? Hairless, smooth, protruding labia evoke a childlike state of innocence and immaturity, yet at the same time vulnerability and total exposure. Between them, a clear vertical demarcation line, almost a boundary. Borderline and Borderland. These curves, lines and lips shape a geography of violation, mapping the conquered territory of the female body.

The very familiar image of Mother India comes to mind, the popular notion of a motherland captured in a female form and reproduced in countless versions, life-giving and nurturing, yet here – exposed and possibly a subject to violation. Chowdhry’s sculptures depict the geo-body of the nation, but not as an idealized maternal figure.ix They are engaged in childhood games such as hopscotch, rope skipping, and playing on a swing. Innocent pastimes or desperate attempts to restore a childlike state of innocence? Are these female bodies seeking distraction, entertainment, diving into the nostalgia of bygone days? Do they dwell in memories or in the present? Their feet are lifted off the ground by the ease of their games, they seem almost weightless – a contrast to their stark, voluptuous size and shape. What dangers lie in their playfulness? Are they regressing,stagnating, fleeing from traumatic events of the past or present? Are the sculptures idealizing the state of innocent childhood, or escaping its horrors? Is the ease with which they seem to inhabit the surrounding space deceiving the viewer?

Are they inviting assault or intrusion, even an intrusive gaze, by exposing themselves in this way? Or are they breaking away from the stigmatization of their trauma? From the outside, none of the shapes seem violated – none of them are torn open, or visibly broken, their detached existence seems to make sense on more than just a survivor level – maybe a result of the physical dislocation the women experienced. Yet one almost expects blood dripping from somewhere between those – usually slightly parted – thighs, if only for the sake of cyclical renewal, the continuation of life, survival despite violence. This renewal would occur within an Indian cyclical notion of history and time. In contrast, a historian’s linear imagination might discern memories of bloodshed and violent traces of assault and rape. But it is ultimately in the absence of visible signs of violence that these powerful forms function as “memory sculptures”.x
The clearly feminist stand these sculptures take by articulating the unspeakable, the shame and stigma of sexual violation, makes the exhibit accessible to audiences beyond the South Asian cultural context. Rape as a weapon of war, women’s bodies as battlefields in political and social conflict, and the forceful penetration of boundaries and borderlands resonate all too well within the mind of contemporary spectators. Another part of Chowdhry’s Partition Memorial Project entitled Silent Waters (not included in the present exhibition) displays an army of 101 clay feet which seem to be marching, representing the flight and dislocation of vast numbers of violated people. Though bearing resemblance and referring to these larger sculptures, the army of feet does not speak in as clearly gendered a voice as the sculptures in What the Body Remembers. The feet are meant to be distinctly androgynous, thus commemorating both male and female survivors of the riots. Invoking associations

Memories of Jumping Rope (detail 1) - Paper pulp, mason stain, rope. Object dimensions: 61” x 30” x 24 of the trauma of flight and dislocation, the feet have the possibility to take us away from the violent acts, leaving the lower bodies behind, yet still being connected to them.

Pritika Chowdhry’s installation demonstrates how visual art can function as a discursive forum for the engagement with historical trauma by transforming a gallery into a temporary space of remembrance. We as viewers experience how a sculpture captures individual and intimate, yet collective and trans-national memoryscapes. What the Body Remembers gives voice to both a dark memory of “Mother India” and the violated woman.

-Nisha Kommattam

Nisha Kommattam teaches Malayalam at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include gender in South Asia and Malayalam literature.

Memories of Playing Hopscotch (detail 3)
Paper pulp, mason stain, chalk. Object dimensions: 72” x 30” x 18”
Further Reading
Anzaldúa, Gloria. 2007. Borderlands: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Butalia, Urvashi. 2000. The Other Side Of Silence: Voices From The Partition Of India. Durham: Duke University Press. Cvetkovich, Ann. 2003. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press. Didur, Jill. 2006. Unsettling Partition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Herman, Judith. 1997. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Hirsch, Marianne. 1997. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Huyssen, Andreas. 2003. Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Menon, Ritu and Kamla Bhasin. 1998. Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Mookerjea-Leonard, Debali. 2004. “Quarantined: Women and the Partition”. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24.1: 33-46.
Ollila, Anne (ed.). 1999. Historical Perspectives on Memory. (Studia Historica 61). Helsinki: Finnish Historical Society.
Ramaswamy, Sumathi. 2002. “Visualizing India’s Geo-body: Globes, Maps, Bodyscapes”. Contributions to Indian Sociology 36.1-2: 151-189. Saltzman, Lisa. 2006. Making Memory Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sangari, Kumkum. 2003. “New Nations, Old Civilizations: A Partition Narrative”. European Journal of Women’s Studies 10.4: 473-480. Tan, Tai Yong and Gyanesh Kudaisya (eds.). 2008. Partition and Post-Colonial South Asia, Volume Two: Gender, Minorities, Memories.


i Estimates of these figures vary considerably in different sources. See e.g. Butalia (2000) and Menon and Bhasin (1998).
ii Anzaldúa (2007).
iii See Menon and Bhasin (1998) who call for a feminist historiography (and thus gendered narrative) of India and Partition. Butalia (2000) em- phasizes the need for personal narratives within the historical and academic narrative of Partition.
iv For a discussion and correlation of the “feminine” sexual trauma and the “masculine” trauma of war, see Herman (1997).
v See Sangari (2003).
vi See Saltzman (2006).
vii For a sensitive approach to the depathologization of trauma in public culture, see Cvetkovich (2003). Jill Didur (2006) comments on the sur- vivors’ unwillingness to retrieve and thus relive traumatic memories from the partition.
viii For the term “postmemory” in the context of Holocaust studies, see Hirsch (1997).
ix For elaborations on India’s geo-body, see Ramaswamy (2002).
x “In recent years, there’s been the surprising emergence in post-minimalist art of what I would tentatively call memory sculpture: a kind of sculpture that is not centered on spatial configuration alone, but that powerfully inscribes a dimension of localizable, even corporeal memory into the work. This is an artistic practice that remains clearly distinct from the monument or the memorial. Its place is in the museum or the gallery rather than in a public space.

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