On India’s 75th year anniversary, the horrors of the Partition cannot be forgotten. Yet despite the atrocities committed against women, their experiences are often excluded from discussions of Partition’s impact. In What the Body Remembers and Queering Mother India, artist Pritika Chowdhry pushes back against this historical erasure. Revisiting two of Chowdhry’s installations for women’s history month, one is struck by the sensitivity and delicacy of her work alongside the urgency of her message.
What the Body Remembers
Surrounded only by minimal chalk markings and few ropes, Pritika Chowdhry’s oversized sculptures, the lower half of the female body are installed like ghosts, frozen in the motion of a past life. The installation, “What the Body Remembers,” pays tribute to the emotional, physical and sexual trauma that Hindu and Muslim women suffered during the Partition of India (1947) and the Bangladesh War of Liberation (1971), where tens of thousands of women were abducted.
While bare, the minimal markings in the gallery evoke an image of a playground, sculptures captured in scenes of play—some playing hopscotch while others jump rope. The juxtaposition of the sculpture’s playfulness with their nakedness, their clearly articulated genitalia, and the bareness of the gallery instantly evokes a feeling of unease in the viewer. Sharp, jagged lines suggest a hidden and unnamed violence. The striking installation has been on view at Queen’s Museum, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, and CommonWealth Gallery, among others. The sculptures, ranging from 5’ to 6’ tall, are painted in red and black, representing women of different ethnic groups.
The anti-memorial’s title is inspired by Shauna Singh Baldwin’s novel, What the Body Remembers, a book about gender-based violence and hardship during the Partition of India. “I have come so far,” Singh Baldwin writes. “I have borne so much pain and emptiness! But men have not changed.”
Queering Mother India
Urvashi Butalia, a renowned feminist historiographer, notes that “nation” is traditionally associated with men, while women are more commonly seen as symbols of family. In “Queering of Mother India,” Chowdhry subverts the traditionally masculine understanding of the nation, representing India as a twice-life-size dismembered female figure, where each component conveys its own tail.
In the exhibit, hands, head, legs, arms, and feet are separated off from the rest of the body, divided by a line that represents the boundary drawn during Partition between India and Pakistan. India, personified as a mother in the center of the sculpture, is separated from her children—the body parts dispersed throughout the exhibit—referencing the generational trauma from Partition.
In another exhibition at the Mandi House metro station in India, women’s experiences of Partition are displayed. In one entry, Narinder Kaur Oberoi discusses her experience of the violence: “I recall a very troubling incident where a neighbor of ours killed his daughter because he feared she would be killed or raped on their way to the border.”
Subhani, another eyewitness, recounts : “anyone running from home with their belongings in large crowds was murdered by men with swords on horses. Anyone running empty-handed and in small crowds was spared.”
Shown in 2007 at the University of Wisconsin, “Queering Mother India engages with the public traumas the nation endures as it struggles to reconcile its plurality,” explains Chowdhry. Chowdhry uses the term “queering” to deconstruct a singular image of history or nationhood, incorporating perspectives that have previously been excluded.
“I examine the visual projects’ power to deconstruct nationalist narratives of India’s partition,” Chowdhry continues. Women’s abduction during the partition of India in 1947 is one of the nation’s most painful memories. By locating nationhood within women that have been subject to brutal violence, Chowdhry cuts against nationalist and masculinist narratives of trauma and memory.
Formed in 1989, Women Against Fundamentalism, an activist group of women, have aimed to bring attention to the gendered nature of violent conflict. In a pamphlet released for a protest march, they wrote:
I am a woman
I want to raise my voice
Because communalism affects me
In every communal riot
My sisters are raped
My children are killed
My men are targeted
My world is destroyed
I am left to pick up the pieces
It makes little if I am a Muslim, Hindu or Sikh
And yet, I cannot help my sisters
Here, Women Against Fundamentalism speak to how violence disciplines potential modes of resistance, leaving women powerless, a sentiment mirrored within “What the Body Remembers.” As much as we may wish to reach out and save the violated figures of the exhibition, we can feel the distance between ourselves and the violence Chowdhry has already memorialized in space.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of India’s Partition, Chowdhry is showing work across the United States. Her work will be included in Deeply Rooted a group show at Woman Made Gallery, Chicago, April 8 – May 14, 2022, Weisman Museum, ARC, Chicago Art Department, and Highland Park Art Center.
Pritika Chowdhry is an Indian-born socio-economic, feminist artist based in Chicago. She works with various mediums such as fiber, clay, paper, latex, wood, drawing, and ceramics. Chowdhry’s goal is to reveal the counter-memories hidden in tragic historical events through her art; that is why she creates anti-memorials. Chowdhry has exhibited nationally and internationally in various art exhibitions such as the Weisman Museum (Minneapolis), Queen Museum (New York), the Hunterdon Museum (New Jersey), Islip art Museum, Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, and Cambridge Art Gallery (Massachusetts). She is also the recipient of many art grants such as the Vilas International Travel fellowship, Wisconsin Art Board Grant, and Minnesota States Arts Board grant. The artist holds an MFA in studio art from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Nina Potischman is a freelance writer and part-time editor at Cultbytes. She is a recent graduate of Pomona College, where she studied English literature with a concentration in creative writing. Her writing focuses on the body, autoimmunity, illness, and disability, with a focus in autotheory. She runs Queerings, a jewelry business focused on LGBTQ+ culture. Potischman will be pursuing a masters in English Literature from the University of Exeter in the fall of 2022.