In Between Lines: The R&D on a Partition play

When given the opportunity to create a play to mark 75 years of Indian Independence from Colonial British Raj, I felt motivated by what this could inspire for new and ongoing conversations on the Partition of India.

The research and development (R&D) for the play started with discussions on British Raj with co-writer and researcher Rupinder Kaur. Rupinder and I previously worked together with Ashlee Elizabeth-Lolo for SLANGUAGES, a Creative Multilingualism project where we produced and performed a play and completed a book with directors’ notes called Jugni: The Female Firefly. In Between Lines was the next natural step in our working relationship.

In the R&D writers’ room we looked at the socio-political impact of colonial histories on the Global South with a focus on the political climate in and outside of India since the British Raj. We debated on the diasporas’ understandings of this time in history. From the histories discovered around Partition, we asked, what are our individual take-aways as diaspora and how is this learnt in educational settings, if at all? What about communal tensions past and present? The experiences that come with migration? What does this mean for first, second and third generation British Asians? How many people relate to ‘South Asian’ as an expression of inclusivity and how many choose not to accept that for reasons of political and historical differences and complexities?

Naturally, for two people interested in Indian and South Asian history and art, we found ourselves impassioned at the prospect of writing, directing and performing a play on the Partition of India. However we also experienced distress, upset and generational trauma.

A ghostly and melancholic path was positioned in front of us by the Partition stories of 1947. The deeper we travelled into our findings, the greater the responsibility as writers and the more apparent became the feelings of angst. In my own family there is a Partition survivor story and the same is true for Rupinder.

Integral to our research and writing then was our ‘telling and re-telling of events’ as not to be wholly exclusive to the horrors of war and the echoes of traumatic events past. Much to consider. The communal riots and sectarianism, the colonial lens and its barbarity. The heinous rapes and heartless massacres of those whom were considered of different’ blood by the ‘other’. Acts of unimaginable cruelty engaged in by the ‘religious and faithful(l).’

A horrific time in the past, shelved by British history. Deleted archives. Partition accounts, some lost forever with the rest failing to make it into history books in our schools, colleges and universities.

Yet, being of South Asian descent, many will know of the atrocities of the 1947 bloodshed in a parted India. There are also numerous survival stories to tell too. They carry in them the accounts of human resilience of hope by the people who grappled with these atrocities and so we aimed for responsible narration in storytelling, history-telling and ‘truth-telling’.

Watercourses, are where divided waters meet and strict borders become less rigid much like the waters of Panjab and Bengal. Watercourses, also referred to as interdependent borders, are seen the world over where two nations part and meet. The thing about borders created by man, is that they assimilate into one another through its rivers, stories and art. The watercourses of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, merging and sub-merging as if meeting a distant disgruntled part of what once was connected. Connected in history and harsh politics that is, and still is. Much like these watercourses, mixed and complex histories scatter themselves into the stories of the 1947 Partition of India. Flowing. Raging. Clashing. As watercourses do.

This was our writers’ room. These conversations and debates formed significant aspects of our R&D. Indian and Panjabi cinema on Partition and a mixture of archived histories, oral histories and literature was also visited and contemplated.

Integral to the history of the 1947 Partition of India is the brutality of this time. As important as these accounts are for Indian-South Asian and British history, it is also incumbent upon us that we write and share history with the awareness of the impact these events hold. Not all History is factual, actual and accurate. History itself is a mediated interrogation of the past. It is an ongoing enquiry by the everyday person and Historians. Historians, researchers, journalists and politicians then debate and even argue on those findings.

History is a contentious issue and the past our biggest teacher, and so to re-tell an account as bloody and as politically charged as the Partition of India was a challenge and responsibility that we took seriously. An interrogation of how history is documented and by whom was essential to the writing process. For example, how is gender, caste, ethnicity and the politics of religion looked at (or not) in relation to the 1947 Partition? Which historians may have left out such details, or added in, and then in what ways? And why? How do we consolidate this in our creative writing as we reflect and re-engage the past in the here and now?

It is important to recognise where we are now in our socio-political relationships with one another and essential for us to distinguish where we are heading when re-engaging painful histories. Where there was hatred and barbarity there was also a kinship and humanity in the face of unimaginable losses, sufferings and uncertainties. The people of a pre-parted India now known as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh faced this fated time with anguish, cruelty, rage, togetherness and sectarian violence, hatred and compassion, insanity, ferocity and vulnerability. It was an incomprehensible time in history where people became monsters, saviours and revolutionaries. A painful paradox set firm in time with a lot to consider for stage.

We had the body and interiors of a well-researched play ready to be acted out on stage to an audience. However, securing a theatre company willing to support In Between Lines in parts of the West Midlands proved arduous at best. This was despite having some funding behind us. It eventually became much of the reason why the final decision was made to put a halt on the delivery of In Between Lines for the 75 year anniversary of Partition in 2022.

One theatre company expressed keen interest but failed to show up for our meeting about the play after their last minute time and date rearrangements. Another well-known regional  organisation took incredibly long to reply to confirmation emails and bookings costing us time. A third known theatre company demonstrated promise but also failed to deliver. Another final response came with an idle suggestion to consider booking for 2023. The 75 year anniversary was in 2022.

Large theatre companies and arts centres book up to one year in advance and so you may choose to argue that challenges with securing a few dates for this play is dependent on that. Debatable. Failing to confirm bookings or showing up for meetings sends a clear message. An exhaustive and admittedly draining production process that resulted in weeks to months of delays by organisations. There were other variable factors too, but this institutional challenge was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The creative industries are not equitable and ethically operating, as they should be.

In Between Lines, if it had a true and genuine space to exist freely, would evoke artistic and personal enquiry of audience and creators alike. In the creative industries some projects will see the light of day while others simply do not. There is a time and place for art and perhaps In Between Lines will find hers much like the watercourses that transcend and work within our borders.

Sincere appreciations and thanks to Professor Rajinder Dudrah for supporting and encouraging this project with the initial funding In Between Lines needed to find a voice that is yet to be staged…

Featured Image: By Project Dastaan and the animated series Lost Migrations.