In search of the lost Heer

Updated June 08, 2019

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(Left) Sarla Thakral, the first Punjabi woman to get a flying licence, pictured in front of a plane. (Right) A group photograph of girls at a school in Gujranwala circa 1892.—The Lost Heer Project
(Left) Sarla Thakral, the first Punjabi woman to get a flying licence, pictured in front of a plane. (Right) A group photograph of girls at a school in Gujranwala circa 1892.—The Lost Heer Project

KARACHI: The blurred face of a woman peeking from a jharokha window in Lahore, a photograph taken by Rudyard Kipling’s father John Lockwood from the 1870s, made its way to Harleen Singh Sandhu’s Instagram page (@thesingingsingh) as he introduced the world to a project close to his heart — The Lost Heer.

“The Lost Heer Project is a by-product of my four years of research on the partition and archiving memories of partition refugees,” he said, adding that he collected stories, anecdotes, photographs and anything that had to do with Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Christian women in Punjab from 1849 to 1947.

“While recording the stories... I tried looking into writings on women in British Punjab, but could barely find much... information. As a result, I decided that I need to take an initiative and archive information on the social history of females in British Punjab,” he added.

Recently, Mr Singh shared a rare recording of Meena Shorey, a young woman who shot to fame as the ‘Larra Lappa’ girl due to the hit song of the same title in 1949’s Ek Thi Larki.

Harleen Singh Sandhu talks about his Instagram project on archiving social history of women of colonial Punjab

Talking about the post, he said: “Not many in the film industry knew that Meena Shorey’s real name was Khursheed Jahan. This young girl from Raiwind could have been married off like her teenage sister, but a visit to Bombay in 1941 changed her life. Her dreamy almond eyes enchanted the great Sohrab Modi who persuaded her to sign his film Sikandar based on Alexander the great.”

Similarly, Mr Singh shared the story of Sarla Thakar also known as Mrs Sharma, the first Punjabi woman in India to be qualified as a pilot who got her ‘A’ licence after flying between Karachi and Lahore in 1936.

In one of his earlier posts, Mr Singh shared a photograph of the Church Missionary Society from 1900 which was taken at a girls’ school in Sialkot. The caption read: Students dressed in long ghagras and wrapped around by white chaddars are being taught by their Eurasian (mixed race) looking teacher dressed in a smart late-Victorian attire.

Verification process

Talking to Dawn about how he verifies stories and photographs, Mr Singh said he double-checked historical incidences via newspapers, magazines or contemporary accounts such as government records or mentions.

“If available, it is wonderful to also refer to private writings like diaries or journals. Most of the photographs I’ve collected come either from private collections or old/antiquarian books or are held by museums and libraries. Oral accounts can be tricky as memory fades and alters with time and from one medium to another. Still, we can cross-check things by understanding the historical context,” he explained.

Mr Singh, who claims to have an eternal love affair with colonial Punjab, said he had an overwhelmingly positive response to the project online.

“The pleasure of waking up in the morning and reading dozens of kind messages and personal stories is very inspiring and uplifting. People sharing their personal family stories make you feel that this project has some impact on them. At the same time, it also inculcates a sense of responsibility on one’s shoulders too,” he said.

A story, according to Mr Singh, which has left an impact on him was the account of a woman called Ratan Devi.

“She spent the entire night of April 13, 1919, in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, with the body of her husband. Her harrowing experience inside the garden full of dead bodies and preying vultures represented countless other women who were widowed in the massacre and whose accounts were lost in time,” he said.

Mr Singh said that it was necessary to archive old photographs because they were “our visual aid to the past”.

“The knowledge of our past is necessary to understand our present, and helps us decide our future. Unlike the rest of the world, the Indian subcontinent does not have a healthy tradition archiving information and spreading ideas,” he said.

“This has caused so much knowledge and art forms to become extinct since ancient times. It is important to not just preserve photographs, but also skills, language and other tangible things.”

Like Mr Singh, an electrical engineer based in the greater Toronto area is also running an Instagram page (@brownhistory) devoted to the South Asian history.

“I just wanted to learn more about my roots ...at the same time I was getting older and I realised that life is short and I need to start ‘doing’ things and not just storing knowledge in the back of my brain and let it just gather dust. So, the creation of this page was a combination of all that,” Ahsun Zafar told Dawn.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2019