Project Dastaan takes partition witnesses back home

Published August 14, 2019
BAHADUR Ali Pambra revisits his Jalandhar home using the project’s VR technology. — Photo courtesy Project Dastaan
BAHADUR Ali Pambra revisits his Jalandhar home using the project’s VR technology. — Photo courtesy Project Dastaan

KARACHI: A few months ago, Dr Sadia Siddiqui experienced something extraordinary. She returned home.

Dr Siddiqui migrated from Lucknow to Karachi in 1957 and has not been able to return since. In Karachi, she often recalls her years in Lucknow and talks of the pipal (fig) tree outside her house and the pandit who sat there and gave children sweets.

With the help of a virtual-based reality venture — titled Project Dastaan — Ms Siddiqui was able to revisit her home.

Speaking to Dawn about her trip, co-founder Sparsh Ahuja — a UK-based digital artist — said: “In Dr Siddiqui’s case, we saw a prototype of a stock 360 VR footage of Lucknow and curated it online. She wanted to visit places in Lucknow and Allahabad.”

Introducing the concept, Mr Ahuja said: “Project Dastaan is an Oxford University School of Area and Global Studies-affiliated venture that seeks to reconnect witnesses of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan through virtual reality (VR) technology. We give partition witnesses a chance to relive their childhood days before partition.”

Mr Ahuja explained that through the project, they allowed partition witnesses to visit specific locations and memories and then film the experiences using VR technology to transport them back into their childhoods. “The project showcases the human experience of life before partition — the chaotic sounds of a long-forgotten Lahori bazaar, the serenity of a pind in Punjab, the distinct taste of laddoos at a century-old Delhi halwai,” he said.

“I grew up hearing these stories, as both my maternal and paternal grandparents experienced it. They would nostalgically tell stories about their childhood, before partition happened.”

According to Mr Ahuja, the project highlights how deep-rooted is the partition sentiment. “Sometimes, I still see my Nanu scribbling Urdu poetry in his old and tattered diary — and despite being the only member of the family who can understand nastaliq [script], he is always inclined to his West Punjabi roots. This was of course, one of the many things that inspired me to start Project Dastaan.”

The sentiment was similar for the project’s co-founder, Ameena Malak, whose grandfather had migrated from Hoshiarpur to Lahore.

“We discovered that the stories they would tell us of their days prior to partition were so similar they almost mirrored each other. After that discussion, we were inspired by our grandparents to take partition witnesses on a journey to relive the happy and harmonious memories of life pre-partition, and educate broader society on partition itself and what it means to us today,” said Mr Ahuja.

Talking about the stories they have collected, he said they’ve interviewed seven witnesses so far — two of whom have been able to experience a VR prototype.

“Raising funds is our biggest short-term goal at the moment; the more people and companies invest in our project, the more tailored and unique we can make the VR experience for the partition witness. We have a local team of trackers and 360 film-makers in Pakistan and India who film the locations the partition witnesses mention in their one-to-one interviews,” he said.

“The story of each witness is unique — one that comes to mind is the story of Trilochan Singh. Trilochan migrated from Peshawar to Delhi and was an activist at the height of the Quit India movement. In Peshawar, he lived in the Peshawar cantonment area which was highly militarised, and at the time, the area had a very high British military presence. Trilochan’s activism during his university years in Lahore led to his imprisonment, but in August 1947 Trilochan was forced to migrate to Delhi and was never able to return home,” he said.

Currently, Mr Ahuja and his team are working on two goals — a documentary and to take as many people back in time as possible. “Over the next year, we are making a feature VR documentary called Child of Empire, which puts you inside the shoes of a child during partition; we aim to release this by August next year. Additionally, we will continue to interview witnesses over the next year or so until we have around 100 stories.”

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2019

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