Samuel Dalrymple On Showcasing The Partition With Sensitivity
If you are interested in travel writings, Delhi's heritage walks and culture, discussions about Partition, and the history of the Indian subcontinent, you may already be familiar with Samuel Dalrymple, son of noted Scottish historian William Dalrymple. He is an avid researcher of Indian history with a degree as a scholar of Sanskrit and Persian from the University of Oxford.
Dalrymple has been writing voraciously on the mediaeval history of India and has a dedicated following on social media. His first film, "Child of Empire," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022, and his animated series "Lost Migrations" was a sell-out at the British Film Institute. He is set to make his debut in the literary sphere with "Shattered Lands: The Five Partitions of India 1935-1975," in 2024.
Samuel spoke to Outlook Traveller about his interest in the Partition, how his book came about, his favourite museums and historical sites, and films, among other things.
I have followed your work for quite a while now, and it appears that you are pretty interested in the event of Partition. Why do you find it intriguing as a subject of investigation?
I kind of fell into working on it by accident. When I was at university, my friend Sparsh Ahuja was chatting with some Pakistani friends in the UK. They were talking about how sad it was that they could meet in England, and Sparsh could meet people who lived 5 hours from his ancestral home, but he would never be able to return to his ancestral home. And likewise, the Pakistani friends who came from Delhi will never be able to go there. And, Sparsh made a mission that he wanted to use this opportunity to get some footage for his grandparents. They always said they wanted to see their ancestral homes again and see their old gurudwara, their old school, and all those places they had to flee overnight. And Sparsh kind of brought me in on this project, which became the Project Dastaan.
What did Project Dastaan entail, and how did the book come along?
In Project Dastaan, we wanted to take back 75 Partition witnesses before the 75 Anniversary using VR (virtual reality)—a bonkers idea that was wonderful. We didn't manage 75, but only about 20. And when Covid hit, we couldn't interact much with the old that we'd been working with, and we couldn't cross the borders anymore. And so, having fallen into this, I started working on a book. And we started working on some animations currently being shown at the Partition Museum in Amritsar, Delhi, and Lahore. Having one exhibit showing in Delhi and Lahore is lovely because I think that's quite rare.
Are there also places in the United Kingdom that memorialise the event of Partition?
No, which is rather shocking. There's been a significant push in the last few years to get this history recognised in Britain; a lot of work has undoubtedly come, but Britain, in a way, has got this big silence and confusion over how to handle its imperial past. It's not entirely spoken up to it yet. Until recently, imperial history wasn't taught in schools either, but that's changed, and schools are gradually including imperial history in their curriculum. You learn about India and the Battle of Plassey, thank god! But I don't think there's any specific memorial to those who died in Partition.
After years of campaigning, a Key Stage 3 textbook aimed at 11-14 year olds has just been published to include the British Empire in the curriculum. In the Partition chapter, it mentions Project Dastaan!
There's lots of random Indian heritage across Britain which pays tribute to those connections. For example, I was in Osborne House recently, which is Queen Victoria's old Durbar Hall, designed by Ram Bhai Singh, the architect of the Khalsa College and the Lahore College–the great Punjabi architect. Then there's the Sezincote, which has the Mughal dome and random buildings across the country.
Are you guided only by general interests, or there's also a personal connection to the mediaeval past and India in particular?
In the process, like many Brits, I naturally discovered that my family had its own Partition history, bizarrely. My grandad had been out to India in the army during '47, and he'd never spoken to us about this. And we found his World War II diary the day before his funeral—and Aanchal Malhotra has written this up in her book of war histories. At the end of it was him being posted in India. It turns out he never visited us in India in the 30 years we've been in India because he was traumatised from putting all his friends on the train and never coming up to the other side. He'd been an 18-year-old Scottish boy drafted into the army; he had never left Scotland before, and suddenly, he was here. So, in the process, I discovered my rather bizarre family connection to Partition.
While working on Project Dastaan, did you find any places that have remained the same as during Partition? What changes occurred over the years?
So, some places were perfect as they were. But you've got to remember—it's incredible reading newspapers from 1947; they had terrific adverts everywhere of this new concrete which had just been brought to India. So, the primary material that makes the part of every Indian city did not exist then. It was either stone or wood or mudbrick. So, often, villages have entirely changed. In some cases, particularly in small towns of Punjab, we'd head in and find the only thing remaining was a well; people had been living in thatched huts during Partition. Now, they lived a lovely middle-class life with a two-story concrete house, a nice kitchen, and bathrooms. But in '47, when they left, those villages had been bail-gadis (bullock carts) and kutcha houses made of mud and thatch. The homes which were more middle and upper class tend to be perfectly preserved, though if you were a lower class at the time of Partition, your house often tends not to be that perfect. But again, if you lived in Lahore or a big city, it's much easier to find a landmark; even if your house is gone, your school is still there, your mosque is there, or your mandir is still there.
Can you share some of the stories or anecdotes that came about during your work on the project?
One time, we found an old school bookshop run by the grandson of the man who sold books before the Partition. On five occasions, we found old family friends living on different sides of the border.
So, there was a wonderful time when, for example, Iqbaluddin and Badruddin migrated from East Punjab to Pakistan and are now living in London. Their best friend before they migrated was a Sikh man called Narendra Singh. Narendra stayed in touch with them and sent a picture of him standing in front of their mosque soon after Partition–that's the only picture they had of their village. So we used this picture to find the old mosque, and we found a couple of old mosques, and then, some guy in a dhaba said, "Oh! I think I know Narendra Singh, he's living in Chandigarh now." So, we headed off to Chandigarh, and unfortunately, he died a few years earlier. But his wife and kids were all still there, and they'd all heard about Iqbaluddin and Badruddin—their father's childhood best friend who went to Pakistan. And so we put them all in touch, and they invited each other on holiday, and it was a delightful conversation—it was lovely!
Do you think there is a specific potential for Partition Tourism within the places with a Partition Museum and other Partition memorial sites?
The key is that no one should be capitalising on trauma. You want to memorialise it and not turn it into a destination where people take selfies. I think there should be more and more awareness that this event needs to be understood, or what is dangerous, I think, is to graft onto Partition any one interpretation. The point is to show the sheer range of experiences. To memorialise, you know, and not to have one nationalist narrative that explains what happened in 250 words.
Recent reports of over-tourism and tourism-based pollution have occurred at specific lesser-known destinations. How do you manage the ethical angle while posting about places and monuments on social media?
Well, regarding the stuff I have been posting on Partition, I don't think anyone will charge down in a particular gully in Lahore due to my post. I think you've got to be careful and figure out what you're doing it for; mine is primarily to do with history rather than beautiful landscapes and doesn't tend to produce as many mass visits. There's a difference between posting, "This lovely river or beautiful mountain where you absolutely must go," and saying, "Here is a forgotten archaeological site that should be protected in Meerut," for example. I think history needs to be preserved better.
What do you think of films made on Partition? Movies like "Gandhi" (1982) and so on.
So, I am not the person to answer that because I don't think that I have watched enough, you know, Indian cinema. But I think it's got a long way to go, as well as a couple of fantastic films. It's just not necessarily my expertise. About "Gandhi," I'm not sure how accurate it necessarily was. I think it brushes over certain bits and reflects more Mountbatten's view, bizarrely, and particularly the image of Jinnah as the kind of dishonest guy in the background isn't necessarily actual. You know, he was a much more complex guy; he could have, you know, drank whiskey and ate ham sandwiches and was known as the big man of Hindu-Muslim unity for the first thirty years of his life and then was kind of brushed into a corner by the Congress leaders. So, you know, it's a complex one, but I haven't watched it in years, so I wouldn't be able to give a long remark on that.
On top of your head, what site do you believe needs to be protected and well archived?
I'll give you an example: One of the big stories that you often hear is that there are no historical temples in North India. They were all destroyed, especially around the Delhi area. This isn't true - just one hour from Delhi, me and my friend discovered this Dattiyana brick temple. Dattiyana is a small town just outside Meerut. It's a 9th-century temple, partly preserved but not recorded on any heritage list, despite being one of the oldest things in the doab. It's not a protected monument, and already, in the past five years, there's been a massive renovation that rid of a lot of historical authenticity of the temple. It was built by the same dynasty that built Khajuraho and is one hour from Delhi. It could potentially be one of the major tourist sites or ancient temples in North India.
Do you discover these sites mainly through books, or do you employ a personal technique when exploring the field?
So, I discovered many places through other heritage-interested friends. Some of them I found through old PDFs on ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) and old gazetteer listings from the British era. Or from the 1950s and '60s, you know, there's a bunch of old things on The Antiquities of Meerut District, and often I visit the IGNCA, the Indira Gandhi National College of Arts website. And then, usually, it's just about randomly showing up and seeing what you can find or asking around for praachin mandir (historical temple) or purana masjid (old mosques).
From your travel experiences, please enlist the top museums you'll recommend to our readers to check out.
I think Jodhpur Mehrangarh Museum is spectacular—loved it! There's one in Bombay, I think it's the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum, it's terrific. I believe the Napier Museum in Thiruvananthapuram is quite impressive. Well, in terms of the best collection, I think New Delhi has brilliant exhibits, and Mathura has the most ancient sculptures in India. It has the earliest images of Kanishka and Krishna, some of the earliest manifestations of Buddha and some other very early stuff. But Mathura Museum is itself vastly underfunded and needs more funding ASAP. And then I think, in general, a lot of the museums in Rajasthan are pretty good; there's the Victoria And Albert Museum in Jaipur and various others. During the pandemic, Delhi upgraded certain rooms in the National Museum, and there, the newly renovated rooms are world-class. The Chandigarh museums are also unique, but I haven't been yet.
What are the places that you will recommend as worth visiting?
My favourite places in the last few years have probably been Rampur and Vrindavan, UP. Bundi in Rajasthan—has the best-preserved frescoes. I loved Bundi! It has incredible early works. The Jain temples in Old Delhi—are impressive. I think, in Hyderabad in Deccan, people don't visit Hyderabad for its heritage. And I believe Junagadh and Ahmedabad in Gujarat - blew my mind. Junagadh is amazing. The first thing you observe is the Nawabi history, the kind of Nawabs that followed the Mughal empire, with strange tombs and UFO domes. And then, you go up the hill and witness the Jain temple complex, one of the planet's most outstanding Jain temple complexes. And then you visit the British-era stuff, and this whole kind of French-Gothic thing is going on. And then, finally, you go to the Uparkot Fort, and an Ashokan inscription is there - essentially one of the earliest Ashokan era places in India, rather remarkable. There are Buddhist caves from 200 years after Ashoka, and these Buddhist monasteries carved into the rock, a bit like baby versions of Ajanta Ellora, just sitting on the side of the road, something quite remarkable. It's the fact that you've got each of these layers of history–you've got the ancient Buddhist, the ancient Jain, very early Hindu, Nawabi and Mughal history, and Maratha history, all in one city. And finally, I'll say Murshidabad.