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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

Here’s Everything You Need To Know About The Lives Of Heers Of #TheLostHeer Project

  • IWB Post
  •  August 12, 2019

There has been a lot of talk about the 23 y.o.Toronto-based Engineer Harleen Singh’s Instagram project #TheLostHeer.

And as intriguing as the name of the project is the story of its conception, and the heroic life tales of Punjabi women from the colonial times that it reveals.

Harleen a.k.a @thesingingsingh launched the project on Instagram in October 2018, but he’d been researching for it from his college days, for almost five years now. It was when he visited India during his vacation in 2014 that he began to conduct interviews with Partition refugees.

Talking to us about the beginning of the project, Harleen shared, “during my interaction with the female interviewees, I realised that many aspects to the stories of the lives of Punjabi women were unknown. Going back to the libraries and finding contemporary resources of the time, it was frustrating to know that there was very little available information about the experiences of Punjabi women in colonial Punjab. Hence I thought of launching a brand new project to document the feminine side of colonial Punjab.”

The Lost Heer

Our conversation widened to the various aspects of Harleen’s project and its documentation – the issues that he learnt women dealt with in that time, their struggles and victories, the feminists of colonial Punjab, the role models he discovered – and a lot more:

And how did the coinage of hashtag ‘Lost Heer Project’ come about?

I see Heer as the ‘Quintessential Punjaban’. She is one of the very few Punjabi women whose name has survived through centuries of rigid patriarchy in Punjab. Sufis and Shayars have invoked her thousands of times, despite the fact that she was seen as the ‘bad girl’ – although married she dared to love and then eloped with her lover. Her rebellious nature and free spirit is what has defined her, and made her the symbol of ‘Punjabi Womanhood’. Lost Heer is every such Punjabi woman who stood against the odds and paved way for a generation of Punjabi women to follow, but whose stories got lost in time.

A whole new outlook and understanding your research must have left you with; w.r.t the events from that period that have since eons only been seen and presented from the patriarchal lens?

Yes, definitely. Majority of the written sources I found on the Punjabi society in colonial time, were written by men and about men. Women were mostly in the background, addressed by their husband’s or father’s names.

#thelostheer “Kotha” or terrace has been an important feminine space repeated and reiterated in colonial Punjabi folk songs and bazar literature. Except for the festival of Basant when the terraces of Punjabi urban areas were filled with both sexes, terraces have always been occupied by women. Women-only spaces called zenanas were mostly located in the upper portion of the house so as to give the women access to the terrace, a representative of freedom, though limited between the four boundaries but under the limitless blue sky. In the pre colonial era when the dancing girl had a comparatively respectable position in the society and where prostitution did not dominate the “tawaif quarters”, such respectable brothels were also called “kothas”. As the name suggests the main “bai jee” would be located in the upper portion of the building where her main “nazrana” would be offered to her clients. She would sing or dance or even discuss philosophies and politics. The two kothas, though signifying the aloofness of the little feminine world from the real world, were galaxies apart! Photograph from Queen Mary’s Album showing the women of Amritsar on the rooftops waiting for Prince and Princess of Wales during their Indian Tour in 1905. . . Snippets from my essay, “The world of kotha”. #india #pakistan #punjab #lahore #amritsar

260 Likes, 1 Comments – Harleen Singh (@thesingingsingh) on Instagram: “#thelostheer “Kotha” or terrace has been an important feminine space repeated and reiterated in…”

Were there any stories in your own family history, too, which perhaps your project gave you a chance to learn more about?

The Lost Heer helped me trace and understand the stories of my great grandmothers and their grandmothers. One problem I have with Punjabi genealogy charts is that the names of women are not often recorded. You are only known through your grandfather and his forefathers. So there were generations of men in the records, but there was no sign of a woman. That is where oral history records helped me. The only link to my deceased grandparents is the eldest sister of my grandmother. She is in her 90s, so interviewing her about her childhood, the memories she had with her mother, aunts and grandmother helped me learn about my great matriarchs and their lives. I thought it was just a very unique experience for it was the first time I was hearing about actual women whose part of the DNA I carry in me. This is just one story out of many!

What meaning did freedom and repressions hold for women in that time; was their resistance limited to survival?

Freedom was seen as a dangerous thing. Every action of freedom endangered the society because that empowered a woman’s ‘uncontrolled sexuality’. Women were expected to know their place that they were to be subservient to their men and may not expect certain liberties and freedoms that their brothers had. But this did not mean that women did not challenge the norms. Accounts of women confronting the patriarchy are present in newspapers and magazines of the time. Though most of these steps may not seem impressive to us in the 21st century, they were significant baby steps towards a better future. These women though shunned and shamed in the beginning would later become torchbearers who set the trend and normalized things for the other generation of women.

#thelostheer Gulab Kaur was only 24 and the only female on board ‘SS Korea’ when she was arrested with her co-passengers at Calcutta docks. She had lived in Philippines for sometime with her husband Maan Singh and both were influenced by the “seditious ghadarite” ideologies of their countrymen such as Hafiz Abdullah and Lal Singh Sahibana. The Ghadr Movement was an anticolonial revolutionary organization founded by Indians living in the United States, more specifically the West Coast in the early 1910s. Over a few months, the Ghadr ideology spread across Indians living abroad, mostly Punjabi Sikhs. To combat any seditious activities and restrict their influence, the British government in India started to keep a close watch on the activities of Indians abroad. By the middle of the 1910s, the Punjab Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer reported that out of 8000 people returning from foreign lands to India, 400 were detained in jails, 2500 restricted to their villages and the remaining 5000 discharged. Gulab Kaur served two years in Lahore jail for sedition, and died in 1931, the same year Bhagat Singh was hanged. #India #punjab #Pakistan #ghadrparty #ghadarparty #amritsar #lahore

192 Likes, 4 Comments – Harleen Singh (@thesingingsingh) on Instagram: “#thelostheer Gulab Kaur was only 24 and the only female on board ‘SS Korea’ when she was arrested…”

Share with us the stories of some feminists of that time – what were their fights about, what stories did their struggles narrate?

The early Punjabi feminists came from religious reform movements. They were daughters or wives of ‘enlightened men’, who were often influenced by British education system. Early women leaders from Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Singh Sabha, Anjuman e Islamiya, voiced against common evils of the time that were being targeted by their organizations. Issues like promotion of widow remarriage, condemnation of widowhood rituals, shunning of dowry and expensive weddings, promoting female education, anti nautch movements, etc. were some of the matters that you’d find many early Punjabi feminists speaking about.

We were still light years away from many other meaningful issues like that of divorce, working women, abortion, etc., but all that came much much later. Some of the names of these early feminists (late 19th century-early 20th century) are Smt. Hardevi Roshanlal, Mai Bhagwati, Begum Muhammad Shafi (her daughter Begum Shahnawaz would later pass a resolution against polygamy in 1918).

Tell us about the new role models that you discovered?

Bibi Harnam Kaur, a teenage girl who ran the first Sikh girl’s school in the early 20th century. The school was named Sikh Kanya Mahavidyalaya and was located in Ferozepur. She was from a generation when women were chucked into zenanas and were not allowed to leave their houses. With uncovered face, she went from house to house and convinced angry parents to send their daughters to school. She was a visionary. Though she died within a few years of operating her school, the institution expanded with her husband’s efforts, and in the 1910s was one of the few girls schools in Punjab whose students were from the first batch of female graduates of Punjab University. Sadly, I couldn’t find any of her photographs. It would be interesting to know how she looked!

#thelostheer Khurshid Bai Hujroo wali was one of the most successful “bai jees”‘or “songstresses” from the early 20th century Punjab. It is said that she was so renowned and well respected that Allama Iqbal personally requested her (“farmaish”) to recite his famous “Shikwa Jawab e Shikwa”. In this 1921 recording of Khurshid Bai she begins her recitation of Shikwa by lauding Iqbal as “Fakhr e Punjab”, the pride of Punjab. This photograph is from the Jhabvala Collection. #india #pakistan #punjab #amritsar #lahore #iqbal

181 Likes, 1 Comments – Harleen Singh (@thesingingsingh) on Instagram: “#thelostheer Khurshid Bai Hujroo wali was one of the most successful “bai jees”‘or “songstresses”…”

The one ‘Lost Heer’ interaction that stands out in your memory?

One octogenarian female interviewee said to me that I have a special place in swarag (heaven) for reminding her of the beautiful women in her life and thinking that their stories were worth recording.

And the one story that you think could make as a Bollywood script, and perhaps help broaden the understanding of the project too?

It should definitely be about Rani Jindan, who was the last Empress of Punjab before it was annexed by the British in 1849. As the youngest widow of Sher-I-Punjab Maharaja Ranjit Singh, she singlehandedly played an important role in court politics and after her kingdom was taken over by the English, she planned a daring escape from the fortress she was confined in. This is not where it ends. She escaped to Nepal and initiated anti-colonial rebellion from her new spot. When she became old and the British thought she was no longer a threat, she was allowed to meet her son who was exiled to the UK. As per the records, she was the first Punjabi woman to set foot on British soil and met Queen Victoria as equals. She died in England soon after, but little did the British realize that her short interaction with her son was enough to initiate anti-colonial feelings in him and cause a blow to the Empire. The English rightly named her as the “Messalina of Punjab”.

Today women hold positions of decision-making and manage various fronts single-handedly; what do the stories of that time tell about the situation in this regard?

Punjabi society of that time was governed by customary law. This meant that customs and conditions of women differed from caste to caste and tribe to tribe. There were also significant differences in customs observed by the same tribe living in different districts. So let’s say the Jatt women of Ludhiana district were much more liberated than the Jatt women with the same surname who lived in Sialkot. A lot of texts of the time speak about how women of certain castes and tribes were more independent than the other.

#thelostheer Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz belonged to the medieval Arain Punjabi family of the suburb of Baghbanpura just outside Lahore. Her ancestors served as courtiers in the Mughal era, had a reputable position in the durbar of Ranjit Singh and with the coming of the British adopted to the ways of their new masters. The men of the Mian family were sent off to England to study as early as 1880s, and by the end of the Victorian age the family had become an indispensable part of the new Punjabi elite class. And so it was natural that the women of the Mian family also had to be pioneers in their own ways. Jahanara’s mother Lady Shafi (herself from a reputed family that served as courtiers of Ranjit Singh) can undoubtedly called one of the first “social butterflies” in Punjab. Her “bey-purdah” appearance in many social events in Lahore make me distinguish her from her contemporaries. She was also politically active and established the Anjuman-i-Khawateen-Islam (Society for Muslim women) as early as 1907 in Lahore. In contrast to Lady Shafi, her daughter Jahanara had an English style schooling and attended Queen Mary’s College in Edwardian Lahore. This video of hers (with her father in the background) was shot during her 1930 visit to England for the Round Table Conference. The Begum along with Radhabai Subbarayan represented the Indian women at the conference. Listen to her as she talks about the issues of Indian women and her own journey of leaving the purdah. From the archives of the Associated Press #india #pakistan #punjab #lahore #amritsar

267 Likes, 11 Comments – Harleen Singh (@thesingingsingh) on Instagram: “#thelostheer Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz belonged to the medieval Arain Punjabi family of the suburb…”

A common trend I saw was that the women who came from the so-called lower castes were more economically and socially independent than the upper class Punjabi women. This definitely had to do with the fact that Dalit Punjabi women worked same as the men (though not paid equally), and so were much well-versed with the ways of the world than the higher caste purdahnashin women. Another description, though misogynistic in nature, I read how the women living in secluded zenanas had a considerable influence on the decisions of their men. This had to do with the myth of the ‘henpecked husbands’.

The project aims to restore memories that got lost in history; why do you think it is important for the next generation to know about them – your message to them?

As a grandchild of partition refugees, I grew up with long conversations of nostalgic memories. I was fortunate that my grandparents talked to me about it, but a lot of my friends with similar backgrounds remain clueless about these incredible stories. I think through my project I would be able to preserve some of these memories so that the present generation and the generations that are to follow don’t stay clueless about a significant part of themselves. It is so important to know your past and your origins to be able to stay rooted in this wild world. Also, when you are a community in exile or refugees or anyone away from their native lands, you need to preserve those stories that remind you of your origins.

Do you plan to take it forward on to another level or more platforms?

My final plan is to compile my research in the form of a book and maybe also a documentary.

“Do you want to go back, and find your home ?” I asked the old face. “It’s right here!” she smiled at me, “Between the pages of my father’s books.” #storiesofpartition

92 Likes, 0 Comments – Harleen Singh (@thesingingsingh) on Instagram: “”Do you want to go back, and find your home ?” I asked the old face. “It’s right here!” she smiled…”

And lastly, if you’d want to share something about the emotional burden that your research had you meet with?

When you record memories, you register a part of your interviewees’ soul into your work. Since memories are both good and bad, traumatic experiences can sometimes both be uneasy for the interviewee to reveal and the interviewer to absorb. This not just leaves one with immense responsibility to handle the information with sensitive hands, but also loads an emotional baggage on one’s back. Also, since most of the people I interact with are in the dusk years of their lives, the idea of ageing and fading in time is quite emotionally charging.

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