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Founder Of ‘The Museum Of Material Memory,’ Aanchal Malhotra Recollects Family Memories From Partition Time

  • IWB Post
  •  August 17, 2019

My Grandma had an old rusty watch which my Grandpa had given her on their wedding day. The watch was defeated by the smart technology long back and none of the shopkeepers could repair it. But it looks like its non-functionality was invisible to her; grandma used to wear it without a fail. Probably, it was the only way for her to stop the rushing time and hazing memories of her husband.

All of us have such ancestral things which may be worth a penny in the market but are invaluable to us.

Aanchal Malhotra, an artist and oral historian, and Navdha Malhotra, a ceramic artist who works in the field of digital communication, launched The Museum of Material Memory in 2017, which exhibits such memory objects. The Museum is a digital repository of material culture, tracing family histories and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles, and objects of antiquity. It aims to promote the preservation of material memory attributed to the objects, which shall finally advance the knowledge and appreciation as a resource in helping us understand our culture and civilization.

That the table would always be a trusted bridesmaid but never the glittering maid was written into its fate pretty early. Sakunthala died in 1938, 10 years after she had given birth to amamma. Amamma, obviously, has very feeble memory of her mother but does recall sepia-toned images of her mother spending hours in front of the dressing table mirror every morning. By the time of Sakunthala’s death the family had moved to Rajahmundry, her husband Venkataramaiah’s hometown, and so did the dressing table. With no one to care for and no one with long enough tresses to find use of the mirror, the table inevitably went into use for more mundane tasks. Venkatramaiah was obsessed with sniffing tobacco and the table was the ideal ground for him to line up his little cylindrical steel containers of snuff. Amamma remembers that Venkatramaiah also found good use of one of the finials of the table by hanging up his loosened turban. . An excerpt from Amamma and her Parlakimidi Dressing Table by Rama Mohan @rammohan_k #dressingtable #furniture #telangana #grandparents #antiques

147 Likes, 0 Comments – Museum of Material Memory (@museumofmaterialmemory) on Instagram: “That the table would always be a trusted bridesmaid but never the glittering maid was written into…”


Gopali Devi shares how it was through food, recipes and their associated traditions and utensils, that she finally found her own place within married life, having traveled from Birati, a tiny suburb of Calcutta, West Bengal to Chawri Bazar, Delhi into a family of over 40 people. Though the home in Old Delhi remains no more, some elements have survived. Here is a manual juicer, fashioned in pure silver, oxidized and discoloured with the passing of time. Read the full piece, ‘The Legacy of Sheesh Mahal’ written by her granddaughter, Deeksha Jhalani. The link is in our bio. #museumofmaterialmemory #familyhistory #objects #utensils #history #delhi #calcutta

280 Likes, 2 Comments – Museum of Material Memory (@museumofmaterialmemory) on Instagram: “Gopali Devi shares how it was through food, recipes and their associated traditions and utensils,…”

Aanchal Malhotra takes us back to the inception days of the Museum and gives us a glance of the most beautiful, emotional and loving stories of her collection.


What inspired you to look back in history?

Aanchal: Let me take you six years back in time…

In 2013, while on a sabbatical from my MFA at Concordia University, Montreal, I visited my grandfather’s house in North Delhi where my granduncle showed us two objects – a ghara (a metallic vessel) and a gaz (a tailoring yardstick) that his parents had brought with them when they came to Delhi from Amritsar just before the Partition. Though the objects were incredibly banal, old and hardly looked to be of any value, his behavior around them changed completely. His demeanor softened and he almost became a young boy again as he narrated to us how their mother would churn lassi in the ghara and his father would use the gaz in his clothing shop.

That was the first time I realized that the power embedded within materiality of objects from a certain time could be used as a catalyst for extracting memories of that time. And more importantly, they could be used as an alternate and more subtle source of recollection of memories of migration during the Partition – what one carried with them when they left and fled across the border.

Would you like to share any encounter during research period of the project that you remember as emotional or even heart-breaking?

Aanchal: The strange thing is that I no longer get very emotional while recording these stories, but when I come home and begin to listen and transcribe them, only then does their sheer gravity shake me. But there have definitely been some interviews that are more emotionally saturated than others. For instance, in Lahore, a woman who was to soon get married to an army officer just after Partition spoke to me about the work her husband was doing in the camps and border areas, evacuating refugee women abducted by force during the riots. She said that many of these women chose not to return to their original homes, for fear of not being accepted. She told me how it became a gendered Partition, and just then, something broke down in me. How the bodies of women were still a terrain to conquer and possess. I remember then, she held my hand and told me that it was okay to feel sad about these things because that’s what made us human. It showed that we had empathy. But her sharing these stories with me also meant that I had the responsibility to do something about them, to take care of them and make sure that such events no longer happened. At that point, I can still recall wondering how large a responsibility she had handed to me, and how was I ever going to take care of such a memory.

What was one of the happiest India-Pakistan stories told by your grandparents that you hope can boost friendships between two nations.

Aanchal: There are many, too many. I have recorded instances of Muslim servants helping Hindu landlords to get safety under the cover of darkness during the riots in NWFP. Then there are stories of Hindus hiding Muslim friends and neighbors in their homes in Lahore. Then there are stories of religious books and items being untouched and even cared for by ‘other’ religions, when they moved into abandoned houses post the Partition riots; there are stories of people going back to the homes they fled from many years after the Divide and being welcomed with such warmth as if they were the original owners. If one looks intently, the stories of hope, faith, love, and friendship are sewn into the tapestry of Partition, just as firmly as stories of violence or hate.

One story of your grandfather, if any, that hasn’t made to the project yet, but you can share with us.

Aanchal: It is already part of the project, but still interesting to repeat. My paternal grandfather, who began Bahrisons Booksellers in Khan Market in 1953, migrated from Malakwal, Punjab, to Delhi. While boarding the train from Malakwal Station, a crew of Muslims got on and took his (grandfather’s) father off the train, as he was a bank manager and no one else apart from him knew how to run the bank. He was required to train the new employees with the promise of being returned to his family in a few months. So sans their patriarch, the family migrated to Delhi and lived in Kingsway Camp. My grandfather, for those few months, became the sole breadwinner of the family consisted of his mother and younger siblings.

Tell us about the memory objects that you treasure the most.

Aanchal: There are two objects that I had been lucky enough to inherit: a Swiss-made pure gold Tressa wristwatch, which one has to wind every day. It is a really old-fashioned model with 17 jewels inside its working mechanism. It belonged to my grandfather’s sister, a woman so strong and determined that it makes me proud to have something of hers today. Coincidentally, we share the same name. The second thing is a set of gold bangles belonging to my nani, which were inherited by me mostly because mine was the only wrist they’d fit! They’re quite small and delicate, refined and classy. I never really knew her, but in pictures, she has the kind of grace and poise that I wish I had even half of. She was the most fashionable of them all – chignon buns and pastel-colored sheer saris with crisp folds and matching handbags. Each time I wear these bangles, I think of her and wish I knew this incredibly beautiful person that other people tell me stories about.

When my paternal grandmother, Bhag Malhotra, and her sisters came to Delhi from the Frontier Province following the Partition in 1947, Chandni Chowk was ‘the’ place to buy absolutely anything. They were living in the barracks at Kingsway refugee camp in North Delhi, where my grandmother’s elder sister was the camp commandant, and when they could afford to, they’d venture into the Chandni Chowk on the weekends. Nearly 86 years old now, she fondly recalls how Surmewalas would sit in a line outside the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib in those early years of Independent India. This surmedani was one of the first purchases she made there. 10 cms in height, and 3.5 cms at its widest in the centre, this surmedani is forged in pure brass. Though difficult to say when it would have been made, it is handmade – evident from the uneven edges – and is fairly utilitarian in its style, as compared to other, more ornate kohl pots and containers I have seen. The daani, the pot, came separately with it’s suramchi, the long stick (with grooves for when the fingers hold it) used to apply the fine black powder, and the surma itself would have been packed in a small bag. . Excerpt from ‘Glow of the Grime’ by Aanchal Malhotra. Link in bio #museumofmaterialmemory #surmedani #surma #chandnichwok #delhi #culture #tradition

306 Likes, 10 Comments – Museum of Material Memory (@museumofmaterialmemory) on Instagram: “When my paternal grandmother, Bhag Malhotra, and her sisters came to Delhi from the Frontier…”

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