Roundabout: An odyssey of partitioned Punjab villages comes full circle


Living by and large in times of ‘paratrooper’ journalism, it is rare for a reporter or a photographer to return to the subject of their work to complete the circle. But not so for this photographer, for whom a return was always in sight.

It was not just another assignment, or project as we tend to call it now, for Graciela Magnoni, but a work stemming right from the heart. In her own words: “I got pulled into the Punjab story, the drastic separation of people who had lived together and loved each other, the idea of a homeland erased from a map,” she says.

As a child she moved along with her nomadic parents from country to country and later choosing to leave Brazil for the US herself, she could relate well to the migrant experience. However, she found that photographing the Sikhs in Punjab was an opening into her husband and his family’s culture.

Married to Mano Vikrant Singh, son of late Naval Commander Nandy Singh, a hockey player and Olympian who migrated to the Indian side of the border from Lyallpur in Pakistan with his family in 1947, Magnoni says, “I did not know that the project would evolve into a journey to Punjab across borders.”

But so it did, and the book tells the story of the torn Punjab without names of people and places in the simple and candid language of photography.

An emotional journey

After completing her photographs on this side of Punjab, Magnoni had an opportunity to cross the border after getting a visa to Pakistan in 2019. She chose to journey by train to experience the border and experience the crossing.

It took her seven hours from Attari to the railway station in Lahore, which lay just 30 miles away. It was a way of learning how the people had been distanced.

Of course, photography came much later. First, she visited her father-in-law’s old home and his beloved Government College in Lahore to relive a part of his life left behind over seven decades ago. It was something that he would never get tired of recalling. Being on the other side of the border, it seemed like a privilege to her. “For 10 days, I photographed rural villages and found the same hospitality, human warmth and magical moments she found on the Indian side,” she says.

It was on returning from Pakistan and comparing the images of both sides, that she realised the striking similarities and the idea of a book began taking shape.

Making of the book

It was then that Magnoni started researching on the internet about Partition and poetry of the times, which addressed the gruesome violence of the times and how I willy-nilly got to be a small part of the project.

One day, I received a phone call from a relative of hers living in Mohali on how her sister-in-law living abroad was looking for me to seek permission to use two of the poems I had translated of Amrita Pritam for a book she was working on. The two poems of course were the famous ‘Ode to Waris Shah’ — the first Partition poem from Punjab and the poet’s last poem — written to her lover Imroz, ‘I will meet you yet again’. I was surprised at the choice because both poems, written at different times and on different themes, had somehow held the same intensity.

Later at a meeting with Magnoni and her husband in the city, I learned from the latter that no one had guided her on the choice of the poems and she had arrived at the poems based on internet searches, harvesting the best including Amrita Pritam, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ustad Daman, Bulleh Shah of course and Gulzar.

She recounts an interesting experience, “Looking for Gulzar’s contact, I put a few lines on social media asking for it and to my surprise and delight, Gulzar himself responded by sending me his phone number.”

Well, such is the bond of a people who have known the agony of displacement and divides. Salima Hashmi, daughter of Faiz, willingly wrote a moving foreword, designer Akila Sheshasayee helped her with the narrative and selection of pictures. Lo! a never-before poignant book ‘Watan’ was born.

Magnoni gifting the girls copies of the book last week upon tracking them down on their way to school years later. (Courtesy: Graciela Magnoni)

Return of the photographer

With a unique book completed and out at the stalls and shelves, one would have thought the task was done. But that was not so for this photographer, who carried 100 copies of her book that she intended to present as a gift to the old and young who she had photographed from this side of Punjab — much to their surprise and joy.

One of the girls had even gotten married and moved to a village near Malerkotla. Magnoni tracked her down and gave her a book with a picture clicked five years ago. “I hope to be able to do the same in the times to come in Pakistan,” the photographer quips.

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