Child of Empire: Sharing the experience of Partition survivors through VR

Child of Empire Exhibition at SOAS

Currently showing in the Wolfson Gallery at SOAS Library, Child of Empire is an immersive film experience giving viewers the chance to experience what life was like for migrants during the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan.

Using virtual reality technology, the film takes you through a deeply personal perspective of the historical event. Two men from the Partition generation share childhood memories of their experiences over a board game. As the story unfolds, viewers are immersed in the of a 7-year-old child during key points in the migration.

To celebrate the film showing at SOAS, we sat down with one of the Producers and Co-Founder of Project Dastaan, Saadia Gardezi to hear more about the immersive film and exhibition.

Saadia Gardezi Headshot

Where did the idea of an immersive film using VR come from? 

We started off with our social project, where we tried to reconnect Partition survivors with their ancestor villages using virtual reality (VR). The India/Pakistan border has been militarised for the last 75 years, so it’s difficult to get visas. And now, those who migrated in 1947 are getting too old to travel. So, our contribution to the space was creating bespoke 360 experiences to give these people immersive experiences of their homes, schools, gurdwaras, mosques, or whatever we could find for them.

Then the pandemic happened and we realised that this is an aging generation, so there’s not much time left to hear their stories and do these connections. So we thought, ‘how can we preserve some of the stories that we’d heard?’, and The Child of Empire is an effort to take inspiration from their stories and immerse people in the experiences of a migrant. The point was to try and create empathy for what happened in 1947 and to continue to tell the story of these people.

Did you find that the stories you heard were similar or were there a lot of different experiences? 

Some of the stories were similar. A lot of people who migrated from India Punjab to Pakistan Punjab had stories of trains arriving at stations and everybody on board being dead. Many stories about Partition were about villages being burned, families from different religions hiding friends in their houses and defending them, eventually having to leave and getting sick or crossing the border with no food, no clothes, nothing. So, whilst there was this one mainstream story, we also found there was a lot of diversity in the stories too.

If you look at various stories, some are about people migrating, because as Muslims they were fearful they wouldn’t be able to get jobs in the future, in India. Some people migrated through the desert of camels. Some migrated a few years later and not in 1947, after understanding more of what was happening, and how alienated they started to feel in new India, or new Pakistan. Different parts of India and Pakistan were impacted differently and had different versions of migration.

The stories that women told us were sometimes quite different. These stories were more about the home. Women see it as less about the meta-perspective from politics and about “this baby was born and then we didn’t have food”. A lot of the objects that travelled across the borders, like spoons, knives, etc, were carried by women. So, their stories are often everyday stories, about the minute experiences of what happened.

I saw on the website, that something you wanted to cover was women’s stories, is this something you feel you managed to do? 

Along with Child of Empire, we also released some traditional 2D animations called Lost Migrations, which will be displayed at SOAS later in the month.

These animations go through the stories of people who became stateless and didn’t know which country they belonged to because passports didn’t exist then. We also heard stories of women and the traumas they faced, and how difficult life was because of these. Also, Partition created other borders, like sea borders, where seafaring communities found that they now had to choose citizenship of India. World War II had also just ended in Burma (now Myanmar), so there was a refugee population coming out of the country and into India. These people had to become Indian citizens and leave behind their Burmese heritage. So, it’s a very complex narrative if you look at the whole region of the subcontinent.

Did you find that the project was well received by the community? 

With the Partition migrants themselves, we would only give them the experience if they asked for it and wanted to see it. We know that some of the stories and experiences are very traumatic, so we had to be invited in. So, in that sense, it’s not typically a research project. The people who have viewed the VR and interacted with us have been really touched and really love it, especially the diaspora community here of Indian and Pakistani descent. They have found it wonderful, and it’s really helped younger second and third-generation people reconnect with the stories of their grandparents.

How did you end up submitting the film to Sundance? 

We just submitted it when it first came out and were invited to attend. It’s where the film premiered. And our other film, Lost Migrations, just premiered in August at the British Film Institute. So it’s been a really good response, and now we’re hopefully taking it on a festival run.

What’s next? Is there more to come? 

Right now, this is what we’ve got, but we’re collaborating with Border Crossings, which is a UKRI-funded SOAS project. There are two professors, Professor Navtej Purewal (Professor in Political Sociology and Development Studies) and Dr. Eleanor Newbigin (Senior Lecturer in the History of Modern South Asia), who have helped to fund this exhibit here at SOAS. So they’ve funded us to come in and they’re doing a research survey to see how people are reacting. So, it’s also now being built into the academic interest programming at SOAS. We also want to take it to Warwick University, where I’m currently a Ph.D. student. There’s been a lot of academic interest as well in reeducation, decolonising curriculums, etc. that have come out of the 75th-anniversary discussions.

Child of Empire is available to view for free in the Wolfson Gallery at the SOAS Library until 31 October. The exhibition is open to the public. The Border Crossing project from Professor Navtej Purewal, Dr Eleanor Newbigin and Tajender Sagoo will also have a display on the west wall of the SOAS Library. This display will show the works of Graciela Magnoni, a street photographer based in Singapore, and Amarjeet Nandra, a textile artisit and educator based in London. Both artists use different forms to narrate new stories about the Partition of 1947. 

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