Being a student of cultural anthropology, I am very familiar with people immediately connecting anthropology with museo-philia. Very few people realize that an anthropologist’s passion lies in being in the field as a participant-observer in the culture he is interested in understanding. My placement with Guru Nanak Dev University has given me a unique opportunity to test my anthropological skills in the field without having to restrict myself to the use of only the technical orientations of the discipline, which is unfortunately the case with a lot of anthropology graduate programs in Indian colleges. Two weeks ago, I started conducting fieldwork in the border villages of the Amritsar district. As expected, since the day that I started going into the field, by far the most exciting phase of my fellowship finally arrived.
My fieldwork has two primary objectives: interviewing 1947 Partition survivors and gathering oral Sikh history narratives. On our first day of fieldwork, my GNDU project fellows and I drove 20 kilometers west of Amritsar for what was essentially a reconnaissance mission. Signs on G.T Road, the highway that leads directly to the international border with Pakistan, conveniently mark all villages close to the border. One can simply keep driving down the highway and get off and on depending on which villages one intends to visit.
The first drive out of GNDU’s campus and into the border villages was quite a fascinating journey. GNDU is located on the western edge of the city and it takes about 40 minutes to reach the Pakistani border from here. Once we cross the marketplaces immediately to the west of the campus, we cross a huge chowk (roundabout), landscaped and adorned with the statue of a famous general from the 19th century Sikh Empire, Sardar Sham Singh Attariwala, a native of Amritsar district. It is a massive structure and for me, each time that we leave to go to the villages, the chowk where it is situated marks the beginning of the rural area to the west of Amritsar from where all you see is vast tracts of luscious green agricultural land. This view truly made me feel like I had entered the heartland, however one scarred with manmade boundary lines.
The scars are visible and invisible, tangible and intangible. In the fields all along G.T Road are peppered architectural remains of a bygone era, an era that was perhaps the most prosperous Punjab has witnessed. One of the really well known villages in this area, which is also where Sham Singh Attariwala was from, is Village Attari. The word ‘attari’, from what my project fellows tell me, literally means higher or elevated ground. When we were driving on the highway, I could see ruins of those multi-storied nanak shahi brick (small brick) buildings that earned this village its name in the Sikh Empire in Punjab in the 18th – 19th centuries. Attari and most of its neighboring villages that fall in the Amritsar district today suffered multiple invasions at the hands of the Afghani ruler Ahmed Shah Abdali in the 18th century and in the lead up to the Ango-Sikh wars in the 19th century. The point is these villages are incredibly old and are composed of layers upon layers of turbulent histories that have almost entirely transformed the social and political landscape of Punjab.
I had initially planned on writing purely about my experience interviewing 1947’s Partition survivors in this first blog post since I began doing fieldwork. But instead, in these first few days, I have felt so overwhelmed by what I have been learning about the history of Punjab since before Partition that I felt the need to first share my experience of a complete immersion within that history. I believe it’s important to first broadly understand the context within which 1947’s Partition occurs much later in the history of a region that has experienced volatility and turbulence of a nature both similar and different from the one experienced in 1947. And this is something that’s evident in what the survivors have been telling me. One of the things I’ve discovered while speaking to them is that they speak in idioms about every remarkable circumstance or incident in their lives or in the lives of their communities. These idioms and proverbial phrases hark back to Punjab’s history since the time of the Sikh Gurus (15th century – 18th century), into 19th century’s social and cultural dilemmas that came with the Sikh Empire’s defeat at the hands of the British.
What I’ve shared about Punjab’s history here is very limited and is only part of so much more that I have learned about it in the last few weeks. Now that I’ve developed a somewhat basic framework of the history, I’m going to be able to put Partition survivors’ stories much more into perspective, which is what I plan on sharing in my upcoming posts.