Our “real women” campaign has always opened us to the wonderful stories of some incredible women, their work and their personal wardrobes. Our first muse for this year for this campaign is – Aanchal Malhotra. Aanchal is a historian and writer and her debut book ‘Remnants of a Separation : A history of the Partition through Material Memory’ was published by HarperCollins India in 2017. She is also the co-founder of the Museum of Material Memory. We’ve been ardent followers of her work and a fascinating take to history.
Her wardrobe was a treat – an explosion of local hand woven crafts and embroidery. We used the same essence for the shoot and picked very typical and classic outfits – phulkari dupatta draped as scarf (that’s how Aanchal likes to drape it!), a khaadi dress and a Kashmiri aari embroidered suit. We worked on four distinctive looks.
1. Partition – one of the most stirring events in the contemporary history of the Indian subcontinent. The firsthand accounts and narrations around it seemed to be only fading with time. Therefore, we are enamored how you’ve captured those through the study of material objects. When and what inspired you to do so?
Undoubtedly, Partition is one of the greatest tragedies of the contemporary history of the subcontinent. What’s more is it that it has also shaped the way Indians and Pakistanis have evolved, not just in terms of geography but also in terms our ethnicity, nationality, our attitudes towards our neighbours and how we perceive our past. But the sad thing about the memory of Partition and particularly the memory of people who witnessed it, is that time has suffocated and subdued its importance and it has become sort of lost and unrecorded.
I come from a family where all four of my grandparents can be traced back to what is now Pakistan – as far as Dera Ismail Khan and as close as Lahore. And still, while I was growing up, this was not a subject of conversation. I learnt about Partition in school and that too in a very academic, almost reductive way. These are the events that occurred, this reform, that Act, these many displaced, these many killed, this is where Pakistan began, and this is where India ended. It was very factual and condensed and completely devoid of any form of individuality. So in 2013,when I encountered two objects that my own family had brought from Lahore to Amritsar, the world of Partition memory opened up to me on a personal level, for perhaps the very first time.
A ghara and a gaz- simple, mundane objects. But the more we spoke about them, touched them, caressed them, the more they came to exist as symbols of a past life across a manmade border. I had never seen such a physical manifestation of migration surface to life so many decades later, and using that encounter as an example, I began an exercise in speaking to people to know what they or their families carried across the border in 1947. When I began the work, the answers were pretty obvious – “Nahi hum kuch nahi laye….kya la sakte the? Dange ho rahe the…fasaad ho rahe the! We were being attacked, and we had to leave. There was no time to take anything.” But eventually, over time, objects – both valuable and mundane – would emerge from the backs of cupboards and the recesses of people’s minds and this is the way my archive slowly grew.
In terms of being inspired to do it- the minute you start recording one or two stories, you see quite clearly, the disparity between an academic history that we are taught and the history that people have lived. I think that is one of the things that has inspired me to continue to do this work on Partition for as long as I have – the fact that there are thousands of versions of the same event. It affected people in so many ways and we are still learning what those ways are. There are still so many facets and faces of Partition that we have not unearthed, understood and I don’t know if we ever will. I think it is the combination of these very personal, very intimate, multiple histories that make up the Partition and that’s one of the things that keep me going.
2. History interests very few today and is strongly associated with the wisdom of age. Have you found yourself in situations where you may have been challenged to be taken seriously as a young historian?
I suppose, the simple answer is yes…the more complex answer is that it is difficult sometimes in this day and age, in the kind of country we live in for women to be taken seriously at all without having to prove themselves in some way or another in relation to men.
I do think part of being a historian comes certainly with the wisdom of age. But I also believe that the way we write and read history needs develop and evolve in accordance to the generation it is being written for. In my opinion it is very important to have younger historians write history for younger people, for the modalities in which we understand the past alter as we move through generations.
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3. Your research has taken you to the other side of the border as well. We are so similar in our ways and yet different in aspects. Can you give us an insight into this?
To conduct the field research for my book, I visited Pakistan twice. When I was going for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect. The media envelops so much of your perception. It builds so much of what you think about of the other side. But at the same time, it didn’t really match with the things that people were telling me in my interview. Not surprisingly, my family was incredibly supportive. My parents had also visited before, so they knew what it was like. My grandparents are from there. And even though things have changed since their childhoods there, the feeling of nostalgia for their land still remained.
I think it is important to know that what we see in the media is not always the truth. There are many versions of history and kinds of people. And the layperson in Pakistan is quite similar to the lay person in India. In fact, it is no surprise that when Indians and Pakistanis are abroad, we get along so well, and yet here, in our own subcontinent, we constantly are weighed down by the allegiances to our land, politics, history and past.
The truth is that there is so much sameness between us, and more people should be allowed to explore that. It is perhaps the only way to eradicate any pre-conceived notions. Traveling to Pakistan really opened my eyes to many things; it allowed me to unlearn and relearn notions of belonging. In some ways, though, I really felt like it was a part of me and I was a part of it.
4. Fashion is related to an individual’s personality. Yet there is a strong tendency to limit it to our profession and a preconceived notion of how one should dress as a writer, teacher or a lawyer perhaps. Have you found yourself facing this notion as a writer?
Even though I would like to say that I hope profession does not dictate the way one dresses but to a certain extend I might conform to that notion as well. I don’t really think of myself as a particularly fashionable person, to be honest. I’ve never been one to understand or follow trends. I would say that I happiest and feel like I’m looking my best when I wear something that makes me feel comfortable, that I can breathe in.
The ideal outfit for me is probably like a salwar kameez and a dupatta or shawl. And maybe a sari for a very fancy evening. But I’m equally as comfortable in a pair of jeans and a sweater with boots, or a dress with flats. I enjoy dressing in both Indian and western clothes, but I would say that fashion equals comfort, first and foremost, before any other aesthetic pre-requisite.
5. Jewelry is one of the most significant forms of material history and a fascinating carrier of stories. Can you elaborate your personal relationship with jewelry for us? How relevant is jewelry when you dress up?
The thing with heirloom pieces is that they immediately make you feel special. They uplift your mood, suffuse that moment of wearing a particular bangle or ring or necklace with a sense of history. So when I’m wearing a jade and gold necklace that belonged to my aunt, or even the gold bangles my mother has given me, those are special moments.
In terms of the jewelry I personally like and buy, I would say I’m quite a traditionalist. I will never find myself gravitating towards the very geometric or out of the box kind of pieces.
6. Your book “Remnants of Separation” has an incredible cover with your grandmother and the maang teeka which now belongs to you. Can you please tell us the history of the maang teeka? How old would that piece of jewelry be today?
The maang teeka was given to my grandmother’s mother at her wedding in the year 1919. She was 12 years old then. She received it, at that time from her mother-in-law,as a wedding gift. According to these dates, the maang teeka is 100 years old as of 2019.But I know that it had been in the family even before that, so its not difficult to assume that it is older than a century.
My great grandmother wore it on her wedding and my grandmother wore it on her wedding, and those were the only times they each wore it. Over the years, due to its weight, my grandmother has gotten it converted into a necklace. And she has also gotten matching earrings with it.About the maang teeka itself, it’s a large pendant set in gold, it has ruby flowers and leaves and branches all around it. The stones used are ruby, feroza, garnet, pearl and diamond. My grandmother always likes to muse over the fact that it is from her land – Dera Ismail Khan – in the North-West Frontier Province (now KPK), and like her mother and her, most of the stones are born from that soil.
7. What particularly draws us to your personal style and wardrobe is the fact that it is essentially ethnic, true to the local crafts and the sartorial culture. In today’s time and at your age, it is unusual. Can you reassert for us, why it is important for fashion and people in India to not lose touch with the crafts, weaves and techniques that are so typical to our region.
My style can be quite ethnic! I am very drawn to local craftsmanship from all over the country because its handmade; no two pieces will look exactly the same, which is so wonderful. .
India is such a conglomeration of talent in terms of local handicraft or song or dance or clothes, that I love populating my wardrobe with anything from different states whether it is phulkhari, or chikankari work. It’s a representation of such a diverse culture. India is so vast that its difficult to put it into words sometimes. But I think maybe, if you can wear parts of it, it feels like an even more intimate connection with your country. Each piece says something; it can speak, despite its inanimate nature.
I feel quite happy, for example, when I am wearing the red Kashmiri aari suit that I’m wearing in the shoot, or when my book was launched in Pakistan, I wore a chikankari suit from Lucknow. I felt a sense of pride, dawning myself in culture this way. It’s something that I have certainly grown up with; the wardrobes of my grandmother and my mother are also quite similar.
8. How do you perceive the label Zariin and how was your experience shooting for the label?
Well, for a person who is generally quite camera shy, the shoot was rather effortless. I do really think that had to do with feeling confident in what one wears, and the jewellery certainly added to the delight of dressing up.
9. Can you pick a Zariin piece that imbibes your personal style?
I would say it would be the set that I was wearing with the red suit. When I saw it on the website site, immediately I was drawn to it. It’s so clean and simple. It is a very traditional choker style. I never thought it would look good on me because I have never worn anything like that. But when I put it on, I felt a sense of delight. I saw myself in the mirror and I thought, “This is it.” It lifts your outfit, your mood. Personal style is something that makes you feel good about yourself and I felt that this particular collection did that for me. Also, it was something that I wouldn’t normally pick; I would go for a longer necklace or smaller earrings. But this really worked and it was wonderful.
Photography – Ishita Singh