Sudha Bhuchar, Founder of Bhuchar Boulevard

Featured photo credits: Katherine Leedale
Image description: Diljohn Singh (Manohar Lal), Karan Gill (Pali) & Nyla Levy (Kaushalya) 

As a teenager, my sister and I had joined Tara Arts and cajoled Jatinder Verma, one of Tara’s founding members and artistic director, to give us impromptu history lessons as he was a graduate in the subject and passionate about the connection between our pasts and the present day in the plays that he wrote. Tara Arts, which was founded in response to the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar, gave us second generation British Asians a sense of belonging and it was here that we learnt how our presence in this country was a direct result of colonialism. We devoured South Asian literature and learnt to see our multifarious identities as a huge resource to draw on and a positive prism through which to view the world. This armed us with knowledge and sense of self that helped to challenge the racism we experienced. 

Today, the younger generations still clamour for similar knowledge and role models and the need to know more about how South Asian communities came to be in UK has prompted many initiatives – such as the South Asian Heritage Month or The History Corridor on Instagram founded by Shalina Patel and run by teachers from Northwest London.

As a theatre maker, I have always told stories about our communities that reflect the complexity of our lived experiences and held up a mirror to our common humanity. Through presenting work that is challenging, entertaining and touches the heart, I am proud to have played a significant part in increasing the opportunities to nurture British Asian artistic talent who, like me have been enlightened and transformed by the experience of making work that connects so deeply with our lives.

Child of the Divide (COTD) was inspired by a short story, Pali by Bhisham Sahni and the curiosity of my mixed heritage children. Tamasha’s production of the play first had its world premiere in 2006 at Polka theatre, where it was also revived by me in 2017 to mark the 70th anniversary of the partition of India. This revival launched Bhuchar Boulevard (BB) and together with partners including Big Imaginations, The Partition History Project (PHP) and The National Archives (TNA), we offered the play within a curated programme of talks, exhibitions and resources that enabled audiences and stake holders to contextualise the story within the history and events of the period it is set in.  

The story centres around a young Hindu boy, Pali, whose fingers slip from his father’s hands in the rush to leave their home and cross the border to the new nation of India in 1947. Pali is lost amidst the fray and found by a childless Muslim couple who bring him up as their own son, Altaaf. Seven years later his real father comes back to claim him, and Pali must decide whether he is a Hindu or a Muslim and realises that he is a ‘child of the divide.’ Woven around this is the stories of four other children trying to navigate their changed world as inadvertent casualties of war.

There is an urgency and desire from Asian diasporic communities to examine how the nations of India and Pakistan were created and to capture the memories of eyewitnesses through oral testimonies. The realisation that any surviving elders now were children in 1947 makes productions like Child of the Divide potent as a tool for understanding and talking about our collective trauma.

As Sarah Ansari, Professor of History at Royal Holloway, University of London, said in her introduction to the anniversary edition of the published play text, “Seven decades on from the harrowing events of 1947, it is clearly the case that the vast majority of people still alive today who witnessed Partition first-hand did so as children. Most members of this generation of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are likely to have been no more than ten years old when South Asia won its freedom from British rule. Like Pali and his friends in Child of the Divide, many of them will have been caught up in the turmoil of the time, forced to migrate to a new home or separate from kith and kin for reasons that will have remained a mystery to them until they were much older.”

In 2016 (in preparation for the 2017 tour), Bhuchar Boulevard worked with The Partition History Project (created to campaign for the teaching of Partition in British schools) to offer Child of the Divide as a platform to foster more positive inter-faith relations through a shared compassionate narrative. Using the play as a starting point, lesson plans were created by Professor Ansari and educationalist, Elizabeth Jeanes and this pilot project was delivered to four schools in Luton and Hitchin areas to KS2 (aged 7-11) and KS3 (aged 11-14) students and the full report of the project, Nations Divided: How to Teach the History of Partition is available on the Runnymede Trust website.

One of the lessons learnt was that children were able to deal with contested and difficult histories so long as you didn’t talk down to them and the other key findings include that: 

  • To effectively teach the history of partition, schools should embed this topic within a wider scheme of work covering the British Empire and Britain’s relationship with India. Without an understanding of the events leading up to partition, young people struggled to engage deeply with its political ramifications. 
  • The use of drama to cover the history of partition was very effective and it enabled students to understand the events in a way that individual lesson plan would not. 

Post the murder of George Floyd and the outpouring of feeling this has resulted in, there is much discussion about the need for UK to own its colonial past fully and address the inequalities in society. As we head towards the 75th anniversary next year, COTD is more relevant than ever due to its immediate parallels between refugees of Partition and children arriving on our shores today. The narratives of children are often missing in history books and the play’s importance lies in ensuring this doesn’t continue to happen. 

That students feel a visceral pull in the histories of their own heritage and have an emotional investment in them is evident by the response to COTD and further illustrated in the testimonies collected for Bhuchar Boulevard’s Decolonisation: Not Just a Buzzword… a headphone verbatim play developed through a residency at SOAS University during 2018/9. The piece explored contested campus conversations around the demands to decolonise the physical space, the curriculum and institutional memory in a fight against intersectional oppression. As one participant says: 

“It’s like a form of neglect I would say, you go through school, and you never learn about why you ended up here……………. And like, when you give people history you’re actually giving them, like, political… value. The world has been constructed because you were in it, and people like you.” 

{ You can watch the play here…  (please go 19m 46 sec in & play followed by discussion @ 1h:20mins) }

Education resources created for the 2017 tour are available to use freely and Bhuchar Boulevard continues to advocate for the teaching of colonial history as a means of fostering mutual understanding and cohesion. The anniversary text is available and published by Methuen and BB is open to opportunities to remount the production.

(Scroll down for the pack) 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s