Sonam Kalra's stories of partition delve into the shared history of love, loss and grief of India, Pakistan


Partition: Stories of Separation by Sonam Kalra is an experiential performance using music, video, design, art and photography to tell stories of partition from a neutral perspective.

“Laali akhiyaan di dasdi hai

Roye assi vi, roye tussi vi”

(The redness in our eyes shows that you have cried and so have we.)

The words of Punjabi poet Daman echo the emotions of millions of Indians and Pakistanis who lived through the terrible ordeal of partition. They also find resonance in singer-songwriter and composer Sonam Kalra’s project – Partition: Stories of Separation, along with the voices of Manto, Ali Sardar Jafri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Amrita Pritam. Woven into the narrative are also personal accounts of ordinary people whose lives were torn asunder because of partition.

Credit: Rajesh Rajan

Stringing together different experiences

The Partition project was a result of myriad experiences.

“Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve heard stories about partition. Both sides of my family came from the part of Punjab that is now in Pakistan. My mother’s family was from Rawalpindi and my father’s from Sargoda. Even though I did not have to live through the pain of partition myself, I have always been moved to tears when talking about it with someone. I’ve often wondered why I should feel so deeply about it - perhaps it lies embedded in the memory of my DNA. And perhaps, it is this pain that has led me to question this further,” Sonam says.

On a visit to Mohali to watch a cricket match between India and Pakistan, she was moved by the camaraderie that existed between Indians and Pakistanis. “Dhoni was at the crease and in full form when a man asked me for an Indian flag. He was Pakistani and cheering for the Indian team. These are the perceptions you break on a day-to-day level,” she says.

On different visits to Pakistan, the singer-songwriter has been bowled over by the hospitality of the host nation. “I’ve been lucky that every time I’ve been to Pakistan, I’ve been met with so much love. I once went into a small shop to buy Pakistani jhoothis, bought 16 pairs and when I was leaving, the shopkeeper threw in an extra pair for free, because I was Indian. At another time, I went to stay with a friend, and her house help came and touched me – there was this need to see someone from the other side.”

Revisiting stories through music

Told from a neutral perspective, Partition - Stories of Separation by Sonam Kalra is an experiential performance using music, video, design, art and photography. All these elements have been used as the storytellers in this project.

Sonam adds, “Many of the stories we have heard from our grandparents will be lost with the passing of the older generation, and they need to be preserved and honoured to serve as lessons for generations to come. I hope that by revisiting these stories through music, we are able to empathise, ponder and realise the way forward. Hopefully, a way of peace and co-existence based on a shared grief, a shared loss, a shared history and a shared love.”

The project also features messages of peace posted by people on WhatsApp – that travel over time and different emotions – and talks to everyone on a human level.

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The healing power of music

According to Sonam, music is always healing, for the singer as well as the listener. “Singing to me is prayer, it is worship, it is a gift from god and I have the greatest value for it.”

Trained in Hindustani classical music, her skills span both Indian and Western music. She is well-known for The Sufi Gospel Project, where traditional Western Gospel music melds with Indian classical sounds, and Indian spiritual texts are enriched by elements of Western poetry to create a sound that touches the soul. In essence, it’s poetry, prayer and music that transcend the barriers of religion and language.”­­

The idea for the Sufi Gospel Project was born seven years ago when Sonam was asked to sing Gospel at a Sufi shrine for the Urz – the birth celebration of the Sufi saint Inayat Khan in Nizamuddin.

“The thought of a Sikh girl singing Christian music in a seemingly Islamic space – I felt I wanted to do something worthy, befitting of this opportunity that had been granted to me.”

“If I can change the world one note at a time, touch even one person in that moment, and influence one thought to be positive, it would be wonderful,” she says.

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