Over the years, Rupy C. Tut gradually pieced together details of her grandparents’ past lives. The older the Oakland painter got, the more she asked them — of their home in what was then British India, and of what would come to drag them from it.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of what is broadly remembered as the year of Indian independence from British rule. But those circumstances also marked the historically bloody August 1947 partition of British India — the establishment, spurred by political and religious schisms, of the independent nations of Pakistan and India.
The separation displaced millions, Tut’s family among them, and sparked widespread violence. Hindus and Sikhs fled into India, and Muslims into Pakistan — the respective national safe havens for their religious identities. In the process, riots and mobs broke out, mass rape and abduction occurred, and civilian violence took on an anarchic back-and-forth of religious cleansing.
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“My grandfather said that his survival depended on the fact that he had a gun and horses,” says Tut. “If he didn’t have those two things, they wouldn’t have made it across.”
Death estimates range from the hundreds of thousands to 2 million. Between 10 million and 15 million people crossed the new borders in what was considered the largest mass migration of the 20th century.
This dark history comes together in “Broken Seeds (Still Grow),” a mixed-media performance from the San Francisco bharatanatyam dance company Nava Dance Theater premiering Thursday, Nov. 16, at the Flight Deck in Oakland.
Tut, who specializes in Indian miniature painting, joined forces with Nava Dance’s artistic director, Nadhi Thekkek, to form a meditation, through bharatanatyam and video-projected paintings, on partition and its relationship to the immigrant experience in the United States.
Yet partition’s history, in spite of the magnitude of its tragedy, has remained elusive.
“There is this silence that is kind of draped over partition,” says Tut. Memories of partition appear neither memorialized nor educationally institutionalized abroad, let alone here.
For Tut, a secondhand understanding of a largely unspoken historical trauma came together in fragments. Details were given out of order and in abstract summations (Tut’s grandfather often repeated a couplet of poetry that appears as spoken word in the performance). Shards of harrowing memories were expressed without dramatic revelation — bearing nonchalance that perhaps belies numbness.
“When I started talking more to the women, they told me more about the violence. The men didn’t,” says Tut, who prodded for answers whenever she returned to India after immigrating to the U.S. when she was 11.
Thekkek understood partition in even more obscure terms. Her family lived in South India, relatively removed from its effects simply by geographical distance.
Then Thekkek was referred to the 1947 Partition Archive in Berkeley, a nonprofit that has for the past few years been building a vast archive unlike any other, recording oral stories of partition survivors, all of whom are in the late stages of their lives.
Hearing stories of displacement from homes that had been around for generations, Thekkek saw a connection. “When I heard them talking about how their identity was totally shattered when they left home,” she says, “I realized that we are building that here, in this new country, in this new place.” The firm ground of a homeland is taking root again now, as the Bay Area-born Thekkek raises her daughters in Alamo, with her parents a mile away.
With that understanding came more troubling parallels: being branded as an outsider, the danger of losing one’s home as a result and more crucially, the underestimation of this danger. Before partition, communities were religiously diverse, and in the witness accounts Thekkek heard, nobody believed in the possibility of the violence to come.
“The way they were describing how partition really crept up on them really made me fear for our country here,” Thekkek says.
“Broken Seeds” was born out of learning this history and seeing its increasing pertinence. The first half takes on partition stories, while the second half observes events in America such as the post-9/11 revenge killings and the 2012 shooting in Wisconsin at a Sikh temple. Thekkek and her company’s performance is backdropped by video projections of Tut’s miniature paintings, each created specifically to accompany the dances, along with live original music and occasional spoken word.
The performance doesn’t take sides or provide an answer. Research told of “victims who were perpetrators, and perpetrators who were victims,” Thekkek says.
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“I don’t know if we lost a family member to being killed, and I don’t know if any of my family members killed anybody either,” Tut says.
Another insight they heard often from witness accounts, according to Tut: “All of them would always end it with, ‘Well, these are just stories now.’ ”
Part of Tut is frustrated with this sentiment. They could be more than stories — they are more than stories. But then she realizes, “Life just became for them moving on to the next day and the next day. They didn’t get time to contemplate the loss.” Suppression, for many, meant survival.
“Broken Seeds” elevates these stories and gives voice to an oft-muted history.
Tut’s grandparents have since died. She can no longer ask them questions that remain unanswered. How would they respond if they were alive to see the show? It’s a question Tut struggles with.
“At the end of the day,” she says, “I still think I’m definitely honoring my grandfather by doing this.”
But their first reaction, Tut says, would be silence.
Brandon Yu is a Bay Area freelance writer.
“Broken Seeds (Still Grow)”: Thursday, Nov. 16-Sunday, Nov. 19. $22-$30. The Flight Deck, 1540 Broadway, Oakland. http://www.brokenseeds.com/