“A peace project of this scale has never been attempted through Virtual Reality and such immersive content is at the forefront of innovation in storytelling”

– Project Dastaan co-founder Saadia Gardezi

The events of Partition have been relayed to most young Pakistanis and Indians through impersonal textbook accounts or, if lucky, through sparsely detailed anecdotes. The witness narratives of 1947 inherited by the current generation are marred by rectitude and a disturbing lack of state effort at archiving this momentous migration.

“Project Dastaan promises to redefine the way we envisage Partition”

Project Dastaan – a peace building initiative backed by Oxford University and led by co-founders Sparsh Ahuja, Saadia Gardezi, and Sam Dalrymple – promises to redefine the way we envisage Partition. Their use of cutting-edge Virtual Reality technology reconnects migrants to their childhood homes in a series of touchingly vivid videos/short films which offer a truly immersive portrayal. Project Dastaan’s advisors include Malala Yousafzai, William Dalrymple, Dr Ayesha Jalal, Dr Yasmin Khan and many others who work at the forefront of culture, academia and media.

Project Dastaan co-founder and Pakistan project lead, Saadia Gardezi, spoke to Afshan Shafi about their vision, VR technology and more.

What were your fundamental aims in launching this project?

We are reconnecting 75 refugees displaced during the 1947 Partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with their ancestral villages and communities. Our primary aim is to find the exact locations and memories that these survivors seek to revisit and recreate them through bespoke 360 VR experiences.

A peace project of this scale has never been attempted through VR and such immersive content is at the forefront of innovation in storytelling. We hope to spark debate about shared identities and the potential for empathy and peace between warring nations at a grassroot level. 

The story of Partition is often described as a story of trauma on both sides of the border. In what ways do you think Project Dastaan addresses and perhaps requalifies this conclusion?

What people went through in 1947 was traumatic –not just the fact of going through an arduous journey, losing one’s possessions, and the loss of life, but the sheer fact that millions had to leave their home. Even if terror and bloodshed was not part of a migrant’s story, they still experienced trauma.

For Wasim Siddiqui, a refugee from Aligarh, trauma was leaving his one brother in India, while choosing to go to another brother who was in Rawalpindi in 1947. For Ishar Das Arora, the loss of childhood friends was traumatic. For Iqbaluddin Ahmed, trauma was caused by physical attacks on his family. For Saida Siddiuqe, there was a deep sense of the loss of beauty as she would never see her beautiful Lucknow again.

Beyond this recognition, our project puts an emphasis on childhood happiness. We focus on recreating memories of joy, from idyllic walks through Lawrence Gardens to majestic views from Nalagarh fort. While we cannot help but address the melancholy of nostalgia, we focus on what was good in the life of these migrants.

“Project Dastaan puts an emphasis on childhood happiness. We focus on recreating memories of joy, from idyllic walks through Lawrence Gardens to majestic views from Nalagarh fort”

Which story moved you most on a personal level and why?

My favourite story is of Dr Saida Siddiqui who migrated from Lucknow to Karachi in 1957. Saida has never been able to go back to Lucknow, but considers it her home, and talks of the peepal tree with shining leaves outside her house, and the pandit who used to give children sweets.

Her story was especially poignant as she met her future husband, Sarfraz Siddiqui, in college in Lucknow. Her family moved to Karachi, not because of a threat of violence, but because the medium of instruction changed and her siblings couldn’t compete in schools that shifted from Urdu to Hindi.

“This is a very different story of migration and supports the fact that migration after 1947 was a long event that impacted people for decades”

This is a very different story of migration and supports the fact that migration after 1947 was a long event that impacted people for decades. The story is a beautiful one, as Sarfraz soon followed Saida to Karachi and proposed to her. Due to Project Dastaan, her story took another wonderful turn as we found her house and the peepal tree in November. The pandit was not there, but his son was, and he remembered Saida as a child and was excited to speak to her on the phone again after 62 years. 

What were the most surprising facts about the stories of the Partition survivors you spoke to?

For me the most surprising facet has been the refusal of any of the partition witnesses to blame the other side for the difficulties they faced after 1947. The people we have spoken to still believe in harmony, and have never laid wholesale blame on any community whether Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Indian or Pakistani. The stories we have recorded are deeply personal and nuanced, and present a complex picture of the politics of partition, and India-Pakistan relations. The peace between people before 1947 still exists today, and it has been wonderful to find these snippets of empathy and love.

“The people we have spoken to still believe in harmony, and have never laid wholesale blame on any community whether Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Indian, Pakistani”

Please tell us more about Child of Empire and the impact of the virtual reality experience?

Child of Empire is an interactive VR docufiction experience which puts you in the shoes of a migrant during the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. It navigates identity and sectarianism during times of immense social upheaval. Child of Empire weaves together vignettes from three of our Partition witnesses’ stories.

“The viewer can actually feel the story, rather than just see it in front of them, creating a more physical experience of the event”

You follow an animated child who accompanies each of our characters at key moments in their migration. You cherish Saida’s childhood, struggle through Trilochan’s imprisonment in the colonial jail cell he shared with Gandhi and cower in fear in a barn as communal violence engulfs Ishar’s village. You then are given the opportunity of taking these witnesses back home through VR. VR becomes both the medium and the narrative as you witness these elderly individuals seeing home for the first time in decades. The viewer can actually feel the story, rather than just see it in front of them, creating a more physical experience of the event. Appealing to a wider audience base, it will be distributed at film festivals and museums worldwide. 

What’s next for Project Dastaan?

We have already helped eight partition witnesses see their childhood homes and hope to do this for as many people as we can. Due to the age of this generation, we are in a race against time to record their stories and reconnect them with the other side. We are launching a crowdfunding campaign in a week in the effort to generate funds to provide survivors with this experience. We hope people all over Pakistan can support us, with donations and social media engagement so that we can continue to provide this as a free service to our grandparents’ generation that sacrificed so much in an effort to create a better future for us.

“Due to the age of this generation, we are in a race against time to record their stories and reconnect them with the other side”

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