Voices from the Partition: Weaving Survivor Memories into a Powerful Performance

“Hide them in the barn! Be quick!” the father urged his young son as a fierce mob drew near. “And listen: lock the door properly!”

The boy scurried off toward the barn, leaving his father to face the approaching group alone. When the mob had gathered before the man, they demanded to know the source of the noises they’d heard coming from his farm, but his only reply was a peaceful greeting and a reminder that it was almost time for evening prayers. As they pressed him for answers, he demanded, “Why this interrogation? I have already told you. I haven’t seen anything.”

To assuage their concerns, he offered them a look around. The women’s quarters were, of course, off limits, but the barn was on the opposite side of the yard. “If you fine gentlemen know how to turn a goat into a Hindu, then by all means come, come.”

Dissatisfied with the farmer’s evasiveness, the group demanded he respond to their accusations, which stirred the farmer’s anger. “Where the hell do you think I would keep 40 Hindus?” he retorted. “Answer me! In my pocket?” The farmer swore on Allah that he did not have one Hindu hidden in his house, and his courtesy began wearing thin: “You guys left your brains behind at the mosque after the morning prayer, didn’t you? It’s pointless arguing with people like you. My words are probably bouncing around in the vacuum in your skulls.” His patience completely gone, the farmer told the mob to get off his land. “Now, get lost! It’s time for my prayer!”

The farmer’s account is just one of 25 powerful stories told in Dagh Dagh Ujala, which translates as This Stained Dawn. The performance piece has preserved the memories of the participants in a pivotal event in the 20th century: the Partition of 1947, when Pakistan was carved out of India. That event caused millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs to migrate across the newly established borders in both directions, and their journeys were marked by hardship, sectarian hatred, violence, and—at times—compassion.

Voices of Partition

In 2015, Sarah (Hebert-Johnson) Morrisette ’13 accompanied Kathleen Mulligan, associate professor in IC’s Department of Theatre Arts, to Islamabad to work with a local acting troupe known as Theatre Wallay to turn stories gathered from Partition survivors into dramatic monologues. Those individual tales were then woven into the show, which tells the larger story of the Partition of India.

The piece premiered in Islamabad last spring, and this past fall members of Theatre Wallay came to the United States for several performances in the Northeast, including three in Ithaca. Morrisette said the overall experience working with Mulligan and the Pakistani actors on the often heart-wrenching piece reaffirmed her belief in the power of theatre as a tool of healing.

Theatre of the Oppressed

Morrisette discovered social-change theatre as a sophomore at IC when she was introduced to the works of activist playwright Anna Deveare Smith, specifically Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which explores the race riots in Los Angeles following the trial of police officers charged with beating Rodney King. This method of using theatre to open an audience to new ideas was a revelation for her.

“I also realized how much theatre, throughout my life and especially during my training at Ithaca, really empowered me; as a young woman it gave me confidence and helped me navigate the world and figure out who I wanted to be,” she said. “I felt very strongly that people from all walks of life, whether you’re labeled as an ‘actor’ or not, should be able to use acting techniques to do the same thing.”

Later she learned about Theatre of the Oppressed, a methodology that originated in Brazil in the early 1970s that explores real-life scenarios and potential solutions. As a senior, she facilitated a show using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, and the experience left her thirsty for more.

Upon graduation, Morrisette volunteered for an organization devoted to sustainable agriculture in Mozambique. From there she decided to go to Brazil for an internship with Theatre of the Oppressed. Through generous donations from family and friends, she raised enough money to live in Brazil for four months during the internship, and she became an official Theatre of the Oppressed facilitator. This training provided a valuable toolkit when Morrisette began to work with Mulligan and the actors of Theatre Wallay in Islamabad.

Ancestral Voices

Mulligan is no stranger to Pakistan or India. She’s done charitable and Fulbright work in both countries over the years. She happened to be learning more about the Partition of India when a cultural attaché from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad suggested they collaborate on a project together.

“My inspiration was that Partition survivors are in their 80s or 90s now, if they’re still alive. So if we’re going to collect the stories, we’d better do it now,” Mulligan said. She pitched her idea, and the attaché suggested she apply for a grant through the embassy to fund it. He also connected her with the Theatre Wallay troupe.

The concept for Dagh Dagh Ujala was inspired in part by the Ancestral Voices project Mulligan conducts every year in her dialects class at IC. She asks students to delve into their family history to find an ancestor with a unique or interesting story, create a monologue that encapsulates that narrative, and perform it in the voice and accent of that person. She thought the project would be a perfect model for her endeavor in Islamabad.

“Everyone in Pakistan has a Partition story in the family,” she said. But it’s a topic of extreme sensitivity that nearly all are reticent to bring up.

Even before funding was secure, Mulligan had an inkling she wanted to bring Morrisette along; she felt her former student’s work with Theatre of the Oppressed would be an asset. Once finances were set in the summer of 2014, Mulligan extended the invitation to Morrisette.

In January 2015 the two departed for 10 days in Pakistan; their workshops with Theatre Wallay members were scheduled for a week during that time. The actors had already conducted extensive interviews with numerous Partition survivors, so that basic work was complete. Morrisette and Mulligan then needed to help them craft those raw stories into dramatic dialogues. It was new ground for the Pakistani actors, who are amateur devotees of the craft.

“When I say amateur, that can make it sound like they’re not really skillful. They are, but nobody makes a living as a theatre actor in Pakistan,” Mulligan said. All the Theatre Wallay actors are professionals in other fields: several are teachers, one works for the Red Cross, one is a school principal, another is a law professor.

To give a sense of the vision for the project, Morrisette performed the monologue she’d created during her college days for Mulligan’s Ancestral Voices project, in which she takes on the persona of her great-great-great-great grandmother Sophie. The scene is set in an immigration office, where Sophie, leaving Quebec City to live in Kansas, just had her immigration card stamped “illiterate.” She rails at the officer, telling him she is a schoolteacher by profession, has a family to support, and that not speaking English does not make her illiterate. It was a demonstration of how Theatre Wallay’s monologues needed to be passionate and theatrical.

“I thought that would help them understand how to raise the stakes and find the most powerful and most intense way to portray these stories so that they’re interesting to people and grab their attention,” Morrisette said. 

Over the next week she and Mulligan facilitated workshops with the actors as they honed monologues from their interviews with Partition survivors. It was a challenge, as the pieces were being performed and fine-tuned in Urdu. Neither Mulligan nor Morrisette speak Urdu, so they had to rely on translations from the actors. Fortunately they were still able to give advice like, “It’s too long. I don’t know what she’s saying, but it’s too long,” Mulligan recalled with a smile.

Mulligan also found herself in awe of her former student as Morrisette led various Theatre of the Oppressed exercises. “I’d never really seen her teach before. I went, ‘My God, this was the smartest move I ever made.’”

Voices of Partition company1

Across the Divide

Mulligan returned to Pakistan a few months later with her husband, David Studwell, to finalize the show, which opened a few weeks later. It entails 15 monologues over the span of 70 minutes. The actors take on the roles of Partition survivors at the time of each monologue, and play children, adults, and even themselves as interviewers in present day.

One narrative is of a man still haunted by the death of his father, who was clinging to an overcrowded train when he fell. “All the family could do was put a cloth on him and keep going. And that had really tortured him all his life, that he didn’t bury his father,” Mulligan said.

The story of the Muslim farmer who harbored 40 Hindus from a murderous mob by deceiving and chastising his neighbors for their accusations—thus saving so many lives—was told to the Theatre Wallay interviewer by the farmer’s now elderly son. Conversely, a Hindu Partition survivor who attended one of the shows at IC told Mulligan about how his father had sheltered their Muslim neighbors from a mob of angry Hindus.

Still, some of the stories of violence, committed by all groups in the migration, had to be left out. “Some of the stuff was so bad that we couldn’t put it into our play; the cruelty was just too disturbing,” Mulligan said.

She also recalled watching the audience intently for their reaction, particularly when it came to scenes that spoke about Muslim violence against others. “If you look at a textbook in Pakistan, it will say that Hindus and Sikhs attacked Muslims, but there’s nothing about violence going the other way,” Mulligan said. “What the interviews told us is that it was both ways. So that can be touchy, and we had a little pushback when we first opened in Islamabad. But it’s hard to argue against firsthand accounts.” 

For her part, Morrisette didn’t see the full show until the Theatre Wallay members arrived in Boston in the fall, though she had seen some video clips of the performances in Islamabad. She accompanied the troupe during their entire visit to the United States, which included several performances in the Beantown area, at Ithaca College, and the State Department and George Mason University in Washington, D.C. She was also able to welcome the actors into her Boston-area home and return the hospitality the Pakistanis had shown her while she was in their country.

It’s those intimate moments among all those who were involved in Dagh Dagh Ujala that resonate most with Mulligan and Morrisette. Both believe it’s the best way to counter the sectarian hatred and aggression that shapes history.

“Pakistan is framed as this dangerous place where everyone is a terrorist. The media make it seem as if these people are so different from us,” Morrisette said. Her time in that country showed her otherwise, and the experience was invaluable. “It better informs your decisions about how you relate to the world and how you carry yourself if you’re aware of people’s lives and are able to sympathize and empathize with them. That’s part of why I want to do this kind of stuff for my life’s work.”

Empathy and friendship bridge the physical miles that separate Morrisette from her Theatre Wallay friends. “I took away these wonderful connections with these people that I know will be lifelong,” she said. “We are continuing to dream and talk about work that we want to do together in the future.”