Partition archive aims to collect thousands of stories in new year

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What began as one former UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher’s passion to preserve the history of her ancestors has quickly evolved into an ambitious project that aims to collect several thousand oral histories in the new year.

In 2011, Guneeta Singh Bhalla and several other volunteers founded the 1947 Partition Archive to gather the stories of individuals affected by the partition of British India in 1947. Since its inception, the 1947 Partition Archive has collected almost 1,000 stories, many of which were recorded by volunteers who traveled all over South Asia to speak with people who experienced the partition firsthand.

Still, there are thousands more stories to be shared that may be lost as partition witnesses grow older, leading the organization to set a target of gathering an additional 3,000 stories this year.

“There’s a great urgency to collect these stories, and it only gets greater,” Bhalla said. “The number of people who have stories are dwindling, as many of them are in their 80s or 90s.”

In order to reach this goal, the 1947 Partition Archive began a campaign in late December on the international crowdfunding site Indiegogo to expand the organization’s equipment and digital systems used for story collection.

The Indiegogo campaign, which has already raised close to $10,000, has a goal of $35,000 and will last until the end of January.

“Because we are huge believers in grassroots and crowdsourcing, we wanted to take that route,” Bhalla said. “This way, anybody from anywhere can contribute.”

The 1947 Partition Archive, which is completely run by volunteers, has staff members working from its main office in the UC Berkeley SkyDeck as well as around the world in locations such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, according to Bhalla.

In addition to assisting the partition archive’s technological needs, the Indiegogo campaign will help fund the organization’s Story Scholars Program, a 10-month fellowship in which selected scholars collect oral histories in a specific geographical region using equipment and training provided by the program.

“There’s such a strong connection you build when you collect stories,” Bhalla said. “A large portion of our volunteers are not South Asian, but they still go through so much personal growth from not only a new culture but also by making a connection with an elder in a way that isn’t always easily accessible.”

Bhalla hopes to continue to create connections such as these through educational outreach, including a DeCal that will be taught by two partition archive volunteers this spring.

The DeCal will bring in several guest speakers who were affected by the partition to share their stories, said Ali Umar, a senior at UC Berkeley and one of the leaders of the DeCal.

“Some people don’t like to learn history because it’s a lot of reading and memorization,” Umar said. “We want people to learn about (the partition) in an interesting way and hope the course will be similar to listening to stories from grandparents rather than only reading a textbook.”

Umar, who was an intern for the 1947 Partition Archive last spring, will lead the DeCal with Kanwalroop Singh, a UC Berkeley senior who began working with Bhalla on the project even before the organization was officially founded.

The 1947 Partition Archive hopes to collect 10,000 stories in the next three years and ultimately use these stories to educate the public through museum exhibits, K-12 education and more.

“I think partition is not just a story about South Asia but a global one that is similar to so many other stories of civil conflict and ethnic strife,” Bhalla said. “By studying this, hopefully we can apply some of the lessons we learn from this to other events.”

Contact Chloee Weiner at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @_chloeew .