It was one of the great defining moments of history – and its reverberations are still being felt today.
At midnight on August 14, 1947 British India, as it was then known, was divided along religious lines, creating the two independent states of India and Pakistan. Between 10 and 12m people were displaced as a result, triggering a huge refugee crisis as well as large-scale violence.
This is the subject of a new play by playwright and broadcaster a Nick Ahad to mark the 70th anniversary of the division, exploring its legacy. Partition is the first collaboration between the West Yorkshire Playhouse and BBC Radio Leeds and will be presented both as a radio broadcast and a live stage performance.
Ahad was commissioned to write Partition after the success of a previous project with BBC Radio Leeds where he is a presenter. Children of the Somme was a project commemorating the 100th anniversary last year of the Battle of the Somme – the BBC worked with primary schoolchildren in Bradford enabling them to find out more about soliders from India and West Yorkshire who fought in the First World War.
Ahad wrote a half hour play as a companion piece. Coming Home Together, a time-travelling adventure for 10 to 11-year-olds, was broadcast on Boxing Day and performed at Bradford Playhouse. The live performance was so well received that the BBC applied for funding to tour it.
With the 70th anniversary of Partition approaching this year, managing editor of BBC Radio Leeds Sanjiv Buttoo commissioned Ahad to write a radio play on that theme, and with the idea of also performing it live they approached the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s artistic director James Brining.
“In initial conversations James and Sanjiv both got really excited about the prospect of collaborating on something,” says Ahad. “And it is a huge privilege for me to be the writer on the first project that has brought them together.” Four local actors will be taking on a variety of different roles to tell the story. “They are all brilliant people I have seen and worked with before,” says Ahad. “When we auditioned them they had to have the skills to do the voice work for radio and have a stage presence.”
Writing Partition required a lot of background research and while it is slightly different to Ahad’s previous work, there is a direct line from the historical events which inform it to the present day.
“Most of the plays I have written deal with the issue of identity and the experience of second generation immigrants in modern Britain,” he says. “Because I live that I don’t have to do any research – it is about writing what I know. For this I have read a lot of books, watched documentaries and listened to and read speeches by significant figures of the time such as Nehru, Mountbatten and Jinnah. I also spoke to people whose parents or grandparents were affected by Partition. Then I had to condense all that information into a play that is resonant and contemporary, using the historical context to make it relevant to today.”
The play is set in modern-day Leeds and tells the story of a young Muslim woman, Saima, and a young Sikh man, Ranjit, whose parents disapprove of their wish to marry. On what should be the happiest day of their lives, their union is overshadowed by the troubled history of the Indian subcontinent, which continues to tear families apart.
“You hear the voices of Nehru and Churchill and Mountbatten at different points in the play,” says Ahad. “So that the narrative of Partition is woven through the story of this couple attempting to come together in the face of its consequences. It is a bit of a ‘will they, won’t they?’ story and it is about how the past affects the present and the future.”
The challenge he says has been to find the human, the personal and relatable within such a significant and far-reaching global historical event.
“Partition led to at least a million people dying – it is just an enormous thing to wrap your head around, the staggering enormity of that loss of life, so you have to tell a single human story.”
Partition, West Yorkshire Playhouse, September 8 and 9. wyp.org.uk
It will be broadcast at midnight on August 14 on BBC Radio Leeds and several other regional radio stations.