A person herding cattle in a desert in front of a large hill

Aaryan Sinha reckons with the legacies of Partition

The photographer’s new exhibition traces personal and collective stories connected to the 1947 Partition of India

Aaryan Sinha’s projects begin instinctively. Sinha – a recent graduate who is based between The Hague and his home city of New Delhi – tends to start photographing freely, and it’s only when he reviews the initial images that the kernels of a concept form, and more concrete explorations follow.

With This Isn’t Divide and Conquer, his ongoing project dealing with the 1947 Partition of India, he found himself coming back to borders, both figuratively and physically. Following a trip to India, he noticed he had photographed four out of the five states that border Pakistan, which he had been drawn to “because the maps of India I grew up with differed from those seen by Pakistanis and the United Nations”.

It was an idea he couldn’t dislodge from his mind, and he later returned for a specific trip to photograph in Kashmir, the only other state bordering Pakistan.

A person wearing a vest and trousers holding a piece of sandstone in a carved mine
Top: The Silk Road, 2023; Above: In a Sandstone Mine, 2023. All images from the series This Isn’t Divide and Conquer; © Aaryan Sinha

The project’s name is a reference to the tactic deployed time and time again in times of conflict and colonialism, and which was a fundamental strategy in the British Empire’s rule and separation of India. At times, Sinha’s work symbolises these fractures – a dilapidated bridge, a valley carved in the land – but without entirely succumbing to them, instead choosing to bring people together under the same historical bracket. Many of the photographs draw the eye to the centre of the image, subliminally signalling a sense of oneness.

The tensions are such that he was mindful of how he navigated interactions during the making of the work, and how he framed the project afterwards. “This project is very political to me, even if not overtly so. Whenever I approached someone for an interview, they were generally open to sharing their stories and opinions, though they might not always agree with my political views,” he tells us.

“You won’t see identifiable faces or characteristics in the broader selection of the work. As the concept evolved, I became reluctant to attach specific individuals to it, despite their openness. This is both to respect their privacy and to maintain the project’s broader focus on shared history and identity rather than individual narratives.”

Black and white photo of children climbing a leafless tree in a desert
A Dream from Childhood, 2023

Sinha explains that the work is “deeply personal” to him. “It ties back to an earlier project I did about my grandfather, an army man whose memories live through scattered family archives. A poignant story my father shared about attending a military college reunion with my grandfather highlighted how, before 1947, Indian and Pakistani officials shared many experiences. After Partition, they faced each other in five wars.”

His entry point may have come from a personal place, but his is a story that is echoed all along the border. As the text for his new exhibition at Belfast Photo Festival puts it, “Almost every family in North India has their own story that deals with the partition of India.” It was only as the project evolved that it began to encompass these broader histories and their effects today.

A dilapidated bridge over a river seen from above
Come Apart, 2023

“With the recent re-election of India’s right-wing government led by the BJP and Prime Minister Modi, there has been a resurgence of divisive, polarising tactics reminiscent of the British ‘divide and conquer’ strategy,” Sinha points out. “This tactic historically led to one of the largest forced migrations and countless deaths during Partition, and it continues to foster deep-rooted animosity between India and Pakistan.

“In contemporary India, these tactics are being employed again to polarise communities along religious lines, which threatens to overshadow our shared histories and similarities. My project aims to highlight these commonalities, providing a platform for reflection and dialogue in a time of political division. By focusing on the border as a symbol of separation and a repository of shared history, I hope to encourage a re-examination of how we understand and relate to each other across these divides.”

A blurred photo of a person wearing a white shirt riding a white horse with a white foal standing behind it
Violence, 2023
A silhouette of a person wearing trousers and a coat concealing their head looking over a red sand landscape
Anonymity, 2023

This Isn’t Divide and Conquer is on display at Botanic Gardens, Belfast until June 30; belfastphotofestial.com