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Trains, partition and contemporary art

Published: 13 April 2018

2017 marked the 70th anniversary of the Partition of India, one of the largest and most violent human migrations in history.

As part of New North and South, a commemoration celebrating South Asian and Northern British Asian contemporary art, the museum welcomed internationally renowned performance artist Nikhil Chopra. He chose a very specific object to become part of his work—Pakistan Railways locomotive SP/S 3157.

The locomotive has its own extraordinary story, and its connections with Partition and Chopra’s unique performance have brought a new resonance to this amazing engine.

Pakistan Railways SP/S 3157

Pakistan Railways SP/S 3157 at MSI Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Image source for Pakistan Railways SP/S 3157 at MSI

Pakistan Railways SP/S 3157 is a 4-4-0 model locomotive with a 5'6'' (1.68 metre) gauge. Originally running on coal, it was later converted to be oil-fired. Built in 1911 at the Vulcan foundry in Newton-le-Willows, it was exported across the then British Empire to the North Western Railway of India, where it pulled express mail trains until 1947, the year of Partition. After Partition, it became part of Pakistan Railways where it ran until 1982.

Little is known about SP/S 3157’s 7,000-mile journey to India and its life there. After a boiler change in 1931, engineers began stamping the distance it had travelled between services on a plate so we do know that by 1980 it had travelled a total of 2,450,476 kilometres (approximately 1,522,655 miles). We also know that the locomotive's work was centred in one of the most turbulent areas during Partition, northwest India.

For more on this locomotive’s commission, production, journey and eventual return to the Science and Industry Museum, read our two-part blog post by Archivist Jan Shearsmith.

Trains and Partition

We haven't been able to find any record of SP/S 3157’s work during the Partition migration, but trains played a significant role in the movement of over 12 million people across the country. Whole families and populations, forced from their homes, were crowded on to trains sending them to the newly formed, predominantly Muslim Pakistan or to primarily Hindu India.

Mass strikes also choked the network, making journeys even harder. Trains were also witness to some of the many atrocities by all sides that led to the death of more than a million people.

These photographs from The Daily Herald Collection held at the National Science and Media Museum illustrate just some of the politics, protests and violence during 1947. They also show how trains were part of that unstable period in South Asian history.

Blackening 3157

For the 70th anniversary of Partition, a regional program of South Asian and British Asian contemporary art was planned across museums and art galleries in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.

Nikhil Chopra, a renowned performance artist chose to work with us and Pakistan Railways SP/S 3157. He spent over a year researching and preparing for his piece. Members of his own family had experienced migration during Partition so this was a particularly personal project for him.

Chopra's works are based around progression and change. They often involve costume changes, physical changes, and changes in tone, as well as the most obvious change—a blank canvas becoming a drawing. They happen over long periods of time, usually a period of days, and this can add to the notion of a journey, even if the piece is very site-specific. 

For more on Nikhil Chopra’s art practice, read this blog post from our Communications Officer, Kate Campbell-Payne, and watch the below video.

During Blackening 3157, which took place over 48 straight hours, the character started as a smartly uniformed train conductor and metamorphosed into a Muslim refugee, all to a specially commissioned soundtrack of industrial noise, political speeches, and ambient sound recordings.

As the hours progressed, Chopra drew detailed portraits pulled from photographs taken of real Partition migrants and even his own father on the canvas. His last act was to shroud the locomotive, bringing these representations of Partition, with all the stories, history, and emotions that they evoked, together with an object present during that time. 

Through Blackening 3157, this object has become more than a locomotive. It has become an artistic inspiration, a link to another country’s emotive past, and a tangible reflection of a very human experience. For those that saw Blackening 3157, Pakistan Railways SP/S 3157 will never be looked at the same way again.