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Thursday, June 01, 2023

Alumna collecting survivor stories for archive of India's independence from British rule

Guneeta Singh Bhalla is a physicist by day and a historian by night.

The 34-year-old UF alumna is the founder of the 1947 Partition Archive, a project compiling video and audio stories of survivors of India’s independence from British rule in 1947. The partition of India and Pakistan resulted in carnage that affected millions.

A native of India, Singh Bhalla began collecting stories while finishing her physics Ph.D. at UF in 2009. But once her last relative died with untold stories of the Partition that summer, Singh Bhalla realized the last few survivors were dying out.

“Before, there was no effort to document history, no information for us to learn from what people suffered,” she said. “It’s the last opportunity to do this.”

Fluent in Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu, she travels from her home in Berkeley, Calif., to Pakistan, India and Bangladesh collecting stories from aging survivors with her handheld camcorder.

Now, Singh Bhalla set aside her physics career to lead 150 volunteers for the project. She said her data-collecting skills from physics help with her storytelling.

So far, Singh Bhalla has received 650 stories from eight countries, including Mexico and Israel. She said she hopes the project’s momentum will collect 10,000 stories by the 70th anniversary of the Partition in 2017 for display in museums around the country.

Anyone can become a citizen historian for the project by registering for a class on the project’s website, A citizen historian collects the stories of Partition survivors with video or audio recordings and contributes to the project from anywhere in the world.

Metha Daoheung befriended Singh Bhalla while he was a UF student. While volunteering in Nepal, the 34-year-old UF mathematics alumnus took a trip to India and met up with Singh Bhalla. She and Daoheung would roam the streets for elders who might have stories of the Partition.

Daoheung accompanied her around the country and took photos.

Although Daoheung isn’t South Asian nor does he speak the native Indian languages, he said his trip to India was emotional. He would cry along with those who told their stories — stories that haven’t been told for decades.

“How she affects everyone is amazing,” Daoheung said. “She’s giving it everything she has.”

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A version of this story ran on page 4 on 8/22/2013 under the headline "Alumna collects 650 stories from eight countries for 1947 archive"

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