23 March 2019
Neerja Deodhar

Medals and Bullets: Indian troops who fought in World War I are focus of a new exhibition of paintings, letters

In 1920, Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est, a scathing criticism of war – and war mongers – was published, two years after his death at the age of 25 on the battle field. In the year that World War I ended, Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Glory of Women published; it tore apart the misconception that “chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace”. Owen and Sassoon were two of the most prominent voices on poetry about World War I, which poured in from Britain, Ireland, France, Germany and Russia. Included in the chorus of these voices was jangnamah – poetry written by Sikh soldiers fighting for the British Empire, as well as folk songs written by the wives of these soldiers.

We don’t often hear about these songs, or of the people who wrote them, in the context of world history or even in our own textbooks. It is this sentiment that prompted artist Angeli Sowani to put together an exhibition titled Medals and Bullets, to remember and represent the bravery and struggles of Indian soldiers who fought in the “war of wars”. “I want people to feel pride and softness for these soldiers who went across to other lands which were not theirs, to fight a war that was not theirs,” she says.

The exhibition, which is showing at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, is an immersive experience which includes paintings, posters created by recruiters, and letters written by soldiers to people at home. There’s also a slideshow of old photographs and writing, projected on a screen that has cut-outs in the shape of Victorian Crosses; 11 of these prestigious awards were given to Indian soldiers, apart from 9,200 gallantry awards.

Sowani employs a lot of colour and the repeated use of symbols like bullets and the Victorian cross, superimposed on the faces of soldiers. “I’ve tried to fade their faces, because they really are memories… At the end of a war, what you remember is who won, who got a medal. Sometimes, medals can become more important than the man himself. Behind every bullet, every medal, there is a man,” she explains.

Images courtesy of Angeli Sowani

Sowani’s research into the subject began with the book Indian Voices of the Great War, Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-1918 by David Omissi. Curated over a number of years, this book contains over 10,000 letters written by Indian soldiers. “They are written in ways that inspire. A lot of the soldiers were not educated, but there is great depth in the literary manner that they describe what was going on… They have described themselves as ‘a few grains left in a pot’.”

Sowani was also inspired by the perspective of a professor who taught a course on World War I literature at the British Library. “He said he looks at these letters not just as history, but also literature. This is the only World War I literature we have that pertains to India. These soldiers didn’t write diaries, and no poems were written for them. This is the only bit of evidence we have about what they felt, what they went through, the people they met, the climate they saw, the pain that they went through,” she explains. Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters also guided her creative process. The posters have been sourced from the Imperial War Museums.

Recruitment posters

The British categorised certain communities as ‘martial’ races or ‘fighting’ races: the Sikhs, the Dogras, the Gurkhas (many of these communities were settled in the Northern belt of India). In a letter written in code, a soldier called Mausa Ram speaks of the ‘black pepper’ (Indian soldiers), calling it “very pungent” and stronger than “red pepper” (British soldiers). “The painting Black Pepper is based on that – the Gurkhas charging out of the trenches,” Sowani explains.

Mythology is a prominent theme across the letters and posters. “Do you think that this is war? This is not war. This is the ending of the world. This is just such a war as was related in the Mahabharata about our forefathers,” wrote one wounded Punjabi soldier in a letter dated January 1915.

In a poster written in Urdu made at the end of the war, Germany is referred to as ‘Ravan’. “It was intended to be circulated towards the Awadh area. They were looking for 35,000 more recruits. It referred to the Mahabharata, invoking a sense of duty, how it would be a shame if men did not go and fight… Posters made references to the Ramayanaand what Ravan did to women, and how Germany would do the same thing. They would bring up the caste angle too, saying that Brahmins and Kshatriyas should rise to their duty; how would they feel if a lower caste person gave them orders? It was made into a matter of honour,” Sowani says.

Another painting, titled The Great Bird of Vishnu, is inspired by a letter which refers to the planes and the bombs in the sky as the vahana (vehicle) of Vishnu. This was a war fought after the industrial revolution, Sowani says, and many of the Indian soldiers had not yet seen a motor car, let alone fighter planes. “They had to constantly learn and adapt. They had never fought from trenches.”

Letters written by soldiers

It is said that of all the colonies of different empires, British India contributed the most number of troops – approximately one million soldiers. A considerable amount of Indian money was pumped into the war. Soldiers were paid Rs 11 per month and around 70,000 of them were killed. What motivated them to fight this war in the first place? “Some soldiers went for izzat, some went because they had a strong sense of duty. They were employed by the Raj, they had eaten the Raj’s namak, so they felt they had to fight. I felt they did it not for money… I wouldn’t call them mercenaries,” Sowani explains.

Though she does not have a definite answer as to why the Indian troops who fought in World War I are being forgotten, Sowani says that the history of that period is complicated, that several events were taking place at the same time: the unrest against the British, and the atrocities inflicted on Indians. This may be one of the reasons why the soldiers’ stories weren’t highlighted.

The two sentiments that seem to be common across the letters which are featured in Medals and Bullets are bravery and disillusionment about the war. “If you were wounded, you’d probably be picked up by an ambulance, or you’d be carried to a clearing station, where nurses would try and repair you. If you were repaired, you’d go back to war. It is no wonder that these people were against war,” Sowani explains. Some of the letters even ask for charas to be sent, to help cope.
Sowani told me about one of the earliest recordings of an Indian soldier who fought in the War (which is not part of the exhibition), which has been kept at the Humboldt University. “In it, he speaks about how he misses the lassi and the food. He says that if he does not go home, he will likely die here [Germany].”