20 March 2019
Snigdha Hassan

The price of valour

Angeli Sowani takes us through her new exhibition stitched together with letters, photographs and songs of the Indian soldiers of World War I, and her own paintings inspired by them, which tell you why war is never the answer.

Sepoy series: Darwan Sing Negi. Pics/Bipin Kokate

For God’s sake don’t come, don’t come, don’t come to this war in Europe… Cannons, machine guns, rifles and bombs going off day and night, just like the rains in the month of Sawan. Those who have escaped so far are like the few grains left uncooked in a pot,” wrote Havildar Abdul Rahman (59th Rifles) to Naik Rajwali Khan (Baluchistan) on May 20, 1915, from France. The letter, originally in Urdu, was translated and censored for record-keeping and withheld from being posted. The war story, after all, had to tell, in the words of Wilfred Owen, “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est, Pro patria mori” or, how sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country, in Latin.

Angeli Sowani

Fittingly enough, the letter finds itself right below another one — from the Buckingham Palace, signed by King George V, which conveys to the soldiers that the “Mother Country is proud of your splendid services characterised by unsurpassed devotion and courage.” The exhibition Medals & Bullets, by British-Indian artist Angeli Sowani, is one interspersed with these stark contrasts. “Every medal comes at the cost of countless bullets,” Sowani tells us, as she oversees letters, pictures, enlistment posters and songs of the Indian soldiers of World War I go up on the ivory walls of Jehangir Art Gallery, on the inaugural day.

The exhibition includes posters designed to enlist soldiers, translated letters, folk songs and paintings

The solo show is the culmination of the year-long research the London-based artist undertook on the forgotten Indian heroes of the war. The year 2018 marked the centenary of the Armistice Day, and several events commemorated the occasion across the UK. It was at one such documentary screening where Sowani heard a sound bite on the contribution of soldiers from colonial India — of the 10 lakh combatants and non-combatants drawn from the country, 70,000 were killed while 9,200 won gallantry awards.

Keen on finding out more, she began her journey at the war cemeteries in Flanders, Belgium, last year. “On one of the graves there are the words ‘Om bhagwate namah’. It was heartrending to see that here lay a soldier — paid an average of ’11 a month, most sepoys had never ventured beyond their villages — so far away from his motherland,” she shares.