18 March 2019
A Tribute to Forgotten Heroes
Artist Angeli Sowani’s exhibition Medals & Bullets features paintings of Indian soldiers from World War I
A statistic buried in the stories of the British Raj or perhaps a stray line tucked in our history textbooks gets conferred with a voice, heart, tender colours, and soul in Angeli Sowani’s exhibition Medals & Bullets.
“Do you think 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 Mahabharat about our forefathers.” Thus begins a letter written by a wounded Punjabi soldier to his relative in India in January 1915. Drawing inspiration from several such letters, photographs, and songs of forgotten Indian soldiers who fought for the British empire in World War I (WWI), Sowani’s paintings revive their personalities and valour in her new exhibition that opens tomorrow (Tuesday) at Jehangir Art Gallery.
Most of the more than 1,000,000, combatants and non-combatants picked from erstwhile ‘British India’, who fought and served overseas in WWI, had never ventured far beyond their own villages. They were naive and largely illiterate, Sowani points out, and were paid an average of Rs 11 per month for their services.
“These sepoys crossed the Kala Pani to far-away shores drawn both by economic need and with ideals of fighting for ‘izzat’ and ‘namak’ in their minds. The brutality of war in the trenches soon evaporated these illusions,” Sowani says. Around 70,000 of them were killed. They won 9,200 gallantry awards and 11 Victoria Crosses.
Born to an English mother and an Indian father, the London-based Sowani has created 15 solo shows over the past 25 years and her love for India continues to be a recurring theme in her paintings, as with this show. This exhibition features 15 acrylic-on-canvas paintings along with two dozen hand-written letters of the jawans and paintings made by prisoners of war. While Sowani’s Sepoy series has portraits of soldiers such as Chatta Singh, Karanbahadur Rana, and Darwan Sing Negi, Laddie is an ode to Indra Lal Roy, the sole Indian WWI flying ace, who in 10 days claimed 13 aerial victories before being shot down on the Western Front over France. Mirror caught up with the artist just before the opening of her show. Excerpts from the interview.
What was the starting point of this exhibition?
I was taken in by David Omissi’s Indian Voices of the Great War, which is a catalogue of letters penned by Indian soldiers who served in France during WWI. Reading it was a very visual experience for me. I was more interested in the soldiers leaving India and going for a war that was totally Western, and in knowing what their letters said and revealed about them and their perspectives. I was looking at them as people. I was interested in learning what they felt because they had crossed over to another culture and were being ripped apart in the war. They were wet, battling trench-foot, dealing with rats and gangrene, while missing home, and continuing to fight. I felt compelled to put together this tribute in memory of these brave, forgotten heroes.
How did these letters by the soldiers inspire your work?
My painting The Great Bird of Vishnu references the letter of a wounded Garhwali to his elder brother in which he compares the bomb-dropping fighter planes to the mythological Garuda, pointing to how the soldiers thought of Mahabharata as the epic war. And yet, when they experienced this war, they felt it was worse than what they thought war could be. What also struck me was how the two cultures clashed for these soldiers, and churned up various memories and analogies. In Mulk Raj Anand’s book Across the Black Waters, the feelings of these young, naive boys, their excitement at landing in Marseilles and being received warmly by the French, is all captured so nicely. For me, all of these stories turned into rich source material for the exhibition. The Black Pepper painting, for instance, gives a glimpse of what a soldier went through when he was told to charge with his rifle and bayonet. Bayonetting someone isn’t easy, even more so when these soldiers had never done such a thing before — they had only been involved in small skirmishes.
What were your takeaways from this exhibition?
Last year, on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day — the end of WWI — there was so much going on with the soldiers in England. Having read the letters of the Indian soldiers, I thought I’d like to create something based on what they said and felt. Earlier, I had painted the 100th soldier who had died in the Iraq War. Somehow, I feel it always ends up becoming just a statistic. That young soldier was remembered for being the 100th soldier to have died. I have always been interested in how it’s just a number at the end of the day; like we say, 74,000 Indian soldiers died in WWI. You remember the numbers. But they had names. They were people.