By Pankaj Protim Bordoloi
When you visit the Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum, to the left on the first floor, you will see Subedar Bholanath Awasthi, Resaldar Rathore Rawat Singh, Daffadar Gamir Singh, Lance Naik Haidar Khan, Havildar Al Amir and Subedar Major Ali Dost — each in their fine khakis, who served in World War I. In that “war to end all wars”, around 74,000 Indians laid down their lives in lands far away from home. Their stories of valour in this war is also one of tragedy.
World War I formally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. A month later, Britain held a mammoth victory parade in London. Soldiers from the empire walked proudly alongside British warriors. However, a contingent from India could not participate in the event as their ship was delayed and some members had the dreaded influenza during the long voyage.
Britain, however, wanted to honour them, and arranged a separate victory celebration for them, after they recovered. Thus, on August 2, about 1,800 Indian soldiers walked the streets of London, cheered by crowds on both sides. The parade started from Waterloo Station and culminated at Buckingham Palace. King George V, then delivered a speech, and its Urdu translation was read out simultaneously by General Frederick Campbell. The ceremony ended with high tea.
The host urged them to spend some time in London, and the contingent stayed on for a few weeks. A sightseeing trip was arranged for them. In their free time, they also posed for an artist, who created stunning watercolour portraits.
This was William Luker Junior (1867-1948), son of an accomplished landscape artist of the same name, who was well known for his paintings of dogs, cats and horses. His artwork were frequently displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and have also found place in exquisite galleries including the Royal Museum of Art. Since the Indian soldiers were halted in London, he used the opportunity to work overtime with his easel and paintbrush.
His 1919 portfolio of portraits of Indian soldiers soon found a place in a booklet brought out by the India Office, London, which was titled, Indian Army — A Record for the Peace Contingent Visit to England, 1919. This initiative to commemorate the parade had different soldiers in their diverse uniforms, regalia and arms.
Luker Junior’s paintings, largely done in light and dark hues of brown and black, relieved often by a patch of green at the base, brought alive these forgotten warriors. Though Luker worked in other mediums too, like oil on canvas, these collective portraits of sepoys of the British-Indian Army was done exclusively in watercolours.
The valiant faces of the soldiers, some stern, some smiling, speak to us across a century later. They tell stories of pride and honour, of luck which helped them survive and of stoic forbearance, as they watched their brothers-in-arms breathe their last.
Among the soldiers portrayed in these paintings are Havildar Major Gopi Singh Negi of Kumaon Regiment; military sentry Dilwar Khan from Punjab; Subedar Kulbahadur Thapa of Gorkha Rifles; Naik Nihal Singh of 40 Sikh Infantry; Company Sergeant M Than MG of 70 Burma Rifles; and Sepoy Ramswarup of Jat infantry.
A painting of a royal barber named Habibullah showcases Luker’s extraordinary skill. First, he is not a regular military man, second, the perspicuity of the watercolours, the integration of subtle hues and the unique blending of contours of form are in contrast with the minimalistic background on paper.
The portfolio is also a veritable visual record of the diversity of communities and regions that made up the Indian Army. For instance, a Sikh regiment naik, wearing his traditional turban, stands attentively with a short magazine Lee-Enfield rifle in one such portrait. There’s a Burmese rifleman in his traditional attire, standing tall in another painting, from this series.
The Luker Collection might have been forgotten, if the artist had not offered it to the Viceroy a decade later. On September 24, 1930, he wrote a letter to the personal secretary of Viceroy Lord Irwin, the first occupant of the Viceroy House. In it, Luker spoke of his several watercolour paintings, done during the Indian Army contingent’s London visit of 1919, and that he believed the works had historical importance. He offered the paintings to the Viceroy House and requested a sum of £400 in return.
Lord Irwin forwarded the letter, through his military attaché, to Edwin Lutyens on October 8, 1930. The Viceroy asked the architect to evaluate the quality of the paintings, if they were worth buying at all. Lutyens affirmed its artistic and historical value, and the entire set was acquired. The paintings were then freshly framed before being shipped and they reached their destination in 1931. They were displayed during the official inauguration function of the Viceroy House that year.
Over the decades, these paintings have adorned ceremonial and official rooms of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. They had a pride of place on the walls of the offices of the secretary to the President and the director of the President’s Secretariat before they were shifted to the newly opened Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum in July 2016.
(Pankaj Protim Bordoloi is deputy director, President’s Secretariat)
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