MORE THAN a century after Hungarian artist late Laub Fülöp alias Philip de László painted a portrait of two Sikh World War-I soldiers at his London studio in May 1916, the descendants of one of them have been traced to Tarn Taran, Punjab.
Now part of a private collection in London, the ‘oil on board’ portrait artwork depicts two Sikh soldiers — Risaldar Jagat Singh (12th Cavalry) and Risaldar Man Singh (21st Cavlary) — elegantly posing for László at his studio, dressed in their Army uniforms and turbans.
Jagat Singh left a handwritten note with his son’s name and address in László visitor’s book in Punjabi in 1916, and after nearly two years of research, his great grandson-in-law Harpreet Singh Bhatti has managed to connect the dots.
Bhatti’s research started after he came to know of his wife Jasmeet Bajwa’s great grandfather being a World War-I soldier, from his mother-in-law (Jagat Singh’s granddaughter) and then came across the portrait online.
He then asked his in-laws family to dig out whatever they could related to Jagat Singh’s service in the Army to substantiate that the Risaldar Jagat Singh posing in the portrait was actually his wife’s great grandfather.
Surprisingly, more than eight decades after Jagat Singh’s death in 1939, the family was left with no other photograph of their war hero. And now they can again get a glimpse of the late soldier, even though they can’t own the portrait yet.
Bhatti, a government school teacher from Batala in Gurdaspur district, has a passion for researching world wars. He was digging into his own family history when he came across the portrait. “I was researching my great grandfather Havildar Kala Singh, who too served in 45 Rattray’s Sikhs and it was in October 2018 that my mother-in-law Amarjit Kaur told me that her grandfather Jagat Singh also served in World War-I in the British India Army. He was also later allotted two murabbas of land at Chak 77 in Montgomery (current Sahiwal in Pakistan) but the family were natives of Khadoor Sahib (then part of district Amritsar but now in Tarn Taran). After coming across this portrait online, I requested everyone in my in-laws’ family to dig out all the documents or whatever they could find related to Jagat Singh. In addition, there was the handwritten note too he left in the visitor’s diary in London stating that the name of his elder son was Janmeja Singh. That was my mother-in-law’s father’s name too and then the dots just kept connecting.”
On Bhatti’s request, his in-laws’ family was able to trace a naval dagger, which they believe the soldier might have used or conquered during WWI, and a 1915 certificate.
The certificate (a copy of which is with The Indian Express), undersigned by Inspector general of Police, United Provinces (under British rule), was awarded to ‘Jamadar Jagat Singh Commissioned officer, 12th cavalry, Meerut’ for ‘distinguished services rendered by him…’. A brief narrative of his achievement reads, ‘…The above officer rendered valuable assistant to the government on the night of 20th-21st August 1915 when taking part in the arrest of some armed dakaits, on the grassed farms, near 12th Cavalry Lines, Meerut. The raid was attended with considerable risk to life and Jagat Singh deserves the highest praise for his conduct on the occasion…’
“The records were further matched with archives of Indian soldiers who served in the British Army during World War I and details available in digital archives online. It showed that Risaldar Jagat Singh joined the Army as Jemadar on February 26, 1905, and later got promoted. He then went to London to participate in WWI and returned,” said Bhatti.
Meanwhile, the note Jagat Singh left at the artist’s studio in 1916 said: ‘Rasaldar Jagat Singh, Rasala 12. Address in India: Janmej Singh, s/o Rasaldar Jagat Singh. V.P.O Khadur Sahib, Amritsar Sahib (Punjab) India’.
Jagat Singh had four children, none of whom are alive. Late Janmeja Singh had ten children (seven sons and three daughters) of which five sons and a daughter (Bhatti’s mother-in-law Amarjit Kaur) are alive. Jagat Singh’s second son Harkaran Singh had five children (three sons and two daughters) and of them, one son and both daughters are alive.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Kashmir Singh (82), one of the surviving grandsons of Jagat Singh and son of Janmeja Singh, who now lives in Pindiyan village in Tarn Taran, said, “My great grandfather probably went for WWI in 1916 and returned in 1918…When our son-in-law Bhatti showed us his portrait he found online, we were elated. I was an infant when he died…We had our ancestral land and home in Khadoor Sahib and details in the handwritten note are absolutely correct.”
Bhatti’s mother-in-law and Kashmir Singh’s sister, Amarjit Kaur (72), still has a faded memory of a photograph of her great grandfather she had seen once. “I was born in 1947 and never saw him in person but I vaguely remember a photo of him that I saw before my marriage in which also he was dressed in uniform. We have no idea where that photo is now. When my son-in-law showed us this portrait now, we could see how his facial features clearly match the children in the family. At least now we know how he looked like,” she said.
About the artist, portrait and London connect
According to the official website of The De Laszlo Archive Trust, which aims to record the entire journey of his artistic career and preserve his artworks, the artist Philip de László, born as Laub Fülöp in 1869 at Pest (now part of Budapest in Hungary), ‘produced more than 4,000 works in his 50-year career’.
“I am an artist of the world and paint history, not only individuals,” he had said. He had moved to Vienna in 1903, settled in England in 1907 and died in London in 1937. He is known for painting members of the German imperial family and traveled to Rome to paint Pope Leo XIII in 1900. He was also commissioned by Queen Victoria to paint her favourite General Sir George White in 1900.
On the portrait, the trust catalogue says: ‘A number of Indian Cavalry officers visited de László’s London studio in May 1916…De László succeeded in having two of the officers pose for him and the present picture was completed for the artist’s own pleasure and remained in his collection until his death. This picture was greatly admired by Austen Chamberlain, then Secretary of State for India, and he asked De László to produce a small version for a Red Cross sale being organised by Lady Willingdon, the wife of the Viceroy, in Bombay. De László opted instead to paint a one-sitting sketch of another Indian officer for the nominal fee of 50 guineas, which was then raffled for £650. This sensitive portrait is among the best of those that De László painted of officers and soldiers before their departure for the front. In a short sitting of 2-3 hours the artist has captured the solemn dignity of these two professional soldiers and as a double portrait it is unique among his First World War portraits. It is not known why these men were on leave from their respective regiments, who were stationed in France at the time of the sitting. Amongst the trenches and wire of the front line there was little use for cavalry in its usual role and much of their war was spent waiting to take part in the action without actually being deployed. Both regiments eventually used their men in trench warfare and particularly at the Battle of the Somme, which began 1 July 1916, two months after this portrait was painted…’
Speaking to The Indian Express over phone, Amandeep Singh Madra, a London-based Sikh historian, who had displayed this portrait in his exhibition on World Wars — ‘Empire, Faith & War’ — in 2014 in London, said, “In 2014, I was part of the team that found this painting in a private collection and it was a really important object in our 2014 exhibition…When I saw that Harpreet Singh Bhatti posted a picture of Janmeja Singh and other records matched too, we were elated as we knew for sure that we had indeed found the descendants of Jagat Singh. It felt wonderful to able to reunite a family with an extraordinary and noble portrait of the man himself. It is currently a part of private collection.”
He added, “There is a doubt that Jagat Singh was 12th Cavalry throughout his military service, and was sent to the 18th Lancers in France with a draft of other ranks of his regiment. The 18th Lancers was one of the very few Indian cavalry regiments that was left in France after 1915. This means that Jagat Singh was exactly the kind of soldier that could have been in France during 1917, which was the setting for the recent feature film 1917, where a Sikh character appears.”
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