One million and more Indian soldiers were transported in troopships to Europe in September 1914 to fight a war that was not theirs. They perhaps did not even know what they were in for. Months into the war, the tired and homesick soldiers wrote letters to their loved ones back home, often asking them not to follow in their footsteps. “I have managed to bring together a fair number of postcards and letters which were translated and censored at the time by a literate Indian soldier and a British officer,” says Angeli Sowani, curator of the exhibition titled “Medals & Bullets” that was recently held at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. All the portraits and letters have now been made available for viewers on Sowani’s website.
“There are so many letters that remained unsent. They were not approved by the British but the translated version of the same remain in British records. An Indian officer would translate the letters from Urdu or Hindi to English for British records before they were sent,” explains Sowani, 58.
Sourcing the letters and postcards from the British Museum and the Imperial War Library in London, she has recreated them for the exhibition while retaining the original text. The letters from the Indian soldiers speak of their many experiences in a foreign land. A letter from an Indian surgeon working in Brighton, a city on the south coast of England, reads: “The people here are of a very amiable disposition. They talk pleasantly, treat us kindly and are pleased to see us. It is impossible to say why they become so bad on reaching India.”
Sowani’s fascination of war and subsequent love for painting soldiers started in 2001 when she moved to England from India. “Back then 9/11 had shaken the world. There was so much of war and terror around us, and still is,” says the artist and graphic designer. She delved into the subject and started reading a lot of books on war. “My first-ever portrait of a soldier was that of the 100th Iraqi soldier who lost his life in the Iraq War in 2006,” she adds. After that, she turned her gaze to Indian soldiers and started painting them.
The idea of the exhibition came up last year as it marked the centenary of the end of War World I. “The war was a very harsh time and the soldiers lived in pitiful conditions. I thought of putting together letters, postcards and paintings of Indian soldiers who gave their life for it,” she says. Apart from 11 portraits, the collection comprises 20 letters dated between 1914 and 1919.
The one painting that’s close to Sowani’s heart depicts Gurkha soldiers, armed with kukhris, charging at their opponents. The painting showcases trench warfare, which was a new combat method during that period. The paintings by Sowani include portraits of soldiers in Indian outfits with the UK’s nation flag in the backdrop. Pointing to a poster featuring an image of a lion, Sowani says: “This is what the British put out when they were looking to recruit soldiers to fight for them.”
Speaking about the relationship that Indian soldiers and doctors shared with the British, Sowani says: “This was one of the very few times that Indians were treated as equals. When many of them reached Europe, they saw the British as sahibs and lords. They saw the British plough their own fields and work as hard as them, unlike in India. This came as a huge surprise to many Indians.”
Sowani plans to continue painting soldiers and her studies on war. “I’m glad I could bring together stories of unsung heroes of World War I, which would otherwise just be folklore,” she says.