The year 2018 was one of sombre commemoration. It marked 100 years since the end of one of the most devastating acts of mankind – the First World War. Often described as the “war to end all wars”, not only was it among the largest in terms of military mobilisation, it was also among the deadliest. Around nine million died on the battlefield. And more than 74,000 of them were Indian soldiers.

Much has been written about the horrors of the War, but the contribution of India’s soldiers hardly receives the narrative space it deserves. Artist Angeli Sowani tries to redress this imbalance in her Mumbai exhibition Medals & Bullets by shining a grim spotlight on the sufferings and sacrifices of some of the 1.3 million Indian soldiers who served in World War 1. A collection of 17 letters, 25 photographs, four posters and one song sourced from various archives, along with three large and 12 small paintings, form a part of the small yet austere exhibition, which showcases heart-wrenching tales of bravery, poignancy and tragedy.

A World War I recruitment poster.
A World War I recruitment poster.

The story of war is the same everywhere, whether today on the borders of Kashmir or on the battlegrounds of Europe a hundred years ago. Thousands of young men march into battle, sometimes for the love of their nation, sometimes for glory, but most often just to sustain themselves and their families. Some of the exhibits in Medals & Bullets vividly highlight this arc of motivation, action and consequence. In one recruitment poster, a lion representing the British Empire calls for young men to join its ranks. A second poster promises an exciting life and good pay, while a third depicts a strapping uniformed man poised with his bayonet against the map of united India. A set of photographs then shows the kind of men who were lured by this promise. They are dressed in khakhis, holding weapons and sometimes wearing chappals, as they venture into the hostile unknown. But the most haunting exhibits are the letters that carry their homesick, horrified and vulnerable voices across the century.

“Do you think that this is War?” wrote a wounded Punjabi soldier to his relative in India. “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.”

“For God’s sake don’t come, don’t come, don’t come to this war in Europe,” implored another soldier. “Cannons, machine guns, rifles and bombs are going 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.”

These achingly simple and veritably Indian analogies speak of the terror and isolation felt by its writers. When juxtaposed with letters of royal commendation, the differences between the state and its people stand out. So when one reads a letter from the Buckingham Palace, signed by King George, stating that the “Queen and I wish you God-speed, and a safe return to your homes and dear ones. A grateful Mother Country is proud of your splendid services characterised by unsurpassed devotion and courage”, it’s hard not to be reminded of the “thoughts and prayers” tweets today’s leaders dole out in the face of tragedy.

The current political climate played a major role in influencing Sowani’s theme for the exhibition. “There’s so much talk of strife,” said Sowani, who lives in the United Kingdom. “It’s as if we were living on the brink of war all the time. And the scary thing is, we seem not to realise what it would be like if a full-scale war broke out. It is necessary to keep telling these stories and reminding ourselves of its horrific consequences.”

A visit to the exhibition Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One at Tate London in 2018 gave her “the push” she needed. “As I saw that exhibition, it struck me how very few visual stories had been told about the Indian soldier,” she said. “I knew I had to do it. The book 1914-1918: Indian Troops in Europe by my friend and scholar Santanu Das also served as an excellent resource and inspiration.”

Sowani, who lived her early life in Agra, has now spent several years making art and exhibiting it across continents. One theme that occurs consistently across her work is suddenness and the human response to it. She cites her 2006 exhibition Out of the Blue as an example. “I was prompted to create art for Out of the Blue after the devastating tsunami – how it came from nowhere and destroyed everything in its wake. I’m inspired by things like this that hit us at times and in ways we least expect. My art is an emotional response to such events.”

Glory and death

“Over 10 lac combatants and non-combatants drawn from the erstwhile ‘British India’ fought and served overseas in WWI. Some 70,000 of them were killed. They won 9,200 gallantry awards including 11 Victoria Crosses.”  

We learn of these heart-breaking statistics through some of the collaterals that are part of Sowani’s exhibition. Her evocative paintings of a few Indian war heroes seem to question the cost of the war. Watercolour portraits overlaid with the Victoria Cross, bullet and poppy motifs remind us that the glory of medals is preceded by bullets turning men into bodies. From one painting, Sepoy Khudadad Khan VC looks askance. He was the first Indian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest gallantry award in the British honours system. The VC appended to his name denotes the honour. The medals and bullets surrounding his visage serve to remind us that death hovers uncomfortably close to glory in war. A part of the label reads, “When the King a month afterwards presented the decoration on the field of battle, the gallant sepoy was lying in hospital.”

Other Indian soldiers who speak to us through Sowani’s paintings include Naick Darwan Singh Negi VC, Rifleman Karanbahadur Rana VC, Sepoy Chatta Singh VC, Lance Naik Lala VC and Rifleman Kulbir Thapa VC – each one a recipient of the prestigious award and thereby an example of how Indian men were not as effeminate as Thomas Macaulay and his British counterparts infamously branded them.

But perhaps the greatest takeaway from this exhibition is best reflected in one chilling exhibit – an excerpt from the Punjabi newspaper Zamindar (July 30, 1914). It reads: “For having partitioned Asia and Africa, they have no hunting grounds left, and will now descend into the arena and hunt each other. The result of it all will [be] that the giant, which has so far been ruining Asia will now be engaged in ruining himself.”

The time to wake up is perhaps now.

Medals & Bullets by Angeli Sowani is on view at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai till March 24.