THESE ARE stories, compelling and untold, that have largely been forgotten. Not too many people would be aware of the fact that over seven lakh Indian soldiers crossed the seven seas and fought on behalf of the British Empire, thousands never to return home alive. But now, in the centenary year of World War I—also known as the Great War—some moving photographs and rare objects used by the soldiers during that time are reminding the nation of their bravery and sacrifice.
“This is a small tribute to the seven lakh Indian soldiers who crossed the seven seas to new lands and unfamiliar enemies, and to the 74,000 Indian men who laid down their lives over the four years of the war,” says Pramod Kapoor, founder, Roli Books, and curator of the show, India And the First World War. The exhibition is being held at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in New Delhi.
When the Great War came to a head, Britain needed all the support it could get. It fell to the lot of the Empire’s colonies across the world to fill in for the gaps left by the weakened British regiments. And thus, lakhs of Indian soldiers were encouraged to enlist by their national leaders and crossed the oceans for the first time to fight an indecipherable war against an unknown enemy.
They were ill-prepared for the European winters and the dusty Mesopotamian summers. The warfare tactics, which used extensive bunkers and weapons that were hitherto unheard of, proved to be a challenge.
The images for the exhibition have been sourced from all over the world, primarily from Imperial War Museum, British Library, London; French Military Archives, Flanders Museum, Belgium; and many other private collections internationally. They capture some compelling stories such as the wearing of gas masks for the first time during the war, Sikh soldiers carrying the Guru Granth Sahib on their head—in a foreign land where they had no gurdwara—and many other not-so-ordinary experiences of the country’s men in foreign lands.
The exhibition also has a separate section showcasing the actual uniform, turban and other memorabilia used by Indian soldiers 100 years ago. They have been sourced from Dominique Faivre, a French national and a major collector of Indian memorabilia from the Great War. Faivre has been collecting these items for over 30 years. He combs through the farms and fields of the region for objects of interest, and also sources artefacts from other collectors.
“In my attempt to better understand some of the challenges faced by the Indian troops, I took a trip to the Western Front, travelling between Ypres and Lille in France. I visited the villages that dot the countryside and learned that Indian war heroes such as Khudadad Khan are household names there, and that each family has a story to share about the warmth and bravery of the Indian troops stationed in this region,” says Kapoor, highlighting the genesis of the show.
“I was moved by the sight of the tricolour and Ashoka’s lions at Menin Gate, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the look of the Indian War Memorial at Neuve Chapelle (designed by Sir Herbert Baker, who also co-designed New Delhi) is identical to that of the Sanchi Stupa. It was during this trip that I realised the potential and gravity of this project,” adds Kapoor.
The exhibition, titled ‘India And the First World War’, is on at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in New Delhi till February 10.