Monday, January 18, 2016

Doing Their Bit

At an exhibition at Fort Kochi, three artists highlight India’s contribution to the First World War

Photos: Surekha by Ratheesh Sundaram; Sarnath Banerjee. Ayisha Abraham. By Nagesh Polali

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the afternoon of January 2, the Bangalore-based artist Surekha is carefully installing sepia-tinted metallic photographs onto slots along a long and narrow table at the Pepper House, Fort Kochi. These are images of the Madras Engineering Sappers Group (MEG) taken during their campaign in the First World War (1914-1918).

This exhibit was part of the show, 'Digging Deep, Crossing Far'. It was curated by the Berlin-based Elke Falat and Juliet Tieke and organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation along with the Goethe Institut. It highlights India's contribution to the first world war through the works of three Indian artists: Ayisha Abraham, Sarnath Banerjee and Surekha.

Surekha focuses on the contribution of the Bangalore-based MEG. In her research, she was astonished to discover that 92,340 people had gone from the MEG to serve in places like Greece, France, Belgium, Iraq and Africa. There were several communities involved: Mussalmans, Tamils, Parayans, Christians, Moplahs, Telugus, Nayars, and Coorgs. Overall, about 15 lakh people, from all over India, took part in the war.

The primary incentive was the good salaries,” says Surekha. “The remuneration was Rs 11 a month. For the lower ranks, it was Rs 7. At that time, this was a high salary. Some families did not hesitate to send all their adult male members to the war.” They became members of the infantry, laundry men, cooks and lettermen, among other jobs. But tragically, by the end of the four-year conflict, about 60,000 Indians lost their lives.

However, not many know that the Sappers had a singular achievement. The MEG engineers had invented the Bangalore Torpedo. It is a simple instrument that could blast barbed-wire obstacles from a distance. “In those times wire-cutters took a long time,” says Surekha. “And you risked getting shot when you went close to the wire. The Torpedo was later used in the second World War and other wars.” Incidentally, this discovery by MEG put Bangalore on the world map of war inventions.

Invention or no invention, during the war, the Indians had a difficult relationship with their white superiors. Lt. General Sir Clarence Bird related that a Naik (corporal) told him, “This is a rotten war.” On being asked why, he said, “Who are the people who get killed? Only the young and newly-joined sappers. No subedar or jamedar (junior commissioned officer) is ever killed.”

Me​anwhile, the political leadership had hoped that, pleased by India’s participation, Britain would give self-rule at the conclusion of the war. “As a bargaining chip, India gave 8 billion pounds [in today’s value] as a one-time war contribution and kept paying 2.4 billion pounds every year in cash,” says artist Sarnath Banerjee.

Banerjee has done black and white drawings of the sepoys based on his reading of the book, 'If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me?' (India and the First World War) by London-based author Vedica Kant. In one drawing, he draws a trio of soldiers blowing bagpipes and hitting a drum, but an uninterested British superior looks away from them. In another, he draws four soldiers standing next to each other looking morose and dejected.

After the war, the Indian soldiers were decommissioned by the British army,” says Sarnath. “However, they were unacknowledged and unsung in their native India. The war did not bring any glory for them. Britain never gave India the promised self-rule. Instead, they promulgated the Rowlatt’s act that led to the further suppression of civil liberties. The British also established special courts which made detention possible without the need for a trial.”

As for the third artist, Ayisha Abraham, one day, a few years ago, at her grandmother's home in Bangalore, she came across a photo of her grandfather, Iswariah Andrews. He was sitting on a bench along with a group of army men. But, through a digital process, Ayisha took another photo but without the faces. “I wanted to draw attention to the construction of a typical group picture taken by an army regiment,” she says. “The hierarchy is very evident.”

However, Ayisha does not know much about the story behind the photo. “My grandfather put a cross beneath the seat where he is sitting, for those back home to identify him,” she says. Andrews, who was a journalist in Mumbai, had served in Mesopotamia for the British Army.

Incidentally, in the 19th century, there were quite a few conversions to Christianity by Indians. Which probably explains the unusual name of Ayisha's grandfather.

All in all, the exhibition gives an insightful look at India’s largely unknown role in the First World War. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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