Diya Gupta


'Challenge the Colour of War Memory': Recovering India's First World War Culture

Written by Diya Gupta
Date of Publication: Sunday, 11th November, 2018
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Santanu Das speaks of going beyond the history of medals and memorials to 'worlds of feeling and experience' in his new book.

Professor Santanu Das, of King’s College London, helps to fill the void with his book India, Empire and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs (Cambridge, 2018).

India, Empire and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs by Santanu Das, (Cambridge, 2018)

The book opens up the world of Indian combatants, labourers, civilians and writers during WW1  and recovers an important cultural legacy and emotional history for the subcontinent. 

India, Empire and First World War Culture has been a product of over ten years of research, as you mention at the start of the book. What piqued your curiosity about Indians in the First World War and why did it take you so long?

When I was finishing Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature, I naturally started wondering about what the experience would have been for the over one million Indians, both combatants and non-combatants, who served in places as far-flung as Europe and Mesopotamia and Gallipoli and East Africa.

I wanted to go beyond both the grand narrative of the ‘Great War and modern memory’ and the military WW1 of the ‘vital contribution of Indians to the First World War’ and excavate their worlds of feeling and experience as they encountered new lands and people, lived daily lives behind the trenches – eating, grooming, laughing, chatting, smoking, working – and faced industrial warfare for the first time.

So the twin aims were to challenge the colour of war memory and provide a history not sealed up in medals and memorials but more palpable, intimate and plural.

But I also wanted to move beyond the story of the sepoy to locate the First World War in the socio-cultural, literary and intellectual history of India… heated debates in newspapers about India’s war participation, the recruitment speeches of Mahatma Gandhi, women’s folk-songs in Punjab.

From fictional representations of sepoys by writers as diverse as Rudyard Kipling and Mulk Raj Anand, to the imagining of a post-war world by intellectuals such as Mohammed Iqbal and Rabindranath Tagore, the country’s involvement in the war produced a distinct and recognisable culture.

Your choice of methodology in the book is fascinating… You combine interpretations of material, visual, aural and textual sources. Why such an eclectic approach? And how did you select your material for these comparative readings?

Well, most sepoys did not know how to read or write. They didn’t leave behind the abundance of documents that form the cornerstone of European war memory. I needed to go beyond the written and the textual to the visual, the aural and even the tactile.

Artefacts, including a pair ‘broken and blood-stained’ glasses, of Jogendra (‘Jon’) Sen, Dupleix House and Museum, Chandernagore. Source: Santanu Das

I had to reconceptualise what constitutes the ‘archive’: photos, paintings, portraits, oral performances, reports of rumours and gossip, sound-recordings and songs, as well as testimonial, literary and political writings. The research took me from villages of Punjab to battlefields and POW camps and cemeteries – Ypres and Wunsdorf and Dar Es Salam – to museums across Australia and New Zealand.

It is important to de-Europeanise our research methodology as well as our sources, and think carefully what questions we should ask of our sources.

And I have tried to ‘read’ different sources and forms in relation to each other; one fragment may change meaning when considered alongside another and open up a whole new world.

What might readers find most surprising about this book?
























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