This weekend, Eleanor, the Project Coordinator, attended a conference called Voices of India: The First World War.

From start to finish, it was thoughtful and thought provoking – from the location, in Brighton, where South Asian soldiers were hospitalised in 1914 and 15, to the programme, which embraced the huge diversity of work ongoing in this sphere.

‘I bet it happened’: the author of A God in Every Stone, Kamila Shamsie, in conversation with Dr Santanu Das, had the last word at an event concerned with how we can let South Asian voices speak. Historians’ work is defined by what original material survives, but fiction frees the author to empathise with those in the past, and to say ‘this is how it must have been’, where no evidence survives.

Original material relating to South Asian soldiers in WW1 is most often the creation or construction of Europeans. Dr Heike Liebau talked about the power imbalance inherent in the 300 sound recordings of Indian POWs made in German camps; Kevin Bacon showed a remarkable photograph taken in the Brighton Pavilion, which appears to be of Indian soldiers convalescing at their leisure. Zoom in on the mirror at the back of the room and what was going on behind the camera is revealed: two British men in military uniform watch over the scene. So can historical sources ever really reveal the unmediated voice of a South Asian soldier?

Adil Chhina, a researcher at the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research in New Delhi, had a few examples of material created of South Asians, by South Asians, including sound recordings made in the 1970s with WW1 veterans, memoirs written after India had regained its independence in 1947, and photographs taken by Major Hukum Singh of the Jaipur Imperial Service Transport Corps during the First World War. Do these offer a clearer picture of South Asian soldiers’ experiences at the time? The distance in time, during which huge political change in South Asia charged the memory of India’s participation in WW1 with new meaning, can’t be discounted. And as for Major Hukum Singh – he was a Rajput noble so we’re still talking about a pretty enormous power imbalance between him and the subjects of his camera.

But are we downhearted? No-o-o! Speakers from across the disciplines displayed imagination and creativity in going beyond the source material. Photographs of a ‘Flanders Field’ in the present day, lush, green, and orderly, were used with great empathy to guide us step-by-step through a regimental manoeuvre that ended in disaster in 1914. And the finale, a semi-improvised performance of ‘songs of separation’ sung by women whose husbands were leaving for Basra, was enough to have the audience in tears. This is how ‘I bet it happened’.

Image © IWM (Art.IWM ART 323)