While collecting family photographs of some of the 2.5 million Indians who fought in World War II on behalf of their British colonizer, this article's author, an artist, found that the idea of photographic “ubiquity” was turned on its head. She became increasingly aware of how socioeconomic privilege, caste, and class played a role in who was never photographed and thus who is not represented in the history of photography, in photo albums, and in military archives. Three different installations titled The UNREMEMBERED: Indian Soldiers of World War II include the use family photographs and archival footage. In this article, the artist explores questions about who is not represented in photo albums and archives and approaches to remedying their absence.
My earlier project Open Wound: Stories of Partition, India and Pakistan focused on the personal stories of the millions displaced, traumatized, and killed during the 1947 Partition of British India (fig. 1 and video 1). My research led to the astonishing number of 2.5 million Indians (called South Asians after the region gained independence from British India in 1947 and was partitioned into what is now three countries: Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan), who fought for their British colonizers during World War II. The scale of their involvement and their anonymity made me want to learn more about this complicated history and understand who they were.
As an artist, my role is to take that abstract number of these 2.5 million Indian soldiers who fought in the war and transform it into something tangible and accessible to a broad audience. Over the last five years, I have created and exhibited three different installations to allow viewers to try and comprehend why this history is barely acknowledged.
As a visual artist, most of my work starts from archival photographs or film footage. As we know, photographs are ubiquitous today, from the images we consume to those we create. Owning a camera and creating photographs are taken for granted, but this is a recent phenomenon, as is replacing physical family photo albums with virtual albums and social media feeds.
Photographs, especially “family photographs,” can make empathic connections. While collecting in 2019 the family photographs of some of the 2.5 million Indians and those from the Indian subcontinent who fought in World War II, I found that the idea of photographic ubiquity was turned on its head. I became increasingly aware of how socioeconomic privilege, caste, and class played a role in who is not represented in the history of photography, in photo albums, and in military archives.
The UNREMEMBERED: Indian Soldiers of World War II, consists of three installations and considers different approaches with these imbalances of representation in mind.
The first, commissioned by the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (the largest contemporary art exhibition in Asia) in 2018, focuses on the Battle of Monte Cassino and the Italian Campaign. The battle was critical for the Allies’ winning the war, and Indians played a crucial role. For their tenacity the Indian soldiers were awarded 30 percent of all the Victoria Crosses for service during the Italian campaign. In Italy there are five graveyards with the remains of Indian soldiers: two just for Indians and one for Gurkhas. They are in Arezzo, Cassino, Forlì, Sangro, and Rimini (fig. 2).
In the work, I projected flickering edited archival footage of the Indians serving in Italy during the war onto their gravestones and memorials at twilight and dawn in Cassino and Forlì (fig. 3).
The archival footage consists of men not only in combat but also doing other critical jobs such as building bridges, carrying the injured, and cooking. The final edited video of the eerie projection, which includes a soundscape, is rear projected with a reflection pool—a metaphor to prompt the viewer to reflect on this history (fig. 4 and video 2).
In this first use of archival military footage, the soldiers are seen but not acknowledged by name.
The second installation uses the soldier's photos and stories to build on the familial intimacy we ascribe to family photos (fig. 5). The 3D laser-cut crystals of these same family photos float ephemerally within the exhibition space as edited archival footage of the Indian soldiers from all three theaters (Africa, Europe, and Asia) of the war are projected onto dhotis (a garment like a sarong commonly worn by men). Brief personal stories of the Indian soldiers unfold in the soundscape. The edited archival footage used in the second installation includes cooks, donkeymen, and other positions not commonly considered when we contemplate war.
The photographs in the crystals give the soldiers a face, family, and a story asking the viewer to expand their understanding of this history. This installation includes family photographs where the soldiers are seen and acknowledged by name. Again, the soldiers are seen in the projected archival military footage, but their identities are unknown (fig. 6 and video 3).
The final installation consists of two larger-than-life painted silhouettes of Indian soldiers derived from a photograph collected from Lieutenant E. C. Joshua's family (fig. 7). Projected onto these silhouettes are the scrolling names of the more than eighty-seven thousand Indians (downloaded from the Commonwealth War Grave Commission database) who died in the war (fig. 8 and video 4). In addition to their names, the list includes the ages, positions, occupations, parents’ names, addresses, and sometimes the names of their wives. Reading the unending list, one immediately notices a cross-section of jobs, religions, and castes. The positions range from cooks, craftsmen, doctors, donkeymen, nursing sepoys (Indian infantrymen), pilots, porters, sailors, soldiers, sweepers, tailors, waiters, and washermen. There is an incongruity that the anonymous silhouette installation, with only a trace of a photograph, gives these soldiers equal acknowledgment across class, religion, and caste. Their contributions were not always considered equal in life or death. Neither were they represented equally in photography history, photo albums, or military archives. However, in death their identities are included and credited.
With the profusion of photography today, there is often talk about the democratization of photography. As we recontextualize the history of photography and its retelling through photo albums and archives, factoring in those without access to something we take for granted is a small way to acknowledge the unacknowledged.