Spotlight | Art

The unremembered Indian soldiers of WWII: a photography project

Lt. Col. Chakraborty at the Leaning Tower of Pisa.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

D.S. Kalha sits on a parapet, togged out in his khaki uniform, Sam Browne belt and black shoes. Beside him stands his wife of a few months, smiling at the camera. The photograph was shot on one of those halcyon days in Dehradun before World War II engulfed three continents, taking the Kalhas in its sweep.

The man who would rise to be a Lieutenant General in free India’s Army was not to know then that he would be captured at the Siege of Tobruk in 1941 and shipped off to Avezzano in Italy as a prisoner of war. He escaped and was sheltered by local farmers with whom he would go on to build extraordinary friendships that lasted many decades and encompassed many generations of family on both sides.

Lt. Gen. Kalha’s story, along with those of many others, is part of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s reclamation of an almost lost epic — India’s role in World War II. The subcontinent sent the largest volunteer army (over 2.5 million) to fight for the British even as its people fought to get rid of the yoke of empire back home. While the war has been examined beyond the tropes of victor and vanquished by several historians and writers, the life and times of this extraordinary generation have fallen through the cracks, especially in India, where military history has been largely brushed aside.

Lt. Gen. D.S. Kalha with his wife.

Lt. Gen. D.S. Kalha with his wife.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

Lighter remembrances

As the distance widens between the men and women that fought in the war and a generation that struggles to remember it, it becomes vital to recount the stories of the strange bonds that war forges. Across Europe and the U.S., oral and visual history projects, battlefield tours, museums and displays such as remembrance poppies running riot at the Tower of London keep the lessons of battles alive. But glimpses of the lighter moments in the soldiers’ lives — before, during and after the war — have mostly been lost in the din. This is what Matthew, Professor of Art at the University of Rhode Island and Fulbright Scholar, hopes to train the spotlight on.

Col. P.C. Dasgupta in a Venetian gondola.

Col. P.C. Dasgupta in a Venetian gondola.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

Matthew, 55, was born in Stourport-on-Severn, U.K., and relocated to India when she was 12. It was while pursuing a degree in mathematics at Chennai’s Women’s Christian College that Matthew discovered a love for photography. “I chose mathematics for all the wrong reasons,” she says with a laugh. “We had one optional subject a year and I chose a photography course offered by the physics department. We had one camera for the 15 of us and only two rolls of film, which meant we could shoot only two frames each. The picture I remember taking was that of a friend reflected in a pond. Seeing the image develop had me hooked.”

Matthew returned to Bengaluru, where her family lived, worked with computers for six years and pursued a career in advertising before moving to the U.S. in search of what was to be her calling — photography. Living in three countries gave her an extraordinary body of work that found space at the Royal Ontario Museum, Nuit Blanche Toronto and sepiaEYE, New York. She has also exhibited at RISD Museum, Newark Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Houston, the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as the Smithsonian.

Over the years, Matthew has explored the gulf between the public face and private feelings, drawing from culture and oral history. Some of her pictures for ‘Memories of India’, an exhibition on her cultural homeland, were shot with a Holga camera and display vignetting and light leaks that lend surrealism to the work.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew   | Photo Credit: S.R. Raghunathan

“The show titled ‘To Majority Minority’ lends agency to the voices of America’s immigrant minorities. It draws inspiration from Ronald Takaki’s ‘A Different Mirror’,” says Matthew. “For my first Fulbright Fellowship, I focused on the stories of the children of Partition. The photo-animations in ‘Open Wound’ start from the family’s old and new photographs and morph into three generations, telling their story on Partition. They narrate the experiences of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi families.”

Private moments

Her second Fulbright covers her current photo project that involves the private moments of officers and men of the British Indian Army. She kickstarted a series of exhibitions with an installation and video at the 2018 Kochi Muziris Biennale titled ‘The Unremembered: Indian Soldiers from the Italian Campaign of World War II’, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino and the campaign that saw a number of Indians receive the Victoria Cross.

A crystal with an embedded photo.

A crystal with an embedded photo.   | Photo Credit: S.R. Raghunathan

“I was less interested in rummaging through Army archives as they yield mostly mugshots. I was looking for scenes from their everyday lives so that the viewer can connect to them as individuals. One of my experimentations has been to create a 3D image etched in a crystal through which I plan to project archival film footage of the Indian soldiers,” says Matthew, adding that accessing such pictures was difficult “as families are oblivious of their histories or have moved cities and discarded photo albums.”

Maj. Gen. N.K.D. Nanavati with his wife.

Maj. Gen. N.K.D. Nanavati with his wife.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

Despite this, Matthew has managed to put together a collection from travels across the country, and delivered a talk at a portraiture workshop at the Chennai Photo Biennale. Some of the gems she discovered include a studio picture of her grand-uncle who served; Major General N.K.D. Nanavati in mess regalia with his wife Sharda a little before his tragic death in a helicopter crash; Lt. Col. V.K. Sundaram in a Scouts uniform, an organisation he was passionate about; Lt. Col. Chakraborty posing easy in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa; Col. P.C. Dasgupta on a gondola keeping out the Venetian sun with a pair of sunglasses; and Havildar Murga and Sepoy Samuel in a studio — the family says Murga was a strict parent and is keen to know where he fought.

Havildar Murga and Sepoy Samuel in a studio.

Havildar Murga and Sepoy Samuel in a studio.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

These indistinct pictures lend depth to these men, tiny integers in a vast war, creating a human tapestry of those times. When she returns to the U.S. next month, Matthew will begin work on an upcoming exhibition of the project, after which she plans to focus on children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Until then, she hopes more people get in touch with her for the project that underlines that the past is never past.

Readers who have a photo and story to share of a family member or friend who served in WWII can mail them to

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 9:34:05 AM |

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