Poor Yorick: What got you and your group interested in the topic of the Indian Army in WWI?
Sharon: I worked with Stephen Barker, Heritage Advisor and Consultant on the Alchester Project some years ago. I made a film about the project, which explored the Roman tombstone that was excavated in 2003, the memorial stone of the second Augustan Legion, Lucius Valerius Geminus. So I was fortunate that he approached me again to document the work that was being researched for this exhibition. This was when I met Dr. Priya Atwal, Knowledge Exchange Fellow in History at the University of Oxford, along with the group I interviewed who were taking part in the research.
Stephen: I became interested when perusing the archives at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum. Images of Indian soldiers demanded further scrutiny. I also worked on projects in Banbury, U.K., with British Asian people. Many were curious to find out more about their forbears but were unable to build upon family members’ memories because of the inaccessibility of the records.
PY: When is the exhibit being featured and where?
Sharon: The overall exhibition was researched during the filming, which was taking place at the end of 2017. The exhibition with the film has been touring this year, 2018, around some U.K. museums: Wycombe Museum (northwest of London), Banbury Museum (historic market town on the the River Cherwell in Oxfordshire), Bucks County Museum and also Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, and Woodstock, where it was filmed. However, the film itself, which is a standalone production in its own right, has gained interest and is having screenings at Cortkino 2K18 Film Festival, Thakur College of Science and Commerce, India; Women’s Open Screen at Film Oxford (part of International Women’s Week) U.K.; The Archaeology Channel International Film Festival, Video Bar, Oregon, USA; Ridgewood Guild International Film Festival, USA; Brookes University Documentary Club, Oxford; Semi-Finalist Hothouse Nottingham Film Festival, U.K. I will also be showing it along with a feature I made in October, so it is doing the rounds.
PY: What have you learned about the Indian Army’s contributions to the war?
Sharon: I’m a filmmaker who is interested in history and archaeology, and one of the things I love about these projects is I learn so much when I’m involved. I wasn’t aware of the vast involvement of the Indian Army during WWI. I knew a little bit as I have visited Brighton, U.K., and was aware of the Royal Pavilion. However, like most buildings, objects, or monuments, it’s not until you have the story behind it that any meaning of history comes to life.
Stephen: Not just the scale of the military engagement of the British Indian Army, but also the social, economic, and political effort required by India.
PY: Why do you think this isn’t more widely known?
Sharon: Personally, and this is just my own belief, I feel Britain is uncomfortable with certain aspects of its Empire past. That’s why these projects are important—we need to recognize the contributions of all those who have given their lives and resources to this country.
Stephen: For a long time after the war, many Indians viewed their contribution, fighting on behalf of an occupying nation, with a degree of shame. The records of Indian soldiers have been very difficult to get at, making it difficult for Indian families to find out about what their forbears did.
PY: Tell us more about some of the most interesting objects you came in contact with from the archives.
Stephen: The albums showing Indians and British soldiers fighting together during the Siege of Kut early in 1916. This was an infamous operation and one of the darkest moments for Britain during the First World War. After 100 years it was fantastic photographic evidence of Oxfordshire people and Indians surviving together in Mesopotamia.
PY: Did the 1.5 million Indian soldiers mentioned in the video fight for their own country or did they join the armies of other countries?
Stephen: Indian soldiers fought as part of the British Indian Army. It was directed by the British Indian Government based in Shimla on behalf of the British Government in London. It should be seen as a major part of Britain’s Empire during the war.
PY: Is there anything else you want people to know about the project?
Sharon: There is, I feel, a dialogue starting here in the U.K. where there is a more honest reflection of the history of India, which is encouraging discussions and debate and certainly from voices we haven’t always heard from.
Stephen: The most important thing, in some ways, was that the project was contributed to by people of different faiths for the first time all working together. The stories of women affected by the war were being heard for the first time in any exhibition that I know of.
By Melissa Johnson