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WWII: The untold stories

Prachi Raturi Misra | Updated on February 02, 2021

Friends in need: Matthew encountered the story of five Indian soldiers who escaped from a camp for prisoners of war in Italy and were sheltered by the local people for a year   -  IMAGE COURTESY: The UNREMEMBERED: The Indian soldiers of the Second World War

A project seeks to lift the veil on the forgotten histories of Indian soldiers fighting on foreign land

* Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, professor of art (photography) at University of Rhode Island, seeks to turn the lens on Indians who fought in the war

* Over the past two years, she has been collecting photographs and stories of these soldiers

* Salvi’s grandson Samar was captivated as a young boy by these stories and always wanted to visit the village to meet the people who had saved his grandfather’s life

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They fought on alien lands, ate food they had never tasted, picked up foreign words not heard before — and thought of home several thousand miles away.

Yet, as the world celebrated the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II last year, very little was recalled of the 2.5 million Indian soldiers who fought for their British colonial rulers. But the fact remains that more than 87,000 Indians died in the war and 30 men were honoured with the Victoria Cross, England’s highest military honour.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, professor of art (photography) at University of Rhode Island, seeks to turn the lens on Indians who fought in the war. She is crowdsourcing and collecting family photos and stories of Indian soldiers who fought for the British against Germany and its supporting forces.

Matthew’s interest in the project was stoked in December 2018, when she exhibited an installation at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India. Her work focused on the Indian soldiers who fought in Italy in WWII. A friend of hers read about the exhibition on social media and sent her a photograph of her grandfather, Lt Col Goal Chakraborty. The Bengali gentleman, looking natty in his army uniform, stood in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The picture had been shot when he was in Italy during the war.

The striking photograph, Matthew says, gave her “an instant visceral connection to one of these 2.5 million Indian soldiers”.

And that was the birth of her project The UNREMEMBERED: The Indian soldiers of the Second World War. The solo exhibition is scheduled to be held from September 2021 to January 2022 at the Newport Art Museum in Rhode Island. It will also include the work commissioned by the Kochi-Muziris Biennale on the Italian Campaign of WWII.

Over the past two years, she has been collecting photographs and stories of these soldiers and hoping to throw some light on their lives.

“I didn’t realise how powerful so many of the stories would be. It has opened up new threads that I am following up on,” Matthew tells BLink in an email interview. “I am still receiving photographs and stories from families! Beyond my artwork, I plan to create an archive of these photos so that anyone can have access to them for research,” says Matthew, who was born in England and grew up in India.

The stories of the soldiers, she stresses, made her once again realise how humanity connects the world. She narrates the story of two Indian prisoners of war (POW) in Italy who managed to escape and were sheltered by locals. “The Italian families looked beyond ethnicity and language and instead focused on the commonality of what makes us human,” she says.

Then there was Lieutenant DS Kalha, a Sikh soldier who had to leave his wife of six weeks to fight in the war. He was captured at the Siege of Tobruk (Libya) in 1941 and sent to a POW camp in Avezzano, Italy. Italians would often come to the camp’s boundary walls and try to interact with the prisoners. One such person was Alessandro Zenobi, a farmer. He convinced Kalha that he needed to learn Italian to be able to escape. So Kalha picked up the language while at the camp — and managed to escape with his friend Sandhu.

With the help of a local doctor, they were admitted to a hospital run by Catholic nuns. Kalha was convinced to cut his hair so that he could pass off as an Italian. The nuns then facilitated their escape. Farmer Zenobi with his wife (Aida) and children (Lola, Gianni and Patrizia) shared their limited food with the two soldiers and sheltered them in a cowshed in the winter and in a nearby cave during the summer.

When Kalha and Sandhu heard that the Allies had advanced in Italy, they walked for hours and were able to join the New Zealand regiment which arranged for their return to India. Kalha went on to become a Lieutenant General in the Indian Army.

One of the most powerful stories Matthew encountered was about five POW’s who also escaped from the Avezzano camp. Among them was RG Salvi, who later chronicled his experiences in the book Whom Enemies Sheltered.

Matthew recounts how the five men walked through the night, following a railway line. After over four hours, they finally reached the tiny town of Villa San Sebastiano. One of the Indians spoke Italian and was able to convince an Italian soldier, Romano Berardo (who had just deserted his army unit and was returning home to Villa San Sebastiano), to shelter them. He hid the five men, and took care of them with the help of other Italians and their families for a year.

The year meant ordeals such as hiding in animal sheds and caves, even in the bitter cold of winter. Salvi would climb up a hot chimney to evade Germans patrolling the village. The Italians smuggled food to them, often at the risk of death. The result was the forging of deep connections and friendships that continued after the war ended and even after they left Villa San Sebastiano. Salvi’s grandson Samar was captivated as a young boy by these stories and always wanted to visit the village to meet the people who had saved his grandfather’s life. He did so in 2011.

Samar and his extended family visited the village where they were welcomed warmly. The Salvi family installed a plaque there, thanking the village and especially the families who had helped the Indian soldiers. It ended with the words: “Without your loving help to Lieutenant RG Salvi, we would not have existed.”

These stories of hope and love pushed Matthew to “pull back the veil on forgotten histories and, through an artistic intervention making this history accessible to larger audiences”. Matthew plans to exhibit her work in India, Pakistan and England, where there are historical connections between the war and the soldiers from the subcontinent.

Strategic affairs expert Maroof Raza explains why Indian soldiers’ role in the war had largely gone unrecognised. Nationalist leaders of the time believed that the soldier wasn’t fighting for an Indian cause but for the colonial ruler, he points out.

“But the fact remains that the Indian soldier went on to do his duty and gave such a fine example of his regimental colours that it only furthered the cause of India’s Independence,” he says.

Prachi Raturi Misra is a Delhi-based journalist and author

Published on February 02, 2021

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