MID-DAY Mumbai

Dead man talking
By: Yolande D'Mello, Date: 2011-03-06

A documentary tells Mumbaikars a long forgotten story of Indian soldiers in German POW camps during the World War I
At four o'clock on December 11, 1916, Mall Singh spoke into a phonograph funnel in his native tongue. The recording lasts one minute and twenty seconds," says the narration at the beginning of the documentary, Halfmoon Files.
The documentary, along with a video installation and a lecture, is part of a project of director Philip Scheffner and social analyst Britta Lange, that has been inspired from recordings made in a POW (prisoner of war) camp called Halfmoon.
Singh, a 24 year-old then, was one many Indian soldiers in the British army who were captured by Germans during World War I. And his recording are part of an experiment that is a grim reminder for one of Germany's failed war strategies.
When the Ottoman Empire became Germany's ally in World War I, Germany used Islam as a war strategy weapon against France, England and Russia. In November 1914, jihad was declared in Constantinople. Muslim soldiers from the British, French and Russian armies were called on to change sides and enter the war together with the Ottoman Empire and its German ally. As part of the jihad strategy, captured Muslim prisoners interned with Indian and North African soldiers of the French and British armies in special camps, hoping that these 'colonial soldiers' could be instigated to rise against their colonial rulers.
But when the jihad strategy did not yield results, the camps instead started piquing the interests of scientists. These 'exotic' prisoners became objects of different scientific research projects. One such project was the recording of languages, carried out by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission (RPPC). This commission, of over 30 scientists from the fields of linguistics, musicology and anthropology, wanted to record the different languages and the music of those interned in the German POW camps."Listening to these recordings is like hearing a ghost talk," says Scheffner. About the recordings conducted by the RPPC, he says, "The files document prisoners talking about different things. But very few of them actually spoke about their personal lives or what it was like to live in a concentration camp." Lange will conduct a lecture on anthropological and linguistic research on Indian POWs from 1915-1918 on Monday, 6 pm at Max Mueller Bhavan. About the recordings, she says, "The scientists were not interested in the personal lives of prisoners, but at the same time, they needed them for their research, so it's a very strange and interesting relationship to study."
The video installation, 'Making Of ... The Halfmoon Files' by Lange, which opened on Saturday at Project 88, Colaba, is a product of years of research. Lange says, "Some of these files are being heard for the first time since they were made in 1916."