Time Out Mumbai

War record

A new exhibition resurrects Indian soldiers captured by Germany during World War I, reports Zeenat Nagree.
At 4pm on 6 June 1916, Jasbahadur Rai, a Gurkha soldier held in a German prisoner of war camp in Wünsdorf, stood before a phonograph funnel and sang a song about going home. Surrounded by members of the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission, Rai sang in a trembling voice of the large orange tree in his garden in Darjeeling, the mustard fields nearby and the succulent lamb waiting for him.
This fortnight, the voices of Indian soldiers, like Rai, who were interned in the Halfmoon Camp in Wünsdorf during the first World War, make a ghostly appearance in an audio-video installation titled Making of... The Halfmoon Files. The installation focuses on some of the thousands of Indian soldiers who travelled to Flanders and northern France to fight for the British and who were captured by the German Army. During their time in the camp between 1915 and 1918, the soldiers were studied by German anthropologists and linguists who sought to understand the languages and culture of people they saw as primitive.
Making of... The Halfmoon Files, created by German filmmaker Philip Scheffner and historian Britta Lange, intersperses selections from the colonial sound archive housed in the Humboldt University of Berlin with historic documents from the camp, photographs of soldiers, German propaganda films, fictional accounts and footage from present-day Wünsdorf to examine the “interweaving of colonialism, war, entertainment and science”.
The songs and stories of the soldiers, on display in a four-channel installation in the darkened interiors of the Project 88 Gallery, are powerful and moving. They express the utter hopelessness of being trapped in a war that seems to have no end in sight and the growing uncertainty of return. There are folk songs that recount Indian myths and songs written by the soldiers themselves, like the one by Rai, that imagine the food and comfort of home.
“We were interested in recordings where the actual condition of the speakers was revealed,” said Lange, who is working on a book about German and Austrian research on war prisoners between 1915 and 1918 and will deliver a lecture on the subject this fortnight. The official studies were interested only in the linguistics of the soldiers’ speech and song, not their stories. “It is incredible that so much personal information has slipped into a seemingly scientific study,” Lange said. “The researchers were not interested in their sentiments but for us it makes possible a counter-reading of the archive that challenges its original intention.”
Mumbai first heard these recordings during the screening of Scheffner’s award-winning film Halfmoon Files, on the same subject, in 2008. However, the scope of this exhibition is much larger and incorporates the research that resulted from the five-year collaboration between Scheffner and Lange. “There’s a big difference between what I know now and what I knew when I was making the film,” Scheffner said.
Apart from including the stories of more soldiers, the installation allowed Scheffner and Lange to give the soldiers’ voices what they call the “monumentality” or presence they lacked in the film. The interaction between the darkness in the gallery and the eerie stories presented (the fictional story about the white lady who keeps appearing before Kaiser Wilhelm II, the soldier who describes how people become ghosts) sets the stage for what Lange and Scheffner describe as a ghost story. “We call them ghosts because we don’t want to present them as victims,” Scheffner said. “Just like ghosts, they are incredibly powerful. We don’t want people to feel sorry for them but take them seriously as ghosts who speak, who have a power that we have to accept today.”
Making of... The Halfmoon Files opens on Mon Mar 7 at Project 88.