Times of India

‘Please reach me to India’
Neha Thirani

“The German Emperor is very wise. He wages war against all kings. When the war is over, many stories will be printed. In India the Englishman rules. We had no knowledge of any other king. When the war began, we heard of several kings.”
Sib Singh, a Sikh soldier from Amritsar, addressed these words into the funnel of a gramophone in the prisoner of war camp in Wünsdorf on December 9, 1916. Singh was one of thousands of Indian soldiers who fought for the British army during World War I in Flanders and Northern France and was captured by German soldiers. At the beginning of the war, the Indian army in fact outnumbered the British Army and eventually the Indian contribution to the war effort reached 1,40,000 men on the Western Front and nearly 7,00,000 in the Middle East. Of these, the 1922 War Office report listed 64,454 Army war dead.
As part of one of Germany’s failed war strategies to incite North African and Indian soldiers to rebel against their colonial rulers, the soldiers were transferred to special camps in the neighbouring towns of Zossen and Wünsdorf, south of Berlin. Segregated in the ‘Weinberg Camp’ and the ‘Halfmoon Camp’, the soldiers were to be subjected to political and nationalist propaganda aimed at instigating them against their rulers. When the policy of indoctrination failed, these ‘exotic’ soldiers piqued the interest of scientists who carried out various research projects in the fields of anthropology, ethnology, linguistics, musicology and jurisprudence.
One such project was carried out by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission (RPPC), which consisted of 30 scientists from the fields of linguistics, musicology and anthropology. Singh’s voice was one of hundreds recorded onto the 1,650 wax records made between 1915 and 1918 by the commission to serve linguistic research purposes and at the same time create a “voice museum of all peoples”, to quote Wilhelm Doegen, the organizer of the commission. These recordings containing legends, folktales, religious texts and texts freely formulated by the prisoners themselves are now part of the Berlin Sound Archive housed at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
The archives came to the attention of German historian and cultural scientist Britta Lange, who was working on her post-doctorate project about German and Austrian war prisoners between 1915 and 1918. Sifting through these archives for his acclaimed documentary film The Halfmoon Files (2007), filmmaker Philip Scheffner came across Britta Lange’s name as the only other person who was accessing these archives since 1916. In 2007 they jointly conceptualised the exhibition Making Of...The Halfmoon Files. “We were coming at this subject from two very different angles and the installation is a merging of our works,” says Scheffner.
The four-channel sound and video installation by the German duo addressing the colonial context of the sound recordings is on display in Mumbai and Delhi through March. The audio-visual narrative combines the voices of the prisoners, with statements of the scientists and pictures of the camp, to examine the intersection of war, orientalism, colonialism, scientific research, media and the creation of history.
“In the beginning it was just a lot of sound in a sense, as neither of us understands any of the Indian languages and only 30 per cent of the recordings were translated,” says Scheffner. “Then we began to do our own translations.”
As they dug deeper into the archives, they found records about political propaganda, the use of these prisoners as scientific subjects, stories by the prisoners about war, their opinion of the village of Wünsdorf and their views on scientists who were conducting these experiments. “As the recordings were made for linguistic purposes and it didn’t really matter what the content of their speeches were, the prisoners could talk about all sorts of personal matters,” says Lange. “The truths about their situation and the conditions of the camp come slipping through.”
However, some common themes recurred, “Stories of home, not being able to go home, the insecurity of not knowing when one can leave this foreign land, what do we know about this war, stories of hunger — these occurred over and over in the recordings where the soldiers spoke about their personal experiences,” says Scheffner. Bela Singh from Amritsar recorded a poem in Punjabi on December 8, 1916 which spoke of his experiences on arriving in Europe: “When we arrived in the city of Marseille, we ate well. Thus, all were happy. We were placed in cars and the major gave the order: ‘Go now, oh Lions, in the trenches, go! Fight the Germans, why do you walk backwards?’ For two months we sat in the trenches. A few lions had had enough of fighting.” Over and over, these ghostly voices question the validity of the war and ask to be sent home. Mall Singh speaking on December 11, 1916 says, “There once was a man. This man came into the European war. Germany captured this man. He wishes to return to India. If God has mercy, he will make peace soon. This man will go away from here.”
The academics carrying out the studies, often professors at the Berlin University, attempted to record traditional songs and texts from different places. Thus the archive now contains a variety of folk songs, cultural myths and chants from individual ethnic groups. Bhawan Singh, who was known as one of the most intelligent in the reports of Heinrich Lüders, in addition to speaking Khas, Hindustani and English had even learnt some German; “He of all people had an unshakeable belief in ghosts and claimed to have seen them at home one night on the river bank; in the camp he saw the ghosts of his dead comrades as they strolled up and down the training ground in the moonlight and wrote a short essay for us in Khas about the various types of demons he was familiar with,” wrote Heinrich Lüders. On December 8, 1916 he recorded, “When a person dies, he constantly roams about and a ghost. It is the soul that roams about. The roaming soul is like air. So a ghost is like air. It can go everywhere.”
In the personal narratives of WWI, the exhibition provides an alternate and even subversive historiography — presenting a different kind of authenticity from the official documents that historians are accustomed to. “We in Germany are used to receiving WW1 history through official accounts such as speeches of figures of authority and documents from institutions,” says Lange speaking of a recording that presents a detailed account of a soldier from Calcutta being captured by German soldiers. “These voices offer the possibility of a parallel historical narrative.” As recordings made in 1916 are heard in 2011 they have a ghostly presence in the present which alters the power equations of our perceptions.
The stories of the war are told by the survivors. These recordings however bring to the fore voices that have been forever silenced. Jasbahadur Rai, a 23-year old Gurkha soldier, recorded this piece on June 6, 1916, shortly before his death. “The attack in the war of the 14th year, the world is shocked at the event. It was summer then and the atmosphere made it hot too. At least provide me with a fan for some air. I do not wish to live in Europe. Please reach me to India.”