Gateways Network Member Jack Davies reviews the Voices of India conference that took place in Brighton on 21 November 2015. Jack Davies is a PhD candidate and an Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent researching the use of British stately homes as hospitals during the First World War.
The Voices of India Conference that took place on November 21st in the Old Courtroom in Brighton brought together scholars from all over the world. Speakers gathered together from the UK, Germany, India and Canada to return the ‘voices’ of the 1.4 million men in the Indian army during the First World War. The conference was organised as a joint venture between Brighton Pavilion & Museums, Gateways of the First World War, The Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research, USI of India and The UK Punjab Heritage Association.
The location of this conference could not be more appropriate when one considers Brighton’s involvement in the war. Due to its close proximity to the Western Front, three hospitals were created within the city itself to house the Indian wounded.
With this in mind, the first paper examined the experience of these wounded. Prabhjot Parmar (Fraser Valley) discussed censorship and the letters the wounded sent back to India, effectively returning the voices to the soldiers within Brighton. Similarly, Kevin Bacon (Royal Pavilion) focused on how Brighton’s media portrayed these men and how they emphasised Britain’s benevolence and the pavilion’s royal history to ensure maximum political gain. Both Heike Liebau (Zentrum Moderner Orient) and Adil Chhina (United Service Institute India) utilised fascinating audio clips to bring their subjects’ voices to life. Liebau recreated the lives of men within German prisoner of war camps, while Chhina exposed the legacies and narratives of Indian soldiers. Chhina also shared images of Bhagwan Singh’s wartime experiences – revealing a more humorous side of war than is often remembered.
Bhagwan Singh posing with a shovel, and lounging with his gas mask and weaponry.
Tom Donovan gave a voice to landscapes of Belgium and France, comparing how areas have changed since the end of the conflict. Davinder Dhillion (Chattri Memorial Group) and Glyn Prysor (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) both spoke about the memorials constructed for the Indian army in Brighton and further afield. Amandeep Madra (UK Punjab Heritage Association) discussed the efforts and activities of the UK Punjab Heritage Association, who work to promote public interest in the Sikh soldier. In the final panel, radio presenter Anita Anand discussed the life of Sophia Duleep Singh, Queen Victoria’s goddaughter and suffragette. For the keynote address, Santanu Das and novelist Kamila Shamsie examined the relationship between history and fiction and discussed Shamsie’s newest book A God in Every Stone. The final presentation was a performance of Punjabi folk songs from the war. The conference was closed with a wine reception within the Royal Pavilion itself, which gave delegates the opportunity to mix and discuss the concepts raised throughout the day.
Jaseep, Amanroop and Harleen, Take the Bachelors to War: Songs of Separation. Photo credit: Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton.
The conference provided scholars from different countries the opportunity gather and share their research on the Indian army. The rich variety of papers exposed the many different voices of India, helping to rediscover its significant involvement in the First World War.
In addition to the presentations, conference delegates were also given the opportunity to access the Royal Pavilion and the Brighton Museum. This allowed the delegates the chance to see, first hand, some of the rooms in which wounded Indians were housed. This also included an audio tour that shared the stories of the hospital including its conception, its patients, and the social and cultural context surrounding them.