Updated: Nov 28, 2020
This talk was presented in August 2018 as part of the fourth annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of Culture, Calcutta.
I must start with a confession: I am not a historian. I have been a history teacher only because I have a fascination for stories—be it stories of the present or stories of the past. And I developed this curiosity, I think, only after I stopped studying history in school. Unfortunately, I did not feel so excited and curious when I was in school; but after that, when I travelled and lived in different places and I saw the world around me, I realized that there are stories just waiting to be discovered and taking those into the classroom is what really excited me. So about a year ago, I moved to Bangalore and I got associated with an organization called Rereeti. Rereeti is a young organization, about three years old, working with museum spaces, heritage spaces, trying to make them more interactive, more exciting for the local communities. So, whether it is children in schools, citizens, the public, adults, families, anybody who is interested and lives around that space—it works on how to make that space more interactive for them.
World War I ended in 1918. Rereeti began to wonder about what really happened at that time and what was India’s role in it—particularly Bangalore and Mysore’s role. We embarked on this particular adventure in February this year , it being the centenary of the war. So it is just a six-month-old project. All I am going to do today is share with you this adventure so far. To begin with, I will share some clues we found in the city of Bangalore and then invite you to arrive at your own deductions about what these clues could mean, maybe even piece together a story from them.
This is one of the first pictures: a column we found at R T Nagar or Munireddy Palya. You can see the plaque mentioning that the column is sacred to the memory of those officers and non-commissioned officers and men of the Mysore Imperial Service Troops who gave their lives during the 1914–1918 world war.
The left side of the column says: ‘The Mysore Transport Corps’ and it lists places where we assume the Corps had gone and fought—Tigris Kut-al-Amara, Baghdad, Mesopotamia—and the years are mentioned as 1916 to 1917. The right side says: ‘Mysore Lancers’ and it mentions the Suez Canal, Egypt, Megiddo, Gaza, Damascus, Palestine—again, the years are mentioned as 1917–1918. The middle one lists names—it is a roll of honour for people who lost their lives during these years at these places.
This is a message from His Highness the Maharaja of Mysore. It was printed and copies were sent to soldiers and officers at the front. It is a really long message but I would like to draw your attention to a few lines: ‘At this hour of supreme struggle of the British Empire and its allies, you enjoy the great honour of forming a part, however small, of the magnificent army which is fighting for the cause of liberty and righteousness [. . .] We have no doubt, whatever the duty assigned to you, you will do it in such a way, as well as, will add fresh lustre to the country and uphold the high traditions of Mysore for loyalty and devotion to the Crown of England’. This is the message that the Maharaja of Mysore sent to his troops at the front.
This is an image of a stamp that has been released early this year in Israel which marks Haifa and what happened in Haifa. You can see the image of the Indian cavalry and the mention of World War I.
This is an extract from an army dispatch sent by General Sir Edmund Allenby dated October 31, 1918. Here too I would like to draw your attention to a few lines at the end:
‘While the Mysore Lancers were clearing the rocky slopes of Mount Carmel, the Jodhpur Lancers charged through the defile and, riding over the enemy machine guns, galloped into the town where a number of Turks were speared on the streets. Over 1,350 prisoners and 17 guns were taken in this operation.’
So, this is just a sample of some of the clues. Has anybody pieced together some kind of a story from this? Maybe we have time for one or two responses? Do you have questions after seeing these clues? Any ideas about whose war it was? Who was fighting?
When we started and we came upon these clues, we did not find them in this order. This is just how I have placed them for you. We had many questions, for we felt we held only one strand in a very complicated story. Yes, Mysore and Bangalore played a role. We had the voice of the Maharaja telling us it was our duty, that we really needed to be there at the front. But where was the voice of the soldier? Did he feel the same sense of duty? Or did he not? What were the others doing in Mysore at that time? The families of the soldiers—did they feel the same sense of loyalty? What was happening in Bangalore—because Bangalore Cantonment is one the oldest cantonments in the country. There was an entire community of British officers and families as well as Indian units living there. What was happening there? Were they also being sent to war? What did they think about it? And then the larger picture— what was happening in the rest of India? So, we set about trying to find more clues to see if we could put some kind of a story together.
This is Bangalore Cantonment. Lots of old schools, churches, hospitals, institutions, memories, stories. We wanted some of those stories.We got records from some of these institutions—not all. Some we were able to access; some were in tatters. Church records and burial registers told us which units of the British regiments were present at that time. School records that St. Joseph’s Boys’ High School shared with us, magazines of 1914–1915 which mentioned old boys who’d gone to war, even first-person accounts of what they did there—that was a huge resource and treasure.
We found a statue of an unknown soldier with a roll of honour. Another statue at St. Joseph’s Boys’ High School with a roll of honour.
We did a comparison of these names and we realized that many of the names were the same, but there were no units, no regiments mentioned. So, how do we find out who these people were?
This is a very interesting space. It was a tea room constructed during the war years in the St. John’s High School compound. Today, it is the school canteen. So, a hundred-year-old building serving the same purpose—earlier for soldiers, today for students. And there is a cenotaph in the same complex bearing the names of soldiers who died in the war. All these names in the Cantonment monuments are British soldiers’ names. So, again, where were the Indian regiments? Where were the Indian soldiers? Was it just the Mysore troops that went? Were there other native regiments that were part of the British army? At every step, we just kept having more questions and ended up looking for more answers.
This is a monument located right in the middle of one of the most popular roads in Bangalore—Brigade Road. And it is called the Pioneer Corps Memorial. It is a memorial to the First Madras Pioneers, one of the units which started in the 1700s under the Madras Presidency and then moved to Bangalore Cantonment some time in the 1800s and set up base near Ulsoor Lake. They are still based there. Today, they are called the Madras Engineering Group or the MEG. We realized that they also must have played a role in the war. So we went to the MEG cantonment and visited the museum.
There is a memorial inside the MEG grounds which earlier existed outside, near the lake. It is called the Sapper Memorial and all the plaques around it mention names of people who were part of Queen Victoria’s Own Sappers and Miners—that is what the unit was called. All of these people took part in different theatres of war, they had very specialized roles. The Sapper or Miner is someone who does engineering tasks in the military, in the army—the people who dug the trenches, demolished bridges, constructed new bridges and invented something that was used even in World War II—we found out all of this when we visited their museum. We found photographs, strategy maps, award certificates. What you see on the left are photographs of the trials of the Bangalore Torpedo being invented. This was a weapon invented in Bangalore by the Sappers and Miners during World War I. Trials of it were carried out and it was used towards the end of World War I in Mesopotamia, East Africa—nearly two decades later, used more in World War II. So, it is one of the technological inventions of World War I, invented right there in Bangalore.
We were looking for stories of people. The soldiers were still missing from all this. We found names but not too many stories—we did not find letters, we did not find too many photographs. What we did find to start off with was a very endearing story of the grey mule. Since mechanized transport was not very popular during World War I, there were very few vehicles and ambulances. Most of what was transported was on the backs of animals—mules and horses. So, the grey mule was enlisted in the Sappers and Miners in about 1903 and it saw active service in World War I. When the war ended, most of these animals were left in the countries where they had been taken, because it was just too expensive to bring them back. The commanding officer of the Sappers and Miners made a special request and the grey mule was brought back. When it retired, it continued to stay on in the MEG premises. In 1920, when a commemoration and the pensioners’ parade took place, it led the parade with its old companion. After it died, it was buried in the MEG grounds and its grave continues to be there. Its four hooves were made into ink stands—two of which were sent to the UK regimental centre and two continued to be in the MEG regimental centre in Bangalore.
We were really amazed by this story and we knew that there were many more. We wanted more ‘people’ stories: What did the soldiers have to say? What kind of lives did they have or lead? Did they want to go to war at all? What did their families have to say? So, that was the purpose behind starting this project. We wanted to see whether there were any memories, any stories that we could try and bring together, to piece together a wholesome narrative for the children of Bangalore to know what happened in their city a hundred years ago. That is why we started this project. We called it ‘White Pepper Black Pepper’. We named it so because when the soldiers wrote letters, they often used code names to refer to different armies and different people. There are references to the Indian soldiers calling them- selves ‘black pepper’, there is also a reference to them calling the British soldiers ‘white pepper’ and ‘red pepper’—there are two or three of these references. And so we went with the ‘White Pepper Black Pepper’.
Like I said, our purpose was to find stories—what had happened a hundred years ago? Are there still memories, stories that we can collect, document and then present, in a way, to the people of the city today? We also wanted to see if there was a local connection to this global event that we study about in school very briefly. World War I is described only through events in Europe, and what happened after seems to be more important—the impact of the war or the consequences of the war. We also wanted to make sure that we were able to take this to schoolchildren not as an academic exercise but as a process in which they could participate, a process that would allow them to make this history their own in some way.
Our project had a couple of phases. We started with background research, and that is work in progress because we’re coming up with new clues every day, and we still have more questions than answers. Nevertheless, whatever we were able to put together, we designed into a three-week school engagement. We were lucky to find three partner schools and I am happy to say that two of them are represented here today—Vidyashilp Academy and St. Joseph’s Boys’ High School. The third is Army Public School PRTC. We wanted to try and get three schools with three different connections to the war. Army Public School PRTC had a connection with the armed forces; St. Joseph’s Boys’ School, one of the oldest schools in the city was located in the Ban- galore Cantonment; Students at Vidyashilp were from families and neighbourhoods in Bangalore with connections that needed to be explored. We decided that we would not just share what we found with the children, but bring them on board as partners in the process of research and curation. In the end, what we wanted was to create a travelling exhibition.
Currently the structure of the travelling exhibition is under production, and, every day, there are updates from the studio where it is being constructed. The exhibition is meant to reach out to schoolchildren beyond our three partner schools. And we hope that it will inspire its viewers with a sense of engagement—not only as spectators but also as those who are engaged with the information and experiences that the exhibition presents.
It has five rooms and the exhibition is built around the story of a child finding in his or her house a trunk containing photographs, letters, a gas mask and various other things which this child has no idea about. The child takes these objects to one of the grandparents, then to the mother, and asks them about these. There are two tunnels, each meant to give the children an experience of what being in the trenches felt like. In the first tunnel, we are going to have smoke. Non-dangerous, non-harmful smoke, and it will be dark. The second one will have ups and down, so that they crouch and crawl as they move through it. We are also trying to have a soldier kit. The original soldier kit weighed more than 35 kg—we are trying to create a kit which children can carry, to see how it felt like to carry your whole world with you. Each of the rooms explores the whole story of World War I through four or five themes—the events of the war, the other people related to the war, warfare and technology (the most popular topic with the children), and the Bangalore connection.
We hope that through this process of continuing research, we will be able to create an online archive where resources related to India’s role in the war can all be in one place. Because we realize that locating that information is very difficult. There are a lot of archives in other countries containing information on their role in the war and their soldiers, but there is very little that we can look for directly. So, we are hoping to create something like that as well as to share some of the material that we have created for our engagement with schools as teaching-learning resources. Whether it is an infographic which tells you how many soldiers, how much money, how much material, or a map that tells you where Indian soldiers went—we hope to create simple resources and have them uploaded for teachers to access and use in their schools. That is more or less what we have been trying to do or what we are hoping to achieve in the near future.
I have showed you pictures of some of our clues, and this is what we cover with the children when we do sources of history and where we can find this information. While it was easy for us to lay our hands on some of the written information—the state archives, Vidhan Sabha or State Legislative Assembly archives or church records and school records, there have also been books in the recent past where a lot of people have written about India’s role. Some of these books are really beautifully written, some are dry and factual. We just tried to get as much written material as we could and went through them. The oral sources and the material sources—those were where we really struggled. We were very lucky that Bangalore was one of the oldest cantonments, so we found about seven memorial monuments in the city of Bangalore dedicated exclusively to World War I. Before we started, we thought that there was just the Pioneer Corps Memorial on Brigade Road because that is what everyone sees. But we found six others after that. There may be more—small plaques inside cantonment, barracks, which we may not have found yet.
But it was material related to soldiers—letters, photographs or uniforms—that was an area of struggle. Oral stories, I think, was the one area where we did not find enough. So, we thought that we should start a social media campaign and reach out to people and ask them if their families lived in Bangalore for over a hundred years, or had a connection with World War I, if someone was a descendant of someone who fought in the war, to get in touch with us. Some connections are indeed trickling in, but very, very slowly. We have about 10 contacts now who are descendants of people who fought in World War I and we are looking at ways in which we can document their stories. But, yes, this is an area we have been struggling with.
This research of ours went into schools. We gave our three partner schools the option of having about 20–24- hour engagements, split up into three/four/six sessions of variable durations, because the biggest constraint that schools have is time. How do we take out time in the timetable? How do we make sure that we do not lose out on too many classes or that these sessions are not too short? For instance, a 40-minute engagement for something like this would be difficult. This was one of the things we battled with, but we managed to get time. We divided our engagement into four steps. They were too short to be called ‘phases’. First, learning and capacity building of the children; second, research and enquiry—how they documented that research and presented them, and then, the last two, perspective building and the expression of what they thought about, learnt about and engaged with.
It was a very exciting three weeks in all the three schools. We worked with children across Classes 9 to 12. Some schools gave us Class 9 students, one school gave us a history club which had children from Classes 9 and 10, another school put together a group of children interested in history which was across Classes 9, 10, 11, and 12. So we had all four age groups. We used a lot of maps and visuals in the first few classes to help them place this on a geo- graphic context, because for us to say ‘this happened in Europe and this happened in Austria and this in Turkey’ did not place it anywhere in the children’s heads. So we used maps, we made games around maps, made them find these places as teams—look for new places on the map, whoever remembered a related place could come forward and put it on the map—so, lots of engagement with maps.
We then divided them into the theme groups based on the themes that we had, and each group made a mind-map first on their theme—what was it that they felt could get covered under this particular theme. If their theme was, say, Bangalore connection, then what would be the places where they could get information, what could get covered under this, how would they find more information—because next they were going to embark on the research. They had to bring us information to engage with for the exhibition. So, we gave them some sources. We knew they could not go into libraries and find some of these documents, so we shared with them photocopies of some of these as readings. We gave them links to websites they could check and asked them to get us information—whatever they could about their theme.
The research also included field trips. Each school visited one or two or three sites depending on how much time we had with them and we tried to cover different kinds of memorials, so they could also understand some basic things about the memorials: Why are they built? What kind of structures constitute memorials? What can you learn from a memorial or a monument? How do you find clues and what do clues tell you? How do you record what you learn? So, we created simple tools and templates in which they could document what they were finding out, as well as document questions to which they did not find answers and felt they needed to go back and find out about more. They also did some artwork around the monuments, trying to represent what they saw as the structure, what it meant to them.
The next phase was putting together all this research and trying to create exhibits for the travelling exhibition. At this stage, we gave them very structured spaces and instructions because we did not have the time to let them do everything that they wanted. We were hoping, of course, that these groups would continue to work on this with their teachers and their schools, and would create their own displays. But, what they did for us was make 3D models for the Bangalore connection. So, the exhibition had a huge map on which were placed 3D models of these memorials the children had made. They created drawings of the medals that were won by Indian soldiers. After finding out about these medals, even created medal index cards based on a sample we found online. They created these for the soldiers of the Mysore Imperial Service Troops who won the Victoria Cross in India, and St. Joseph’s Boys’ School students created it for the former students who had also won awards. We also gave them descriptions of some of these battles from books and encouraged them to visualize it as a strategy map. Because we could not find too many maps, we encouraged them to create those, imagine what it looked like on a map—and a few of the groups were engaged in that. One group in each school also looked at guns and the use of them as playthings, and if there could be a connection of that with the human tendency for conflict and war. They went around, asking teenagers and parents questions about guns, and then entered that data and even helped us analyse it in a manner.
After research and enquiry, we felt that the facts were one thing, but it was important for them to experience and have some kind of an emotional connect with what had happened during the war. So, we used different tools to help them build a perspective on what the soldier’s life was like. We started by giving them photographs, and, in groups or in pairs, they interpreted these photographs, came up with their own answers and were able to find out small things about the lives of Indian soldiers on the front. We asked them to sit under their tables or under their benches to get the feeling of being in a trench, and read out to them extracts of soldiers’ letters. If you would have seen any of these letters, you would know that some of them are really horrifying. When they first sat under the bench, these children were very amused—they were playful and being silly with each other. But when we started reading out the letters, they started to react. It started with their response to hearing about the assassination of the Archduke. There was an extract by someone from Bengal who had written that ‘when we heard it on the radio, we thought it’s just a small thing and it’ll blow over. Little did we imagine that we would be going across thousands of miles just because that one man was assassinated, to take part in this war’. From there on, to reaching France, to reaching Mesopotamia, to dealing with climatic conditions, to being in the trenches, to being suddenly exposed to new forms of warfare that they had never heard of. For example, the first time chemical gas was released, there was a soldier who wrote back to his family saying, ‘There is a smoke that comes and it just makes us unconscious, you can’t do anything—even if you have a gun in your hand—to the bombs and shells that were going oﬀ and the flame-throwers.’ I don’t know if any of you have heard of flame-throwers—it was a cylinder which had gas that, when released, immediately caught fire. So, the soldier carrying it was in danger of going up in flames if the cylinder burst. And if he aimed it at someone, the nozzle released that gas and that person went up in flames. So, they wrote about this, that there was a kind of ‘magic’ in a cylinder which, when it came out, caught flames. There were all these descriptions, and then of seeing death and destruction so closely, of having to live in a trench where there were corpses of soldiers who had perhaps fought with them the previous day, of having to march for hours, of being stuck in a wet trench, of not having dry socks for weeks on end. These were simple things maybe, but it really had an impact on the children. The concept of soldiers and war that we have is of sacrifice and nobility. One does not think of the struggles and the difficulty—the simple difficulties of not getting food that you like, or not being able to hear from your family for months, or being homesick. We tried to give the children a sense of these different stories. We also told them that there were many layers to these stories. We do not have all the stories; one set of stories says that the British really looked after the Indian soldiers and there was genuine friendship and camaraderie between the troops. Another set says that there were some Indian soldiers that were so unhappy with their situation that they decided to run away; they deserted their troop and were shot dead when they defected. We tried to give the children a glimpse of these various stories just to make them realize that there are different layers, different kinds of stories and one never has the whole picture.
Based on all these exercises of emotional connection and perspective building, the children wrote letters as if they were soldiers going to war. They also tried to write letters as a family member waiting for a letter from someone away at war. They then put this together in their group. They read them out to each other and tried to create a collective story which they represented using story boards. We had asked them to use tools that children like to engage with—lots of colourful post-its, doodles, graffiti, all of that. All of these had a very similar theme of the soldier going, of the family waiting, the difficulties for the soldier coming back. I think, for the children, a happy ending was what they always looked for and wanted to portray; they did bring that in and the medals that had been won. It was a way for them to share what they had been thinking.
We then ended this engagement with a lot of discussion around war. We had shared facts, information, we had helped them establish an emotional connect. Now it was important to relate all this to ‘now’. What does war mean today? What are the causes of war? What is the impact of war? Does war exist today? We used poems. There is a blurred version of one here, it is one of the most famous poems related to World War I, and it’s called ‘In Flanders Fields’. It was written by a Canadian doctor, John McCrae, who was posted at Flanders and it was a poem which had inspired the poppy flower to become the symbol of remembrance for World War I. The other poem we read—’Born to Die’, by Simran Gill who writes as a Syrian child on the conflict in Syria. The children read the poems and we asked them to do a comparison. Both poems begin with talk of destruction—the fields have been destroyed, the flowers are dying, and how nature around both places is getting destroyed, and both poems end by saying ‘I am not at peace’—but the reasons for this are very different. In the Flanders poem, the soldier urges his comrades—
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep . . .
In the other poem, the child in Syria says if the war is not ended and if there is no peace, if their land is not saved, then the child will not be at peace.
It was a way of seeing what war can mean to different people. To somebody who is engaged in war and why— what is motivating the soldier to say that, even if he loses his life, victory is most important; and, on the other side, to someone—or, to the child at least—who is suffering due to a war in their country being fought for reasons unknown to them.
We then had discussions around war and peace, and which one the children would choose. Naturally, every child said that they would choose peace. When we did a show of hands, everybody wanted peace. But what does peace mean? Is peace just doves and an olive leaf and the symbols that we create? So, they defined it. Somebody said happiness, somebody said prosperity, somebody said calm, and, eventually, we came to the conclusion that it means handling conflict in peaceful ways. If you are able to handle differences in conflict with understanding, with conversation, with dialogue, then, there is peace in the world. We then related it to our everyday actions. When we choose and do things every day, is each one of them not tending towards war? But, is it a peaceful method or a non-peaceful method that I am choosing? So, we had sheets of paper put up with choices—fairly simple choices—and the children went around thinking about their own lives and their own actions. One of them was being a friend or a bully, another one said hostility or harmony, another, competition or col- laboration, and so on. These were words that the children were aware of and which influenced their everyday actions.
We asked them to make certain choices—which they made—and then expressed what they were taking back from this project.
So, over three weeks, that was our school engagement. There were 12 sessions, we worked with about 80 students, about 40 hours of engagement—maybe a little more, field visits for all these three schools. Right now, like I said, the exhibition is under production and we are hoping that by the end of this month we will be able to start taking it to schools across the city where more children will be able to go through the experience of this story.
It is a work in progress. The project is just six months old. We have learnt certain things at this stage based on the challenges that we faced. First—our project grew very organically. We started by finding clues. With each one, we just kept moving, found more contacts, so the circle of people who were giving us answers kept growing. But, we realized that to have identified and contacted the important stakeholders first might have made it a little smoother. We also realized that we needed to get critical information first. But, given that a lot of this information is documented in very different spaces, collecting it has been a challenge. For example, for some of the British regiments, there are no documents related to them with the Indian Army here. Also, some of the units of the Indian Army have now become other units, so there may not be too much documentation on where the original unit was—such things are very difficult to trace.
But, one thing that has helped is the questions that people have asked us: Why World War I? Why do you want to remember the war again and again? What do you think the children will learn from this? Why do you want to tell them about technology from a hundred years ago, when we are in a new technological age? Is it to commemorate and remember the sacrifice of the soldiers or the injustice that the British did to us? We have been asked all these questions by the various people we have engaged with, and that has helped us revisit our purpose—Why are we doing this? What do we want the children to take away from this experience? And we have constantly tried to be clear about that our- selves, that all we want is for the children to have a local connection with something that happened very long ago, to be curious about what happened a hundred years ago, to be equipped with some tools, to be able to find answers to the questions that they have or will have. I think that was, in a nutshell, what we set out to do.
What we hope to do now is engage with many more schools, partner with more individuals and organizations— people from academia, people who have done research in this field, people who have written books, who are working with children around museums and histories—we are hoping to engage with many more people, create an engagement for the public. This was just one way to reach out to three schools and this exhibition will hopefully go to more schools, to the public also. But, we are trying to develop other tools that can engage the public of Bangalore in similar experiences. One example is a mobile treasure hunt. We have mostly done heritage walks in spaces in cities. But when we wanted to create one around the memorials of Bangalore, we realized that one cannot walk to all these places because they are so far away from one another that it will not be possible to cover them on foot. So, I learnt something new—that there is a computer application called Gamify on which you can create a treasure hunt across a city by uploading the clues and mapping the places. We partnered with them, chose five memorials, created the clues and they were able to build a Treasure Hunt. So if you log on to the app, you get the first clue; you go to the first place, you do it at your own time in your own vehicle and it can be four or ten people or one person—it is up to you. We are hoping to create more such interesting tools, to do similar projects on locally relevant stories. Because, I think, it is a process for children to realize that the city where they live, the buildings that they see every day, the roads that they walk on, days that are important in the city—they all have a connection with something that happened a really long time ago. We hope to do more such projects to make the study of history engaging, exciting and thought-provoking, so that children are able to relate it to where they are right now in their life, in their city.
We have got a lot of help from Leeds University, the National Institute of Design—that is where the exhibition is being created by one of their very talented exhibition- design students who is working with us; the United Service Institution of India—a branch of the armed forces and they have a unit which looks at the armed forces history; one of the military historians, a content advisor who helps us navigate through all this information on the armed forces that we get, and, of course, the three incredible schools we have been working with.
So, this is the Rereeti team, a very small team right now, depending a lot on support and encouragement we get from others in education, in history, in the heritage space. And, this is the adventure that we have embarked on.
Audience Member 1. In our school, we have a heritage club and sometimes we don’t know what to do with them. We do Powerpoint presentations, we take them to the museums, but sometimes it is not enough. So giving them proper purpose to engage with local history will make it more worthwhile. My question to you is: Are you working in Calcutta?
Pradhan. No, not yet. As of now, the exhibition in itself can only travel within the city. But, as it is a travelling exhibition, we hope to take it to other places also. Like I said, we are a small team based in Bangalore, but we are happy to connect virtually with you and see how we can do something together. Having said that, there is a lot that your Heritage Club can probably do in Calcutta because there is so much evidence of British history around—there are monuments, there are stories waiting to be found. I think all you need to do is move out of the classroom and just look for them.
Audience Member 2. I have two questions. First, I was wondering whether your organization—since you said that it is still a work in progress and very nascent—has considered tying up with United States’ schools, or maybe, sometime in the future, to tie up with schools globally? After all, you are working on India and particularly Mysore’s connection with World War I. So, it would be interesting to later try and see the local his- tory alongside the global history, and how they are intertwined. So, that’s more of a thought. Second, while undertaking this initiative, could you elaborate on the ways in which you tried to get students to realize the skill set that history as a subject and discipline gives an individual or a community? Unfortunately, there have been so many discussions indirectly about history as a discipline and culture and opportunities and challenges and so on, but one key area we really need to focus on is: Why would people see utility in history besides sheer joy? First of all, there are very few people in the country who would take up humanities by choice and, I think, that is very important, and the initiative you are doing could play a huge role as you expand to probably link in—what are the skills, the fact that no other subject gives you such a multi-disciplinary perspective to make you a better citizen, a more empathetic human being and so on, and then, of course, by integrating the methodologies and embedding that more in the entire process—be it through oral history, archival work or something more.
Pradhan. Yes, we are trying to connect with other schools in other parts of the country and then, hopefully, out- side the country also. What you said about children— what skills and what utility out of this will be realized for the discipline of the subject history—we did not spell it out at the time, but a few things we definitely focused on were: How do you deal with information? When you are looking at the past and you want to find answers, you will go to different sources. One was the multiplicity of sources. Second, when you receive something from a source, how do you ensure verification, accuracy, how do you record that? And then, how does it connect with other sources that you have collected? So, that as a process is something we tried to spell out to the children and we did say that they could use this with other projects of similar nature. Our hope is that the schools that we have engaged with have picked up these tools, templates and skills, and will now be able to apply them into their classes. This is why, I think, now—after yesterday’s and today’s deliberations here—I am realizing or beginning to see the outline of how we can spell them out as skills of the discipline.
Audience Member 3. This is related to the sources. How much of the colloquial or local sources were you able to get and were you able to corroborate with what you got from the British sources, say, from the Maharaja’s letter which I believe was a translation? Could you connect what you got from your colloquial, local sources to what you got from the British sources?
Pradhan. One reason why the scope of this is a little limited right now is that we were able to lay our hands mostly on official sources. So, British—in the sense of cantonment records, at the state archives, in residency records, land records, municipal records—all of which are in English are handwritten, typed and you are able to go and read them. Search records were in English, even records available from the Mysore government. There was a book that they brought out called Mysore’s Role in the Great War—1914 to 1918. It was a government publication brought out in 1919, I think, which states everything that the kingdom did for the four years of the war. It is like a report. So, it made life very easy for us because it was at least a good starting point. We also got a lot of administrative records, official correspondence around the setting up of the units, where these units should be placed, especially around the armed forces. The Mysore Imperial Service Troops, the units were actually raised in the late 1800s, much before the war, just for service to the Crown. So, that whole series of correspondence was talking about them. Then again, like the Dusra assembly which happened in the Mysore kingdom, a report was read out there every year like an annual report being presented. The dewan would present it. We did look at two or three sources to verify, but, right now, it is limited to mainly the official sources.
We have tried to find out if there was literature produced at that time in the regional language by poets, novelists, but we have not come across anything that refers to the war very directly yet. And like I said, we are still struggling with the oral stories and the memories. Out of the 10 people with whom we have now made contact, one is the great-grandson of the commanding officer of the Mysore Imperial Service Troops, Colonel Desraj Urs. We got in touch with the great-grandson and, through him, we are hoping that the royal family will share some letters or memorabilia again. But this is how limited the scope of the written sources is right now. Also the books that have been published in the last couple of years—with the centenary coming up, some incredible books have been published, which teachers could use and some that students can read as well. But, most of them mention troops from the north of India. So, for us, because we were trying to focus on Bangalore and the Mysore state, none of these books have letter extracts by soldiers from the south of India. Of course, it is also in keeping with the British martial races theory, so there were only certain regions that they took most of the troops from, hence, there were more letters from soldiers of those areas. Literacy was also an issue. Many of the soldiers did not write back home because of obvious reasons of illiteracy. So, we have not had too many personal extracts, letters from soldiers of the south. We are still hoping to get more connections. If any of you have a connection with World War I, if anybody in your family was there, please contact us anytime and we’d love to find out more about your connection with the war.
Rishika Mukhopadhyay. I am Rishika, I’m doing my Ph.D. from the University of Exeter. This was very fascinating, the way you included children in this process and, in my mind, it is perhaps what we call the participatory research method. I was wondering, when the children collected data, they presented it and the ideas—whether the idea of the exhibits came from you as an organization or from them as individuals/independent researcher/groups?
Pradhan. Since the data had to be fed into the travelling exhibition, we had to give them certain structures for the exhibits. But, there was freedom for them to create other things. For example, one group at Vidyashilp Academy created a timeline across three charts of the events that happened in the world. We had not asked them to do that, that is how they wanted to present it. What we needed for the exhibition was given as very specific instructions because we were working with limited time and we knew that, to feed into the exhibition, we needed exhibits of a certain kind. But, each of the schools is now hoping that when the exhibitions come to their school, the children, in the meantime, will have worked on presenting their research in other ways and do a display in the school. So, they are also sharing with their classmates, with their seniors, with the others in the school about what they did, and we are hoping that their parents get a chance to come and see the exhibition also, so that the children can tell them what they had done.
Audience Member 4. We work with communities, so I could relate very much to this idea of exhibiting wherever we are. What is very empowering is that, in this case, there are academics first, then teachers, then the schoolchildren—all these have become fluid in this project. They were almost like researchers. I wanted to ask: When you encourage them to visit sites, did you, for example, ask them to visit public offices? Municipalities? I have worked in a primary school and tried to do certain things as a substitute teacher because I was the marginalized art teacher. But the thing is that, even a visit to a post office, or taking that walk, it becomes such an onerous task with permissions and structures in place. Did the teachers also participate in that school?
Pradhan. That was one thing we made very sure of, that the teachers who were a part of the project were also participants. In fact, at Vidyashilp Academy, the whole history department was part of the project. One or two teachers would be associated with a different theme group, they would try and help the children with their research, help them to analyse some of it or express it in certain ways. They came with us on the field trips also.
We could not visit many offices and institutions like you mentioned. We chose memorials because the idea was also to familiarize the children with these historical monuments in the city about which they were not aware. The Munireddy Palya column was about a 10–15 minute walk from the Army Public School where we did the project. When we reached the school on the day of the field trip, they were very excited about where they were going. We simply told them to start walking—we did not tell them where we were going. We began walking and, as we approached, they were actually disappointed: ‘This? This is what you brought us to see? We see it every day! ’Then, when we told them the story, they were most astounded. They had not known it was hundred years old or why it had been built. And then there were further questions.
So, for the purpose of this project, we chose specific memorials. Most of them were in public spaces— two in the middle of roads, one in a park, one in the school. We also got them to think about why the memorial was in that space. What did it mean in the space? Would it have been better to have a memorial in a different space? Why was it a column? Why was it a soldier? We had a lot of discussions around what memorials are and this need of ours to commemorate. The need to mark memory and how did that start and why was it needed and why did it change after World War I, when, for the first time, there were mass casual- ties and people dying away from their homelands. So, their families needed something to mark and some- where to go to grieve. All of these stories got linked to these field visits.
But, yes, when we drove around to some of these central Bangalore areas which were cantonment areas earlier—the children knew M G Road, Brigade Road—but they did not know the stories behind these names—why was it called ‘Infantry Road’ or which was the first church in the cantonments. So, we were able to point these out to them. St. Joseph’s School’s boys have a memorial in their school which they know of but they have never stopped and read the names. Then, they read these accounts from the magazines and the story fit. That name that they see there, they could put in a context and a geographical space at a particular time—‘he went to Mesopotamia and this is what he did’ and so on. We were trying to get them to piece these clues together and try and see what they could build out of that. The teachers helped get all the per- missions and the bus and other technicalities—that we did not have to get into, and that was a huge help.
Audience Member 5. Museums all over the world are being questioned for this. You talked about exhibition making and museum making. This is essentially a ‘war’ museum. So, have you considered if this is going to be another war museum or a war exhibition for peace?
Pradhan. In fact, around the exhibition also, what we are trying to present is some of the discussions that the children had. When they spoke about courage and responsibility, what it meant for the soldier, the children we worked with made lists of actions that define courage for us today. What does it mean for me to be courageous? The children wrote things like ‘going and talking to the principal’, or ‘admitting a mistake’. So, some of these will be interactive points in the exhibition also, relating that hundred-year-old event and those stories and facts to our ‘now’. How this information is relevant to our now is also what we are including in the exhibition.
Images courtesy: Rereeti
Neha Pradhan Arora is an educator who has been working with schools and communities for the creation of meaningful and engaging learning experiences.
Rereeti works towards revitalizing museums and heritage sites and making them more relevant to students, families and local communities.