It was in 1978, when waiting to catch the attention of the Director General Military Operations in his office, that I noticed a card-board object lying on a table by the window. On a closer look subsequently, that cratered card-board was in fact a papermache, three dimensional model of the Namka Chhu Valley. It was a stunning replica of the terrain over which 7 Infantry Brigade had sited its defenses and engaged the PLA troops in October 1962. The master crafts man was, Serbjeet Singh!
I had known the name but not the Man, leave alone his stupendous deeds and fame. A graduate in History (First Division) from Forman College, Lahore but his life’s calling lay elsewhere; the Himalayas were his load-stone, not just their physical attraction but rather the philosophical introspection they inspire among human beings at different levels and how they shape the lives and cultures of those who dwell in and around them. Above all, Serbjeet Singh (SS) perhaps even understood the geostrategic significance of the Himalayas as India’s Northern frontier. For, how else can one explain the presence of a twenty four year old film-maker-cumartist (Charcoal, water colour and Oils), participating of his free volition in the First Flight to Leh (24 May, 1948), and witness the Battles at Zoji La (01 November, 1948), watch the historymaking exploits of the Stuart Tanks of 7 Cavalry beyond Zoji La and all other engagements culminating with the capture of Kargil, on 23 November, 1948!! And all of it filmed, sketched, painted and recorded in text too, in his personal diaries.
From times immemorial but especially beginning with Napoleon’s era, professional artists have been commissioned to paint battles and in particular scenes related to acts of valour (Victoria Cross) which are honored and prized to this day. All such art was a re-creation removed in time and space, even by continents, but based on recorded history and supplemented at times by interviews with eye witnesses. But here was SS who was impelled solely by the inner urgings and the faith of an artist (dharma), not the money motive and certainly not ego. Perhaps SS may have assumed that his actions symbolized the “shoulder-toshoulder” presence of the entire nation with the front-line soldier? And in the same vane I salute SS, as the expression of gratitude to him on behalf of India’s Armed Forces as a whole, for recording on film and through life like paintings , the history of war in J&K in 1948-49.
“…THE FALL OF LEH WILL BE A STRATEGIC BLOW TO INDIA. IT HAS TO BE SAVED AT ALL COST… I WILL BE ON THAT FLIGHT IN YOUR COCK-PIT. SO LET’S GO.” Major General K S Thimayya, DSO, 23 May, 1948.
The history of my narrative (in essence a compilation of nuggets of military history), had its beginnings on the lawns of the Civil Lines Club, Jullander, on a balmy winters evening in February, 1948. SS was screening his 16 mm film on “Life In The Himalayas”, especially for Dr Gopi Chand Bhargava, the Chief Minister of the then Punjab State. Within minutes of commencement, “in strode a tall man who was received by the Chief Minister. That gentleman was Major General K S Thimayya, DSO, GOC Jullander Area.”* Evidently the General was so impressed by the film that he decided to encourage SS to document the combat actions of India’s fledgling Army in J&K, with the offer to SS and his younger brother thus, “If you boys are prepared to make a film on the war in Kashmir, I will send a signal to the GOC-in-C Western Command to help you. Come to my office tomorrow, in the Cantonment.”
Shortly, Gen Thimayya was appointed to command the newly raised Sri Division (later 19 Div) and on encountering SS in his ADC’s room, the General said, “I have been posted to Srinagar. Now there is no problem. Get ready to go!” By early May 1948, the General and his protégé, loaded with the paraphernalia of film-makers and artists, had arrived in Srinagar. And what followed is best summed up by SS; “Thimayya sent us all over the front in Kashmir, starting from establishing a piquet at 16,000 ft, above Zoji La on the Bodh Kulan Ganj cliffs, to the battle in the Gurais Valley and the operations in the Uri Sector. The finale came with the historic battle of Zoji La.”
In effect, the battle field actions which SS witnessed and filmed (cine and stills), in an unbroken period of eight months, starting with the First Flight to Leh, then battles in the Uri Sector in the West, to Gurais, Zoji La, Kargil in the North-NE and in between on a few aerial sorties to bombard Skardu in defense of our beleaguered and isolated posts, all of it circumscribed by the constraints of jeep/truck-bound mobility, was simply a mind boggling span of activity both in terms of time and space, as also commitment and audacity. Probably early in 1950, SS had put the finishing touches to a timeless 16 mm cine film of the war in J&K, from May 1948 to January 1949, documenting vividly the first flight of an IAF Dakota to Leh on 24 May, 1948 piloted by the inimitable Air Commodore Mehar Singh, DFC (later MVC) with General Thimayya on board, its touch down upon an unprepared strip between Leh Town and the Indus River, Daimler armored cars and Stuart Tanks breaking through the Zoji La defenses and destroying enemy MMG Bunkers on the descent to the Gumri Basin, Generals Carriapa, Shrinagesh and Thimayya interacting with commanders and jawans near Dras and at Kargil, a brief footage of the aerial bombardment of enemy at Skardu and so on. Unfortunately, the Films Division (MOD) became the custodians of the Film and was generally lost to public and private screenings for Indians at large due to bureaucratic procedures. What an unmitigated shame.
But praise be God that on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Zoji La (Nov, 1997), SS put up an exhibition of his paintings, sketches and photographs at the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society, New Delhi. After the inauguration by General V P Malik, PVSM, AVSM, Chief of The Army Staff, SS graciously bequeathed the entire collection to the Indian Army, for display as deemed fit. And in 1999, the Army Headquarters released a limited edition of the Book “Zoji La: 1 November 1948”, published by Vanity Books and funded by the BPL. Among the timeless visuals in the Book are:
(a). A panoramic painting of “Kashmir, Ladakh and Karakoram”, as seen in the mind’s eye of SS “afloat in a balloon 15,000 ft above Pathankote!” Ignoring a few geographical missplacements, the over- all impact is simply wondrous.
(b). 1 Patiala (today 15 Punjab) inching up, on toe-holds to establish a piquet on a cliff-ledge, 16,700ft over the West face of Zoji La. In the absence of tinned/pre-cooked, frozen meals, they are seen valiantly lighting a fire to cook a meal!
(c). SS with Major Daljit Singh Brar of 1 Patiala pose stolidly at Zoji La and in the background, a thin line of 1/5 (Royal) Gorkha Rifles traversing a snow field in the Gumri Basin. That was also the moment when General Thimayya drove past in an open jeep and said to SS “Do you know what has happened? We have liberated Ladakh. Nothing can stop us now!”
(d). A Stuart Tank supporting by fire, 3 Jat in the capture of the fortified defences at “Chabutra” and “Mukand Ridge”.
(e). Sowars of C Squadron, 7 Cavalry posing around the mile stone marked, “Zoji La Pass Ht 11,575 ft!”, another altitude record of some consequence, in the annals of warfare. Each Jawan/Sowar is seen in a mazri-shirt and a light woolen jersey, above 11,000 ft, in the month of November, in near Arctic conditions, a record of another kind, that is, the un-put-down-able endurance of the human spirit!
(f). 75 mm guns of the 51 Parachute Field Battery firing from a gun position at Dras, another altitude record for the times.
(g). Brigadier K L Atal with his Staff (77 Parachute Brigade) at the Dras IB, with a fluttering Tri-Colour!
(h). A formal photo-portrait of Major General K M Thimayya in full medals and gold-braid with Zoji La cliffs as back-drop. The General looks every inch, the future COAS!
(j). Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) Rajinder Singh “Sparrow” in his Tank, giving orders on radio moments before the break out battle at Zoji La.
(k). Lieutenant General K M Carriapa, OBE, GOC-in-C Western Command and Lieutenant General S M Shrinagesh, the Corps Commander looking up the Zoji La forward slopes.
A few of the most fetching exhibits from this collection are on permanent display in the interiors of the NDC building at New Delhi. And as to the artistic merit of the works of SS, his J&K sketch books were priced in the London Art market at Rs 25 Lakh, but he refused to part with them. However, many a painting of the Himalayas and trans- Himalayas by SS are in various galleries in the World. For instance, a Leh Valley landscape under full moon (reproduced in this Book), has been with the Kremlin Museum, Moscow.
The question which begs an answer is about the in-accessibility of the 16 mm cine film of the J&K Battles shot on location by SS, between May 1948 and January 1949. I have not come across anyone who ever saw it screened publicly or privately. I am told that the DD Television Channel, did recently pick on a few select episodes from its total footage but apparently the feature failed to excite the viewer’s appetites. Fortunately, Karamjit Singh (the son of SS), had retrieved some footage from the original film and supplementing it with appropriate recent aerial photography, created an impressive DVD titled “THE LIBERATION OF LADAKH”. This DVD has some vintage visuals and voice recordings of Lieutenant General K M Cariappa, OBE, exhorting his Commanders during a visit to the battle-field, and of Major General K S Thimayya, DSO, whose voice validates the actions as they unfold with gems such as “this is supreme vindication of upright manhood” following the break-out from Zoji La, and Lieutenant Colonel R S “Sparrow” (among others), briefing their subordinate commanders at various stages of the war, and all of it seen to the soothing back-ground music provided by Mrs. Shanta SS! Need I dwell any more on the urgency to have the entire original Film converted to the digital format, screened extensively at least with-in the armed forces fraternity, and also preserved as an archival treasure? Aren’t there any Indian philanthropists, reading this narrative!?
Now when the clouds of war reappeared over India in mid 1962, it seemed that armed conflagration was imminent in the Namka Chhu Valley, at the very least. In the event however, war was fought out in the Ladakh region as well. We do not know whether SS could have perceived the likely spread of the conflict but we do know that he had headed East, but was it out of the novelty of documenting a war in a new theater? Probably not, because among the military commanders of 1948-49, battles in J&K that SS was acquainted well with, was Brigadier L P Sen, DSO, the then Uri Sector Commander. Now fourteen years later, Lieutenant General L P Sen, DSO, was the GOC-in-C Eastern Command and SS may well have sought his indulgence in getting him to the scene of imminent clash of Arms with the PLA.
Mrs. Shanta SS confirms the fact of SS leaving for Towang around September 1962 and returning home in November 1962 with the painting (oil on canvas) which Major General D K Palit, Vr C used on the cover of his book “WAR IN THE HIGH HIMALAYAS; INDIAN ARMY IN CRISIS, 1962.” Be that as it may, this visit of SS to the Eastern Battle Zone remains highly enigmatic because both among his family and friends there is no mention of any sketch book(s) which SS the artist would invariably have carried. Similarly, there is no evidence of personal notes in any note book. As a result, we neither have any sketches of and from Se La nor indeed the first hand, independent opinion especially of the opening salvos of the war by the PLA, as eye-witnessed by SS. He could have stayed on upon his painters-perch which judging from the perspective of his painting, could only have been on the high ridge on the East of Nyamjung Chhu, dominating the battle field but out of harm’s way. Was SS hustled to evacuate in haste? He was not the man to lose nerve in the proximity of a battle and pull back prematurely. For, three years before his demise when he suffered a stroke, leaving his right arm paralysed, SS simply learnt to handle paint-brushes with his Left hand and kept up his life’s calling, as always. We shall never uncover the truth because SS passed away on 28 August, 2009, aged 85 years.
But this Painting by SS will live forever, capturing in one sweep the foreground comprising the Tsangdhar and the Thag La Ridge lines in the minutest detail in full stretch, the Namka Chhu from source to its junction with the Nyamjung Chhu and thence the seemingly flat, vast expanse of the Trans Himalayas stretching beyond the limits of imagination! The geographical precision and the tonal effect of colours under sun and shadow are more perfect than a studio photo-portrait under controlled conditions. The overall impact of the painting is at once evocative of a remark by Mr. Grosvenor, the Founder President of The National Geographic Magazine, that one good photograph is better than a thousand worded article! Lt Gen Baljit Singh AVSM VSM ( Retd), an Artillery Officer served with distinction in the Indian army between 1956 &1992.