As we mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II (WWII), the contributions of soldiers from India are barely mentioned. By 1945, two and a half million Indians had stepped forward and volunteered to take up arms for their British Colonial rulers in support of the Allies. They fought in the mountains of Burma, the hills of Italy and in the deserts of North Africa. They transported artillery, repaired jeeps, and under enemy fire, carried the wounded from the battlefield to safety. Thirty of them won the Victoria Cross, England’s highest military honour, and more than 87,000 died.
Yet, in India and globally, they remain unremembered. When I was serendipitously introduced to this under-appreciated history, I was astounded to learn that this was not part of our history books in India or globally. Why isn’t this story part of our larger narrative, especially because WWII was truly global?
In my visual artwork, I pull back the veil on these forgotten histories. The family photographs and stories of these people are powerful and give us hope for humanity.
Of soldiers and their tales
To give you some context about how I stumbled on the stories of Indian POW’s in Italy and the Italian families that sheltered them…in December 2018, a friend read on social media that I was exhibiting at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India. The installation focused on the Indian soldiers who fought in the Italian Campaign of WW2. In response, she sent me a photograph of her grandfather, Lt. Col. Goal Chakraborty, posing casually in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in his army uniform. The photo was from when he served in Italy during WWII.
The striking photograph gave me an instant visceral connection to one of these 2.5 million Indian soldiers. This has led me down a “rabbit hole” of sorts, to where I am crowdsourcing and collecting family photos and stories of some of these Indian soldiers. I recently completed a six-month Fulbright fellowship in India, collecting stories and over 300 poignant images of these unheralded people (mostly men) who fought for the British and by extension, for the Allies. I am still continuing to collect them so do contact me! One of those stories was about a soldier who came home from the Battle of Monte Cassino to find his wife had remarried. She thought he had died.
Two of the stories I came across were of Indian prisoners of war in Italy who managed to escape and were sheltered by the kindness of Italians, strangers who saved their lives. The two extraordinary stories are testaments to our shared humanity. The Italian families looked beyond ethnicity and language and instead focused on the commonality of what makes us human.
Lieutenant D. S. Kalha, a Sikh, was one such soldier. He had to leave his wife of six weeks to fight in WW II. He was captured at the Siege of Tobruk (Libya) in 1941 and was sent to the POW camp in Avezzano, Italy. The German soldiers guarding the camp were very young, many in their teens. From the stories told to his children, for the first three days, he and his fellow soldiers were not given any food and barely any water. Italians would often come to the camp’s boundary walls and try to interact with the prisoners. One such person was a farmer, Alessandro Zenobi (This is gleaned from the documents I scanned from his daughter.)
He convinced Kalha that learning Italian was essential to be able to escape. So Kalha picked up a smattering of Italian during his time at the camp. Unfortunately, Kalha’s first attempt to escape failed. His second attempt was during the summer of 1943. He escaped with his friend Sandhu and with the help of a doctor where they were admitted to a hospital run by Catholic nuns. Here, Kalha was convinced to cut his hair and pass as an Italian.
The nuns then helped and facilitated his escape. Farmer Alessandro Zenobi with this wife (Aida) and children (Lola, Gianni and Patrizia) shared their limited food with the two soldiers and sheltered them in a cowshed in winter and in a nearby cave during the summer. When Kalha and Sandhu got the news that the Allies had advanced in Italy, they walked for hours and were able to join the New Zealand regiment who gave them uniforms and arranged for their return to India. Kalha later became Lieutenant General in the army of a now independent India.
His gratefulness and friendship with the Italian farmer Giovanni and his family continued, and they corresponded (in Italian) for decades until Lieutenant General Kalha passed away. His daughter, Avjit, visited Avezzano in 1984 and met with 90 years old Leone Giovanni who remembered her father well. He showed her the cowshed where her father had once hidden.
Hope and love
The second story, one of the most powerful ones that I encountered, was on five POW’s Chacko, D’Souza, RG Salvi and brothers Sharafat Ali and Murrafat Ali who also escaped from Avezzano. When the Italians signed an armistice with the Allies in September 1943, the camp’s Italian guards disbanded, and a number of POW’s fled before the Germans took over. The five POW’s were tasked by the German soldiers to capture escaped POW’s and bring them back. But they decided to escape themselves. They walked all night following a railway line. After over four hours they were exhausted and were about to sleep in a ditch when they heard the early morning chime of church bells.
Realising that there was a village nearby, they pushed on and discovered the tiny town of Villa San Sebastiano. One of the Indians spoke Italian and was able to convince an Italian soldier, Romano Berardo (who had just deserted his army unit and was returning to his home in Villa San Sebastiano) to shelter them. He hid the five men, along with the help of other generous Italians, Adelina Piacente, Sirio Valente and Ederlo Antonelli and their families.
The Indian soldiers made deep connections and friendships that continued after the war ended, after they left Villa San Sebastiano.
That started an ordeal that lasted over a year but saved the lives of these five men. Their ordeal included hiding in animal sheds and caves, even in the bitter cold of winter. The Italians smuggled food, at the risk of death. Salvi even climbed up a hot chimney to avoid the threat of being discovered by Germans patrolling the village.
But the Indians also made deep connections and friendships that continued after the war ended, after they left Villa San Sebastiano. Salvi and his wife Hansa came back to meet and thank his Italian friends in the village. All of this is chronicled in the book “Whom Enemies Sheltered” by Lieutenant RG Salvi, a book that has since been translated in Italian.
Salvi’s grandson, Samar was captivated as a young boy by these stories and always wanted to visit the village to meet the people who had saved his grandfather’s life. Nearly 70 years later, in 2010, he had that opportunity, while living in England. There, he fortuitously met Luciano Gargano (who later translated Salvi’s book) and who helped connect him to meet Adelina, Sirio, Ederlo and the children of the Italian soldier Romano, who had first helped shelter Salvi and his fellow soldiers.
When boundaries blur
In 2011 Samar and his extended family visited the village where they were welcomed warmly, Italian style! The Salvi family installed a plaque thanking the village and especially the families who had helped their father/grandfather. It ended with the words “Without your loving help to Lieutenant RG Salvi, we would not have existed.”
The serendipitous connections have continued. Lt. Gen. Aditya Singh and Major Maroof Raza emailed me after reading an article about my project in The Week. Lt Gen Aditya Singh had met the dentist Dr Daniell Cesaretti, whose hobby is the study of the operations of the Indian Army in Italy during WWII, to understand his own father’s role. I hope to return to Italy to explore these threads for my next project. Obviously, I also received photographs and stories from all three theatres. For this write-up, I decided to focus on Italy, especially after being in touch with Lt. Gen. Aditya Singh.
During the process of collecting these photographs and stories, I have been fortunate to meet families of the soldiers and even a few veterans! As an artist, the viewers of my work have to connect with these soldiers in order to empathise with them. The universality of family photographs allows us to do that. Family snapshots create a sense of intimacy beyond the more formal imagery found in military archives. The family photographs that we all love reflect the personalities of these soldiers, allowing us a glimpse into their lives, their loves, their families and their personalities.
As with most of my projects, this archival material will go through an artistic intervention as it becomes a multimedia installation that spotlights this forgotten history. The installation will make the history accessible to a larger audience, to pique their curiosity and spark interest in the sacrifice of these soldiers.
Acknowledging these soldier’s service will expand our understanding of the tapestry of who we are. Breaking free from our colonial past doesn’t mean negating their experience. Instead, it can give us perspective. Please send your family photographs and stories to Indiansoldiers1945@gmail.com