Palakunnathu Annu Matthew, an art (photography) professor at the University of Rhode Island has devoted her time to shed light on the second world war’s Indian combatants. She is crowdsourcing and gathering ancestry information about Indian soldiers who fought for the British against Germany and its allies as well as family photos and personal accounts.
They engaged in combat on foreign soil, consumed foreign cuisines, picked up unfamiliar dialects, and thought about their home, which was thousands of kilometres away. However, virtually little was said about the 2.5 million Indian soldiers who served in World War II on behalf of their British colonial masters when the world commemorated the war’s end on its 75th anniversary last year. However, the truth remains that more than 87,000 Indians lost their lives in the conflict, and 30 individuals were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration bestowed by England.
In December 2018, when she displayed an artwork at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India, Matthew’s curiosity in the project was piqued. Her research centred on the WWII combatants from India who served in Italy. A friend of hers sent her a picture of her grandfather, Lt Col Goal Chakraborty, after learning about the display on social media. The Bengali man was standing in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, looking dapper in his army uniform. He had been in Italy at the time of the photograph’s taking. According to Matthew, she had “an instant visceral connection to one of these 2.5 million Indian troops” after seeing the arresting image.
‘The UNREMEMBERED: The Indian Soldiers of the Second World War,’ was born as a result of that and her research in this field. The Newport Art Museum in Rhode Island hosted the solo show from September 2021 through January 2022. Additionally, it featured the Italian Campaign of World War II artwork that the Kochi-Muziris Biennale commissioned.
She has been gathering images and accounts of these troops for the past two years in an effort to shed light on their lives. She emphasises that she was reminded of how humanity connects the world through the soldiers’ stories. She tells the tale of two Indian prisoners of war (POWs) who managed to flee and were taken in by locals while being held in Italy. The Italian families, she says, looked past language and nationality and instead concentrated on the similarity of what makes us human.
In an interview with The Hindu Business Line, Matthew said that she felt inspired to “lift back the veil on buried histories and, via an artistic intervention, make this history available to bigger audiences” by these tales of hope and love. Since the conflict and the soldiers from the subcontinent have historical ties to India, Pakistan, and England, Matthew intends to display her art in those countries.
Patriotism, love and respect should not only extend to the brave soldiers of the present but also the martyrs of the past. While they were not given their due respect at the time, we must take the initiative to remember them and their families for their sacrifices.