The Punjabis of the Great War

During World War I, Punjabi men from colonial India were shipped off to Europe to fight on behalf of the British Empire.

You can read their letters to loved ones in the subcontinent in David Omissi’s book Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914 – 1918.

Nausheen Illahi, the Executive Director of Muse District, an organization promoting arts and culture of South Asia, was inspired by Omissi’s work and collaborated with Pakistani artist Saadia Hassan whose work explores the circumstances of those men, many of whom never made it back to the recipients of their missives.


 From the Land of Peacocks

Partnering with Muse District, The Big Picture co-hosted an exhibition of Hassan’s works titled From the Land of Peacocks at the Johns Hopkins SAIS campus in Washington, DC from November – December 2017 and co-hosted a reception with Muse District and Syra Arts Gallery in Georgetown on November 1.

Land of Peacocks exhibit reception at Syra Arts Gallery in Georgetown, November 1, 2017. From left: Ambassador Aizaz Chaudhry & Mrs. Najia Aizaz, Embassy of Pakistan; Saadi Hassan, Artist; Nausheen Elahi, Muse District; Shamila N. Chaudhary, The Big Picture.

The Canon’s Blast

Major Amar Singh Bahadur, a 45-year old Sikh stationed in France wrote the following on July 17, 1917 to Dafadar Lal Singh in Amritsar, Punjab:

“What news can I give you but the following:

Many Bridegrooms whose thoughts were with their brides have passed away. Many other men have struggled with death like fluttering pigeons.

Their widows are weeping since nothing but sorrow remains for them on earth. Many who were met by the canon’s blast have passed silently beyond as one sails away in a ship.” *

Like most war correspondence, the letters feature a typical longing for home alongside the pain of conflict. But this was no conventional war – nor were Punjabi soldiers conventional warriors.

Memory, Loss & History

As subjects of the British empire, the contributions of Punjabi soldiers have been omitted from many retellings of the empire’s involvement in both World War I and II, but Omissi’s lengthy tome of letters forces us to acknowledge otherwise.

The letters of poor men from small villages across the Punjab raise complex questions of identity, loyalty, and citizenship. They also remind that imperial subjects were people with relationships, families, and ambitions, despite their degraded status.

Artist Saadia Hassan with two of her pieces in “From the Land of Peacocks” at Syra Arts Gallery in Georgetown, Washington, DC.

The mixed media collection of art evaluates memory, loss, and history, issues that the artist herself was driven by in her own path towards becoming an artist. Hassan told The Big Picture that:

Losing my hearing during birth motivated me towards my current profession and passion. I learned to verbally express myself  as a child much later than the children around me. My hearing loss impeded my speech development compelling me to seek out other means of communication. As speech therapy was also in its infant stages at that time period, I found the medium of art to express my self. Pictures and paintings substituted words and thoughts.”

It was Hassan’s eventual marriage to a military man that inspired her to explore the sacrifices of the forgotten WW1 soldiers from India. Hassan said:

“I can trace the origins of my interest to the initial days of my marriage. My parents arranged my marriage to a military man who could trace his lineage back to several generations of soldiering. His ancestral village of Dulmial was located 150 kilometers south of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city. It was known as “the village with the cannon”. On further inquiry I found that in 1925 that British Government of India presented a cannon to the village folks in recognition of their efforts and sacrifices in World War 1. The village contributed the maximum number of troops than any other village within the British Empire.”

Johns Hopkins SAIS students attend viewing of Land of Peacocks on Washington, DC campus.

Hassan’s art highlights the intricate relationship between identity, personal histories, nationalism, and politics – a tension that still persists today between sovereign states and their citizens all over the world.

“My images use negative and positive space by over lapping figures, landscapes, architectural, texts, roses and refer to military history to create the illusion of a complex reality,” Hassan said.

* Letter excerpt from: David Omissi (ed.), Indian Voices of the Great War, Soldiers’ Letters, 1914–18. 1999, Penguin Books, London.

All artwork images by Saadia Hassan.

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