India, Empire and First World War Culture

British Council, Kolkata organised a discussion recently to celebrate the book, India, Empire and First World Was Culture, published by Cambridge University Press. Followed by an engaging, in-depth conversation between Dr Debanjan Chakrabarti, Director British Council East and Northeast India, and the author, Professor Santanu Das, Yajnaseni Chakraborty, Kunal Basu and Subha Mukherji, who also did a dramatic reading of the letters and poems from the book. 

Speaking at the occasion, Prof Santanu Das said, “I am absolutely delighted to be able to launch the book in the city where I grew up and the library that first introduced me to the poetry of the First World War. With the centenary of the Armistice behind us, the book will hopefully open up a space beyond simply challenging the colour of war memory, one that includes soldiers and non-combatants, civilians, women and children, intellectuals and pacifists, in order to understand the full impact of the First World War on the political and socio-cultural fabric of undivided India.”  

Professor Santanu Das’ academic career links India and the UK in the most of celebrated ways – through education and research. This book is unique in that way it looks at the Great War through the lenses of creative responses of combatants and non-combatants from the Indian subcontinent.  It is a privilege and pleasure for the British Council library in Kolkata – Prof Das’ home town – to be celebrating the publication of this landmark book of a former member of this library. The British Council remains the first port of call for young people seeking education opportunities in the UK and also provides a platform for critical discussions such as this book offered this eveningsaid Dr Debanjan Chakrabarti.

The book launch was attended by members of the British Council library, academics and students of literature, eminent personalities, dignitaries and literature lovers of the city of Kolkata

The book is the first cultural and literary history of India and the First World War ever published, Santanu Das opens up the worlds of sepoys and labourers, men and women, nationalists, artists and intellectuals, trying to make sense of home and the world in times of war. Based on ten years of research, Santanu Das’ landmark book recovers the sensuous experience of combatants, non-combatants and civilians from undivided India in the 1914–1918 conflict and their socio-cultural, visual and literary worlds.

More than 1.5 million Indians were recruited. Das draws on a variety of fresh, unusual sources – objects, images, rumours, street-pamphlets, sound recordings, folksongs, testimonies, poetry, essays and fiction – to produce the first major cultural and literary history, moving from recruitment tactics in villages through sepoy traces and feelings in battlefields, hospitals and POW camps, to post-war reflections on Europe and the empire.

Combining archival excavation across several continents with investigative readings of Gandhi, Kipling, Iqbal, Naidu, Nazrul, Tagore and Anand, this imaginative study sheds extraordinary new light on what we know about the 1914–18 conflict.