1942 was a critical year for India. The historian Indivar Kamtekar has called it ‘the shiver of 1942’ – a premonition of catastrophe. Was India to be invaded by a highly successful Japanese army that had reached its eastern border? Would independence from nearly 200 years of British rule be achieved through the Quit India movement? Were the Allies losing the Second World War – and their empires? It was under the shadow of such portentous questions that Indian men signed up to the British Indian Army, just as they had done some twenty-five years previously at the onset of another global war. By the end of 1942, about 1.2 million men formed this army.

The IWM case study for the Provisional Semantics project focused on about 50 colonial photographs taken during British recruitment drives in northern and southern India in 1942. As a literary and cultural historian of conflict who uses both textual and visual material in her work, I found this narrowing of focus both fascinating and instructive. It helped me to slow my scholarship down, to examine the presence of Indian men framed by the colonial lens, and to observe minutiae – the expressions, gestures and movements of the body captured by the camera. What had brought these Indian men to army recruitment offices for inspection, measurement and enlistment? Could visual culture tell us something that archival texts could not?

As the project progressed, I understood that the photographs revealed a story of youth in that fraught year, of need and necessity. Why else, after all, have impoverished men from across the world signed up to fight wars they didn’t start? India was no different: as a British colony, the vast majority of its population was poor. War became a job opportunity; performing physically under the gaze of colonial authorities served as the would-be recruits’ demonstration of ability, as the photographs highlight. These young men were made to strip naked, wearing only their loincloths, while the camera judiciously recorded how they were weighed, how synchronised and obedient they were to commands, and how ‘fit’ in medical and military terms they were considered to be. There was clearly a desirable form of martial masculinity meant to be on show here.

I noticed that, during these tests, the men’s skin was made to bear evidence, with illegible marks scrawled by officers certifying to their passing or failing. Village boys had transformed into marked men under this imperious medical gaze. I came to realise that these 50 photographs, then, were not simply about military recruitment and serving an ‘indexical’ function, to use Christopher Pinney’s term. Instead, they highlighted a colonial process – how the imperial state chose to display its fantasies of domination and control over racialised Indian bodies.

I was also curious as to how the men responded to the camera’s gaze. Their range of expressions is remarkable – some seem uncomfortable; others stand stiffer and more upright, as though already on military parade; yet others frown and look to the side, perhaps adhering to the cameraman’s compositional instructions; and one or two flash a disarming youthful smile. There is agency at play here: each of the men being observed is aware of the camera’s presence and decides to demonstrate particular emotions in return. Sometimes these can generate a deeply affective response in the viewer: a photograph that foregrounds two young men in front of a train also reveals other nameless faces who look back at us from within the train’s darkness. Are we complicit in the coloniser’s gaze? How little we know of who these men were and what became of them in a war that killed sixty million people! Where did that train lead? Was there a way back home?

I find that the Provisional Semantics project has strengthened my previous thinking on the power and potential of photographs to understand the histories of the marginalised and the excluded, despite their being mediated through the colonial lens. The textual archival material I have uncovered on India and the Second World War says tantalisingly little on the lives and narratives of the rank-and-file Indian sepoy – at best, it provides us with glimpses. It is the photographs that physically situate these men within the framework of a global war in intimate, embodied and subjective ways. As Elizabeth Edwards has argued, they become a site by which to articulate other histories outside the dominant, and that is what I seek to do in my research.

About the author

Dr Diya Gupta is currently Past & Present Fellow: Race, Ethnicity and Equality in History at the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of Historical Research. She is a literary and cultural historian interested in the intersections between life-writing, visual and material culture, and literature, particularly in response to war. Her first book, under contract with Hurst and Oxford University Press, is on an emotional history of India in the Second World War.

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