May 27 2016
Immersive multi-media artwork about Indian Soldiers convalescing in Brighton is more than just a commemoration piece says its lead creator Ajay Chhabra…
YOU WONDER just how many people know that Asian soldiers, as part of the British Indian Army, fought and died fighting for King and Country in the first World War.
Not many you suspect, because this is not a subject covered at school generally in the curriculum or given much attention, until very recently.
In fact, the history of Empire and Britain’s role in amassing one remains a neglected area of the school curriculum generally (see the story on the recent debate about British Asian identity at the JLFSouthbank and Alchemy) and even less is known, generally, about the subcontinent’s First World War contribution.
The multi-media artwork is drawing to its four day/night close at Brighton Pavilion on Saturday (May 28) and as part of the Brigton Festival ending on the same day, but its legacy and importance should not be underestimated.
Brighton Pavilion was a field hospital during the Great War and was the one place where injured troops from the British Indian Army were treated, during the first two years of the war.
For what is understood to be the first time – at least substantially so – this fact has been actively commemorated and will culminate in a spectacular concert on Saturday evening.
The Philharmonia Orchestra will be joined musicians from India in a special West meets East performance and separately Debashish Bhattacharaya will perform a traditional raga, alongside tabla player, Gurdain Ryatt.
“Dr Blighty”, the penultimate installation of which proceeds it, has been assembled by a creative team led by performance company, Nutkhut, and involves Tom Piper, who designed the Tower of London poppies.
As well as a number of immersive walk-through installations across the Royal Pavilion Estate, there are video projections, mini-dramas, and special readings, from letters actually written by the soldiers and describing their experiences.
“This is a story that needed to be told,” said Ajay Chhabra (pictured below), artistic director of Nutkhut to www.asianculturevulture.com
“There is very little in the public narrative about the one in six Indian soldiers who fought in the Great War and frankly speaking, when British soldiers were dying, these men were sent to replace them and they were the epitome of cannon fodder and we have been made to forget it.
“These guys turned up and sorted it out.”
Indeed, the perceived wisdom now, is that without the British Indian Army holding the line in Belgium at Ypres (covered in this story about the play, “Wipers”), the Germans would have overrun the Low Countries and Northern France and posed an imminent danger to Britain.
While Chhabra was motivated by wanting to tell this powerful and largely forgotten story to everyone, there was also a sense of time and place that seemed equally important.
“I didn’t want to tell this story at the Southbank or the National Theatre.
“This story could not be told anywhere else or it becomes sanitised.
“Nothing is better than identifying it with that place that has locked a particular memory, and the ghosts of those soldiers still exist (metaphorically).”
It was why “Dr Blighty” needed to be staged at Brighton Pavilion and nowhere else.
Chhabra said he had first come to this story some 20 years ago – and at a pre-launch event in April, at the House of Lords, hosted by Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Navnit Dholokia, he recounted how he first come across it reading about it in one of earliest books about the Asian community in Britain and how it had transformed his own sense of identity.
“It’s become something of a mission and it goes to the heart of the way young people are taught the history of this country (he, like many others educated in the UK, knew very little about Britain’s colonial history).”
The artistic excitement, if you can term it that, came from Chhabra’s reading of the letters sent home to family in India by the soldiers themselves. They are preserved at the British Library and some are now narrated as part of “Dr Blighty“.
“People don’t know this, the general perception (if they have one at all about Asian soldiers in the First World War), is that these men didn’t have any work, signed up to fight, fought for a couple of years went back and look what we did for them…
“In reality, it was about smart poetic men who came from a part of India, where poetry is part of their DNA.
“Most of the men came from villages, or a village background, but there is poetry locked into these letters – anyone familiar with the poetry of North India can see that in these letters, written in Urdu, Gurmuki (a form of Punjabi) and Devanagari (a common script to North India and Nepal).”
It was important to have “Dr Blighty” outside and not inside the pavilion itself (which is part of the museum and has chargeable admission).
“It was a conscious decision, not being inside, you are not excluding people – you don’t have to be in the theatre or a gallery. Many of us growing up didn’t go to these places, and by having it outside, you are turning it around, these stories are accessible to everybody,” explained Chhabra.
Whether you manage to see “Dr Blighty” or not, one thing is certain, it is a story that should never be forgotten.
“It needs to be part of a legacy,” argued Chhabra. “It’s part of the national heritage but we are not going to change that overnight, if it’s a story worth telling, you need to tell it again and again and then policymakers start to understand why.”
Dr Blighty until Saturday (May 28), from 2pm -10pm: Royal Pavilion Garden, Brighton, FREE
immersive installations, soundscapes, theatrical interludes.
Saturday, May 28 7.30pm Brighton Dome Concert Hall
Philharmonia Orchestra – Dr Blighty
Musical memories of the Raj; period pieces; readings from the letters.
David Murphy: conductor, Kala Ramnath: violin, Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending, Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow, Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Kala Ramnath: The Seasons of India.
10.15pm-11.45pm – Brighton Dome Concert Hall
Traditional ragas by Bhattacharya on slide guitar, a unique instrument developed by the artist himself. Plays alongside virtuoso tabla player, Gurdain Ryatt.
Artistic team behind ‘Dr Blighty’
Ajay Chhabra (artistic director)
Shri Shriram (composer)
Tom Piper & Amanda Stoodley (design)
Sian Thomas (performance director)
Stephen Clark (writer)
Phil Supple (lighting designer)
Novak (video & animation)
Ed Carter (sound designer)
Brighton Pavilion: 4/5 Pavilion Buildings, Brighton BN1 1EE
Brighton Festival: http://brightonfestival.org/
Brighton Pavilion pictures: Tabatha Foreman for Getty
Dr Blighty Brighton pavilion garden pictures: Vic Frankowski
Brighton War hospital pic: Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove. Released for re-use under a BY-NC-SA 4.0 Creative Commons licence