By Aditi Tandon
Tribune Sunday, November 20, 2006
It’s unbelievable. Somewhere in the archives of Humboldt University, Berlin, lie stacked hundreds of sound recordings of Indian soldiers, who died lusting for a glimpse of their native villages.
Taken prisoners of war in World War I by German troops and detained at the Halfmoon Camp at Wunsdorf, close to Berlin, these soldiers could never come back. But 90 years after their sound files were created, the voices of three Indian soldiers, one of them a Sikh from Ferozepore, are back to search for their roots.
Helping the ghost voices of Mall Singh from Punjab, Jasbahadur from Darjeeling and Bhawan Singh from Almora, find a body is Berlin-based filmmaker Philip Scheffner, who has embarked upon a historic documentary titled “The Halfmoon Files”.
His project seeks to ensure that voices of Indian soldiers don’t remain mere scientific data in an archive, but become what they are - testimonies of real people. People who had a personal history, who had fears and wishes and a family waiting back home, a family which, till today, has no idea that there is a sound recording of their great-grandfather existing in a German archive.
The film is trying to find more about soldiers who served in the Indian Army during WW I and were detained at the Halfmoon Camp where German scientists locked their voices on to Shellac records in 1916. The idea was to create a “Museum of all the Languages of the World”. Some 1650 recordings were made across the POW camps in Germany. At Halfmoon Camp, where 2000 Indian soldiers were detained, 700 recordings were made. Most such soldiers were Sikhs, though the archives also hold sound files of Gurkha, Hindu and Muslim soldiers.
To Scheffner, the rare archives served as the starting point to collect information about the living kinsfolk of people who are speaking. He says, “The first time I heard the recordings, I was in a state of shock. It was to me an encounter with an intermediate world. I could simply pull open a drawer, play a record and have access to a historical individual narrating his painful story. What did Mall Singh feel when he spoke? Why did he speak at all? I wanted to know more about the background of these recordings.”
Researching through his assistant Manak Matyiani in Delhi and his friend Lt Col Perminder Singh Randhawa (retd) in Chandigarh, Scheffner is progressing slowly. Although the team has achieved success in tracing the relatives of Bhawan Singh from Almora (now Uttaranchal), there’s been little headway on Mall Singh, whose sound file offers the following information: He was born in 1892 at Ranosakhi or Ransike in Ferozepore. His father was from Ranosakhi and mother from Derki, Ludhiana. He went to Regimental School, Naushera (Peshawar), spoke Punjabi and was a Zimindar.
Lt Col Randhawa, who is in possession of Mall Singh’s sound file, played it for this Tribune correspondent today.
Mall Singh died, though Scheffner believes he could have returned to India, as his name doesn’t figure in the official grave list of Halfmoon Camp. Aware of the impossibilities of the task of tracing relatives of Indian soldiers in modern-day Indian villages which have changed in 90 years, Scheffner says, “Mall Singh and others may stay being ghosts - at least for my film - but I hope their absence and the impossibility to get hold of them will make them even stronger in the context of the film.”
Scheffner’s search, however, like that of the voices of dead soldiers, is not yet over.