Memory, particularly historical memory, is selective. And for a historic event -- the First World War in modern history -- that happened a century ago, it is more 'convenient' to do so. There is very little reference in contemporary history texts to the colonial troops from Asia and Africa who were deployed in various capacities during the War, and their sacrifices are commemorated only in a handful of events.
On the centenary of the First World War, Alliance Francaise de Dhaka (AFD) is holding a photo exhibition titled “War and Colonies, 1914-1918” at its La Galerie, as a tribute to the colonial troops engaged on both sides of the conflict. Michel Trinquier, the French Ambassador to Bangladesh, graced the inauguration of the exhibition on February 24 as chief guest, while Dr. Ferdinand Von Weyhe, Deputy Head of Mission of the German Embassy in Dhaka and KH Masud Siddiqui, Secretary of the
Liberation War Ministry of Bangladesh, were present as special guest and guest of honour respectively.
The exhibition, although featuring just 35 photographs, is an enriched display, featuring brilliant textual references, statistics and historical facts interspersed throughout the gallery. Beginning with the Indian troops and the follower ranks of the Indian Army, the exhibition displays photos and information on Irish troops, Africans deployed in the European colonial armies -- the Askaris, French colonial troops -- Annamese and Senegalese and Moroccan soldiers and infantrymen.
The photos -- although presumably taken for documentation and not from a photographic aesthetics perspective -- are striking. The war's unmistakable marks of strife on their faces and uniforms are evident, be it in arranged group photos or candid ones of them sitting in a trench and reading newspapers. A rear view of Moroccan Spahis on horseback with a rocky hill on the background is almost cinematic; their huddling around a machine-gun, learning its operation strikes the contrast of the punch of reality. While some photographs show them in non-combat activities such as trench-digging, repairing roads, even wounded soldiers working in the kitchens, some show more frontline activities like gun-training and cleaning, or even in combat. Apart from them are a few that show life went on amid the war, with one showing a soldier grinding coffee with a bottle or a shell, and a delightful snap of
Senegalese infantrymen doing a tribal dance, with one man jumping mid-air while spectators form a circle around.
The exhibition -- and an international conference on the same title that took place on February 25-26 at the Nabab Nawab Ali Chowdhury Senate Building of the Dhaka University -- is an earnest effort to fill the lapse in memory where these troops' contributions have been pushed into. In the photos taken a century ago, the human element is of monumental significance; there is no sensationalisation, just men thrown in a tumultuous scenario fighting it out, be it on the battlefield or beyond.
Institut-Francais (Fonds d'Alembert for the exchange of ideas) the French Embassy in Bangladesh, the Mission du Centenaire, Dhaka University, Liberation War Affairs ministry, ECPAD and Omni Books are partners to the event, sponsored by Monagut French Fashion Knitting and GETCO.
The exhibit continues till March 9 at the AFD, and March 11-18 at the Liberation War Museum.