Annapurna Indian Dance Company,

Soldiers of the Empire

LIVING in the rural Yorkshire Dales there is a danger of becoming trapped in a cultural bubble and so it is wonderful when a company like Settle Stories facilitates the wider world cultures to come into the area to share their experiences.

Often when cultures meet in this way to share experiences we realise that actually we are not so different after all.

This was certainly the case in this instance, for the story of a young man going off to war and the impact on his family is one which has been repeated in many nations, yet the emotions remain the same in a village in Yorkshire or in the Punjab.

In creating “The Unknown Becomes Known” project, the company presents the little known story of the numerous soldiers from the undivided India of 1914 who formed the single largest volunteer army in The Great War.

It contained members from present day Pakistan, Bhutan, Burma, Sri Lanka and Nepal as well as the Punjab, Garwahl, Frontiers, Bengal and Madras and represented a range of religious, linguistic and ethnic cultures all united by the desire to help Britain in the war.

The evening began with an introduction to traditional Indian dance. These dances were compulsive viewing, with expressive hand gestures and facial expressions combined with elegant movements and stunningly evocative music.

The dance is exuberant and joyous but precise in its gestures. The music is haunting, evocative, beautiful and tranquil. In telling the stories of the many who served, the event highlights the fact that soldiers fought in extreme weather conditions on many fronts.

Throughout they were known for their bravery, however the evening is at its most powerful when it focuses not on the many but on the humanity of one person. There is a joyous and lively interlude where a young man is seen dancing to celebrate the harvest and his enjoyment of life before sneaking away from the party to meet with his lover.

This is then followed by an incredibly poignant sequence between mother and son as the mother prepares for a final meal before the son leaves for war. The sequence concludes with the haunting image of the soldier son standing to attention while the screen behind him explodes into the grainy footage of Indian soldiers in the carnage of The Somme.

This truly was powerful theatre at its most raw, juxtaposing the familiar homely scenes with the awful reality of war. Hopefully this project, through the retelling by skilled musicians and dancers, will do much to redress the balance and in the anniversary of the end of hostilities restore their memory once more.

- Gill O’Donnell