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India, Empire, and First World War Culture
Writings, Images, and Songs


  • Date Published: September 2018
  • availability: In stock
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781107441590

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About the Authors
  • Based on ten years of research, Santanu Das's India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs recovers the sensuous experience of combatants, non-combatants and civilians from undivided India in the 1914–1918 conflict and their socio-cultural, visual, and literary worlds. Around 1.5 million Indians were recruited, of whom over a million served abroad. Das draws on a variety of fresh, unusual sources - objects, images, rumours, streetpamphlets, letters, diaries, sound-recordings, folksongs, testimonies, poetry, essays, and fiction - to produce the first cultural and literary history, moving from recruitment tactics in villages through sepoy traces and feelings in battlefields, hospitals, and POW camps to post-war reflections on Europe and empire. Combining archival excavation in different countries across several continents with investigative readings of Gandhi, Kipling, Iqbal, Naidu, Nazrul, Tagore, and Anand, this imaginative study opens up the worlds of sepoys and labourers, men and women, nationalists, artists, and intellectuals, trying to make sense of home and the world in times of war.

    • The first cultural and literary history of India and the First World War
    • Engages with Indian experience overseas as well as what is happening in the homefront, from its political to intellectual histories
    • Brings war studies into dialogue with South Asian history
    • Uses a diverse methodology, comprised of materials from diaries, sound recordings, and trench objects, to create a wholly interdisciplinary study
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'In Santanu Das's brilliant book, we can feel the real bodies of the men from India mobilised during the Great War through the traces of touch and intimacy they left behind. His beautiful and moving study brings to us what he terms echoes of the Sepoy's heart. To do so, he uses an astonishing array of sources, moving with grace from the textual and the testimonial to the visual, the tactile, and the oral. Here is a book that not only adds substantially to what we know about the 1914–18 conflict, but brings out as well with affection and wit the sheer humanity of these soldiers and the world they left behind.' Jay Winter, Charles J. Stille Professor of History (Emeritus), Yale University, Connecticut

    'India, Empire, and First World War Culture is a sheer joy to read: the writing is evocative; the unusual archival 'finds' thrilling; and the analysis consistently astute. The book is a labour of love. The 'sensuous' recreation of wartime culture and its import for ordinary men and women set a new standard for literary and cultural studies.' Mrinalini Sinha, Alice Freeman Palmer Professor of History, University of Michigan

    'An exceptional study and an extremely timely and original contribution - India, Empire, and First World War Culture is as rigorous in its historical research, including its exploration of Indian nationalist politics in relation to imperial war service, as it is subtle and nuanced in its literary and cultural analysis. It will be of the greatest interest to historians and cultural and literary critics.' Laura Marcus, Goldsmiths' Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford

    'India, Empire and First World War Culture is an astonishing achievement, an amazing feat of scholarship that unearths an extraordinary range of sources and fragments. Through close and sensitive readings of poems, songs, paintings, photographs and a diverse range of objects, Santanu Das succeeds in unmuting a vast host of voices that have for far too long been silenced or forgotten. Rarely have the skills of the literary critic and historian been as imaginatively fused as in India, Empire and First World War Culture.' Amitav Ghosh, author of The Great Derangement

    'In his latest book … [Das] offers the reader a truly exceptional study of the experiences of Indian troops in Europe, Mesopotamia and elsewhere. … It is without doubt meticulously researched and well written.' History of War

    '[A] rewarding [account] of one of the empire's most remarkable institutions …' Ian Jack, The Guardian

    'Das brilliantly combines two approaches - 'a redefinition of the archive' and close, attentive reading. … Das proves that detective work pays off but it is how he reads these treasures that is compelling. Thrillingly, this close reading elevates some of Das's protagonists to a form of equality with the traditional First World War canon, to a kind of parity with Owen and Sassoon.' Yasmin Khan, The Times Literary Supplement

    'The book is a benchmark in placing the unexamined colonial histories at par with the far better understood cultural historiography of the Western participants. His examination of the use of war memory and commemoration in the recent past is outstanding for the questions it raises. The work is breathtaking in its scope and depth and is an invaluable addition to Indian writings on the war. The book is a sine qua non for those who wish to gain a nuanced understanding of the Indian experience of the Great War from a multiplicity of perspectives.' Rana Chhina, India Today

    'Magisterial … by closely reading his manifold sources, Das exhumes what he calls 'a texture of experience and feeling' that pushes us to rethink historiography, especially the role played by memory … By looking through the sepoy's eye, he offers illuminating insights into the deeper provocations behind their recruitment, those that went beyond the script of valour and the glory of martyrdom touted by the political leaders.' Somak Ghosal, Livemint (

    'The book of 2018 for me would be India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs by Santanu Das. It goes beyond the grand narrative of the Great War and it illuminated for me just how coloured the battlefields of the First World War were.' Aanchal Malhotra, Hindustan Times

    'Das's magnificent India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs brings together a decade of pioneering research on the Indian involvement in the war.' Vedica Kant, The Indian Quarterly

    'Santanu Das's book is remarkable for lacking regional loci - its cosmopolitanism and liberalism in choosing multi-lingual and regional sources is one of its strongest features. The book's signal contribution has been its success in reminding readers that legacies of wars reside in the social and cultural, and not always in the political or constitutional hallways of history. … Das has written a book of immense significance … It will encourage the next generation of scholars to abandon the crutches of disciplinary certainties … [for] the promise of a dazzling array of new scholarship that knits visual, textual and literary sources together to produce stirring accounts of past events.' Biblio: A Review of Books

    'Santanu Das shows how rich are the rewards for those who dig and delve, who look for meaning in tiny fragments of evidence - however mute and humble - and who search out allies ready to translate long-forgotten memoirs. Drawing on a decade of such fieldwork, Das has made a forensic examination of hundreds of pieces of evidence - memoirs, letters, photographs, oral testimony, songs, pamphlets, poems, novels - to produce a fine account of India's war experience. … Santanu Das has been heavily involved in the centenary activities and this is his answer to the gap in our understanding - a substantial, highly readable account of the Indian war experience, which is a lesson both in the close reading of sources and in how literary and historical studies can enrich each other.' History Today

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    Product details

    • Date Published: September 2018
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781107441590
    • length: 484 pages
    • dimensions: 227 x 153 x 24 mm
    • weight: 0.8kg
    • contains: 57 b/w illus. 6 colour illus. 1 map
    • availability: In stock
  • Table of Contents

    Part I. The Restless Home Front
    1. The imperial-nationalist self: anti-discrimination, aspiration, and anxiety
    2. Sonorous fields: recruitment, resistance, and recitative in the Punjab
    Part II. Race and Representation:
    3. Five shades of brown: the sepoy-body in visual culture
    4. Imperial antibiotic: sepoy and the Raj
    Part III. The Sepoy Heart:
    5. Touching feeling: letters, poems, prayers, and songs of sepoys in Europe 1914–18
    6. 'Their lives have become ours': occupation, captivity, and lateral contact in Mesopotamia 1914–1918
    7. Transnational lives and peripheral visions
    Part IV. Literary and Intellectual Cultures:
    8. Literary imaginings
    9. The Indian English war novel: Across the Black Waters
    10. Post-war world and 'the future of mankind': Aurobindo, Iqbal, and Tagore.

  • Author

    Santanu Das, King's College London
    Santanu Das, educated in Kolkata and Cambridge, is Professor of English Literature at King's College London and joins All Souls College, Oxford as Senior Research Fellow in English in 2019. He is the author of the award-winning monograph Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (Cambridge, 2006) and the pictorial history Indian Troops in Europe, 1914–1918 (2014), and the editor of Race, Empire and First World War Writing (Cambridge, 2011) and the Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War (Cambridge, 2013). He presented the series 'Soldiers of the Empire' for BBC Radio 4 and has contributed to various events commemorating the war, from radio and television programmes to exhibitions, performances, and concerts.

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