“There once was a man. This man came into the European war. Germany captured this man. He wishes to return to India. If God has mercy, he will make peace soon. This man will go away from here.”
These were Mall Singh’s crackling words as he spoke into a recording device on 11 December 1916 in the city of Wünsdorf, near Berlin. The 24-year-old, a native of Ranusukhi in Punjab, was among the hundreds of soldiers who were made to speak into a phonographic funnel at the Half Moon Camp for “exotic” prisoners of war.
Between 1915 and 1918, German and Austrian anthropologists and linguists conducted research on enemy colonial soldiers. These were largely Indian and north African soldiers from the British, French and Russian armies, who became objects of several anthropological research projects. One such was the recording of languages carried out by the newly founded Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission (which made around 1,650 such recordings).
While Singh’s language sample was a fervent plea, his fellow soldiers sang of the mustard fields of their homes. But the scientists supervising their recordings were interested in the phonetics, not their stories.
Lost in translation: Soldiers during a recording at the Half Moon Camp.
The Max Mueller Bhavan brings this rare footage to India for the first time as an exhibition that travels from Mumbai to Delhi this week. Making of…The Halfmoon Files, by Berlin-based film-maker Philip Scheffner and cultural scientist Britta Lange, is a four-channel sound and video installation.
The project took off when Scheffner came across an article on Indian prisoners of war (PoWs). He found that their recordings still exist as part of the Berlin Sound Archive. Scheffner was shocked at what he heard. “That I can simply open a drawer, remove a record and get access to a real person, a historical individual, who tells a story. What must have been his feelings when he spoke into the recording funnel?” says Scheffner in the introduction to the 2006 film, The Halfmoon Files, that was born of this footage.
The scope of the exhibition travelling to India is broader, incorporating research from a five-year collaboration between the film-maker and Lange. It uses clips from the sound archive, historic documents from the camp, German propaganda films, and puts these together with fictional accounts and footage from present-day Wünsdorf.
Lange’s lecture, which accompanies the installation in both cities, demonstrates how these recordings were made with “objective” methods and thereby took no note of the “subjective” messages of the speaker: “The personal reports of the prisoners fell through the net of empirical research,” she says, referring to the colonial plan to produce knowledge by measuring, categorizing and displaying the exotic.
Making of…The Halfmoon Files operates on a wistful premise. Those who pressed the record button on the phonographs were the ones to write history. The life stories of young soldiers, such as Mall Singh, disappeared over time. He is now a number on an old shellac record in an archive.
Making of…The Halfmoon Files opens today and will run till 26 March at the Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi; and till 16 March at Project 88, Mumbai.