"Sacred Sounds" Sikh participation in WW1

Over the summer I filmed several documentaries linked to the Sikh diaspora, this is the first in a series of shorts I will be releasing to accompany the Hola Mahalla documentary film, trailer at the bottom of this page. 

This Remembrance Sunday I wanted to share something fitting about the Sikh participation in the World War One. The short documentary and article is about “Sacred Sounds” which is an amazing project put together by Dr Nima Poovaya-Smith from Alchemy and the team at SAA UK. It features talented artists made up of Jasdeep Singh Degun, Seetal Kaur Gabir, Prabhjot Singh Gill, Christella Litras, Kirpal Singh Panesar, Keertan Kaur Rehal and Joe Williams.

Musicians Jasdeep Singh Degun, Seetal Kaur Gabir, Prabhjot Singh gill, Christella Litras, Kirpal Singh Panesar, Keertan Kaur Rehal and Joe Williams

Musicians Jasdeep Singh Degun, Seetal Kaur Gabir, Prabhjot Singh gill, Christella Litras, Kirpal Singh Panesar, Keertan Kaur Rehal and Joe Williams

The performance tells “The story of Sikh Soldiers from WW1 using music, vocals and spoken word”. It's an immersive experience and if you ever get the chance to see it performed again I highly recommend it. 

Below is a short documentary I made about the “Sacred Sounds” project. 

I discovered the “Sacred Sounds” project over the summer and missed it's initial performance at Opera North but caught the next two performances at a Gurdwara in Leeds and Bradford. It's a very unique project that offers something different while exploring Sikh participation in the First World War. At less than 2% of the Indian population at the time, Sikhs made up around 20% of the British Indian Army which is a staggering statistic. I was keen to interview Nima about the project and explore this area. During the research for my documentary about the Sikh festival Hola Mahalla I'd discovered how the British saw Sikhs as a warrior race, and were keen to include them in the army. There were discussions about having a Sikh Battalion once again before the election but that topic seems to have gone dormant along with other pre-election talking points. 

It's good to see the various centenary projects explore and celebrate Sikh participation in the First World War. It's great to hear their stories and for people to be given a chance to pay their respects to these warriors that fought in a battle away from home. It's a shame that it's still not common knowledge that Sikhs and other minority groups fought in both WW1 and WW2. Hopefully projects like “Sacred Sounds” will help bridge that knowledge gap. 

From a warrior perspective Sikhs may not be at the same stage they once were, its interesting to look back around 100 years and see how the Sikh diaspora has evolved. What will the next hundred years have in store for us?

Below is an extended interview with Nima about the project. 

"I'm Nima Poovaya-Smith, the director of Alchemy and curator of “Sacred Sounds”, Sikh music traditions and the First World War.

Dr Nima Poovaya-Smith - Alchemy

Dr Nima Poovaya-Smith - Alchemy

“Sacred Sounds” has several elements in it or several factors that made me think of this project in the first place. The obvious one of course being the fact that it is centenary of theFirst World War.

And then it was the timeless beauty of the Shabads themselves. Amongst all holly scriptures, this is the largest body of verse I know that is set to song. Thats meant to be sung and is seen as a direct spiritual channel to the creator, to God. 

Looking at a number of images of Sikh soldiers from the First World War. There was something about the self containedness, the dignity of the soldiers that struck me quite forcibly.

And I wondered what role the Shabads had in infusing them with fortitude and courage to face the First World War in countries that they had no experience of. In climates they had no experience of. And there were three key images that particularly caught my imagination. 

One was of sikh soldiers performing Kirtan, in a French barn in 1915, it didn't look a particularly comfortable place but again you saw that aura of self possessions and self containedness and I knew something special was happening.


And then on the march in Mesopotamia in 1918 theres another image which I think is better known of Sikh soldiers marching with the Guru Granth Sahib aloft on top of one persons head with a Chor Sahib being wafted over the Guru Granth Sahib. And its almost like its a sequential images. 


The next image I saw of them was again in Mesopotamia, again 1918, again the same photographer Ariel Varges. They are sat around the elevated Guru Granth Sahib performing Kirtan. 

Then I discovered a number of folk songs from the First World War notably of women singing about the war and they had a very different take on the war. They didn't understand why their men had to fight in a war that was not exactly their war and those songs were penned of grief, of loss and anger. We thought it would be quite an interesting thing to mingle the two and to also have elements of spoken word with the Shabads and with images. 

India on the whole had contributed nearly 1.5 million combatants and none-combatants, just under half of them came from the Punjab. This includes Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, but even then it was a disproportionately heavy figure. And out of these around 97 thousand or so were Sikhs who fought in the First World War. When you consider they comprise only 2 percent of the population, that is a staggering figure.  



Then there was the musicianship of the artists, the contemporary artists of today. I knew I had fantastic vocalists, fantastic musicians both of the Sikh faith and not of the Sikh faith who we could bring together to create this project. 

Kirpal Singh Panesar who is an absolute maestro when it comes to a variety of stringed instruments particularly the Esraj, the Taos and Dilruba. 

Kirpal Singh Panesar

Kirpal Singh Panesar


Jasdeep Singh Degun is a very good sitarist and of course both of them are marvelous vocalists. 

Almost coincidentally I had heard Keertan Kaur Rehal and she has such a golden voice and Prabhjot is only eighteen years of age and plays with great virtuosity. He plays the tabla of course, and the nagara as well as the dholki. 

Prabhjot Singh Gill and Joe Williams

Prabhjot Singh Gill and Joe Williams


For the spoken word elements I was particularly keen to have the actor and spoken word artist Joe Williams. He has what I call a basso profundo voice, its extremely deep, its beautifully articulated. So we thought it would be fantastic to have someone like him come and do the narrative. 

Christella Litras is a vocalists and a music producer, as a musician in her own right and she and Joe, they love being exposed to new challenges, to new music traditions, so we brought them in. and I think that has worked extremely well. 

Joe Williams

Joe Williams

One final point, in one of the opening sequences is Prabjot, he beats on the nagara, and then he starts playing on the tabla, and then you have Kirpal Singh Panesar come in on the esraj, and Joe then narrates a poem called the Gift of India” which perhaps not many people have heard of. It was written by a woman poet in 1915, an Indian woman poet called Sarojini Naidu and that was a poem I was familiar with, so it was a bit of my childhood coming to the fore as well – where she says: 

Is there ought you need that my hands withhold,
Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold?
— The Gift of India by Sarojini Naidu (India, 1915)

“Is there ought you need that my hands withhold, Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold?
 Lo! I have flung to the East and the West, Priceless treasures torn from my breast”. (Read the poem in full below)

And when I matched the statistics to this very eloquent poetry, it was quite extraordinary because India's contribution had not just been in its young men, and a country mourning its many dead, but it had also been in the form of minerals, you know mica, manganese, iron ore. It had been in the form of hard cash, and plenty of it. It had been in the form of military hardware and livestock. So there were different strands coming together for different people.

I think the dominant emotion in terms of audience response is that they were very moved, because I think what we have tried to create is an atmosphere of great delicacy. The Shabads are foregrounded in all their power and glory. And the Shabads have acted as sort of luminous framework through which all the other elements take place. So the first reaction is one of people being moved and by this I include Sikhs as well as none Sikhs.

And then I think the second one is of surprise, because some of the elements startle them, some of the images startle them, some of the statistics surprise them.

And the third one we're very pleased about that, people have said its a fresh and distinctive approach and I have to at this point pay credit to the other major Sikh based projects on the First World War that have taken place last year and this year, and they've been excellent. So we had to find a different angle and of course with Kiran (SAA-UK) and me belonging to the art sector it was inevitable that was a route we would take."

Is there ought you need that my hands withhold,

Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold?

Lo! I have flung to the East and the West

Priceless treasures torn from my breast,

And yielded the sons of my stricken womb

To the drum-beats of the duty, the sabers of doom.

Gathered like pearls in their alien graves

Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,

Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,

They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,

they are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance

On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France

Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep

Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?

Or the pride that thrills thro’ my heart’s despair

And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer?

And the far sad glorious vision I see

Of the torn red banners of victory?

when the terror and the tumult of hate shall cease

And life be refashioned on anvils of peace,

And your love shall offer memorial thanks

To the comrades who fought on the dauntless ranks,

And you honour the deeds of the dauntless ones,

Remember the blood of my martyred sons!”
— The Gift of India by Sarojini Naidu (India, 1915)

To buy the documentary on DVD click here or to watch it online via On-Demand click here.

Hola Mahalla is a little known Sikh festival that takes place annually in Anandpur, India. Dubbed the Sikh Olympics, it involves sword fights, daring horse stunts and a dab of spiritualism.

This documentary focuses on the festival Hola Mahalla that has been running since the 17th century, showcasing skills such as swordsmanship and daring horse stunts that are with an ever decreasing number of nomadic Sikhs.

Featuring key interviews with Nihang Jatherdar (High Priest) Baba Nihal Singh and Kesgarh Sahib Jathedar, Late Giani Tirlochan Singh. This beautifully shot film takes the viewer on a journey through the festival and Anandpur Sahib, the "City of Bliss", providing a snapshot into a world rarely experienced outside of India and exploring this Forgotten Festival.