A PRODUCTION telling some of the largely forgotten stories of British India’s role in the First World War will be presented at Ilkley Literature Festival next month.

Sacred Sounds: Sikh Music Traditions and the First World War is presented by Alchemy and SAA-uk in association with The Network of Sikh Organisations, UK. Inspired by an evocative photograph of Sikh soldiers performing Gurbani Kirtan or Shabads (Sikh sacred hymns) in a French barn, the concert (Ilkley Playhouse, Thursday, October 12) showcases the music that Sikh soldiers from over one million Indian combatants and non-combatants participating in the conflict took with them to camp and battlefield.

It features the Shabads, originally composed by Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith, powerful letters between Sikh soldiers and their families and vivid individual stories such as a mother’s lament for a departing son.

On Thursday, October 5 at Ilkley’s Manor House, Dr Nima Poovaya-Smith, curator, writer and Director of Alchemy Anew, will reveal the process of turning this archive material into a performance. Dr Poovaya-Smith said: “By the end of the war the Punjab alone had contributed nearly 450,000 Muslim, Hindu and Sikh combatants and non-combatants; just under 100,000 of these were Sikhs recruited from different villages of the Punjab. “The source of inspiration for this project was primarily the Sikh Shabads. They provide a luminous framework for other records. These include the voices of the Sikh soldiers and their families and friends through letters exchanged, expressing hope, stoicism and the sorrow of separation. These contrast with the harsh pragmatism of recruitment songs used by the British.”

She adds: “The Sikh contribution to music is quite remarkable considering the fact that they are not a large community. They have made a distinctive contribution not only to vocals, strings, keyboard and percussion but in the past, have also played on brass instruments and bagpipes through their role in the British army. Imtiaz Dharker’s wonderful responses to a number of the images and letters from that period give us a fresh contemporary perspective, as does Robert Green’s spoken word performance in the Prologue.”

Sohinder Singh Chana of the Network of Sikh Organisations, UK says: “The contributions of Commonwealth soldiers, including Sikh soldiers, in the two World Wars, tend to get overlooked in mainstream coverage of commemorative events. Sacred Sounds throws interesting light on this aspect of our history.”

On Wednesday, October 11 the partners involved in Sacred Sounds are holding an international conference at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, looking at the making of Sacred Sounds, which has involved artists, historians, academics, arts administrators and members of Sikh communities.