By Jangveer Singh
For 10 long years, children from Somers Elementary School in Connecticut, USA, and Yadvindra Public School, Patiala, have been exchanging ideas, beliefs and art work in a cultural exchange programme.
"On many occasions, one sees common features and images in the art work done by children aged between six and 12 years, of both countries", says Manmeet S.P. Singh, art educator of YPS and the man behind the cultural programme in India.
The project was, however, initiated by Marilyn R. Blizard, art educator at Somers Elementary School, in 1987. She requested Manmeet to let his schoolchildren exchange works of art and letters with the children of her school. Manmeet gladly complied and soon children from both the nations began communicating with each other. Since then, Manmeet says, hundreds of children have broadened their horizon, besides gaining confidence by reaching out to children from a different continent.
Though Marilyn retired recently, YPS has been informed that the exchange programme, which is immensely liked by the children of Somers, will continue. The American school even honoured the children of YPS and their art teacher recently by sending a plaque that says, "Beautiful art work and friendship note came to the students of Somers in a warm and friendly way. Such a gift of world friendship will be enjoyed for years to come at Somers Elementary School. Thank you from our hearts".
Children of both countries put on display the gifts they receive from each other. The art works are exhibited at school functions. Students of Somers held a special programme in which parents were invited to see the art from India.
The pictures received from Somers depict life in America, which the children here find fascinating.
Komal Sidhu and Gurveen Mann, who are both in Class VII, say, "We loved the exchange programme. It was the best way to make friends. When we were first told that we would be writing letters to Somers Elementary School, we were thrilled. We told our new American friends about our school and city, besides ourselves". Manavdeep Barar says, "I have always been curious to know about the art of other countries and in this way I think my wish has been fulfilled.
The children here have also been conveying their beliefs to their counterparts in the USA. Divya Jain, a student advocating non-violence, stressed that one must not harm others for ones own selfish motives.
ONCE a tiny principality of a few hamlets. Yol today is a small township bustling with life. The old grey buildings with coloured rooftops provide a glimpse of the British style of architecture. The beautiful heritage can be seen protruding from the relatively dense green cover. The mighty and picturesque Dhauladhars in the backdrop lend an idyllic charm to the town.
Yol is situated at the foothills of the Dhauladhars and has attained a prestigious place in the annals of Indo-British history. The town is about 10 km from Dharamsala. The neat and clean environs of Yol are one of its most striking features. The Army formations, over the years, have preserved the pristine glory of the place.
A peep into the history of Yol will reveal that prior to 40s, the area surrounding the town was called Mujetha Ka Balla. In local parlance, it means a barren land where munj grass grew. The green pastures covering the foothills of the Dhauladhar range were used by local shepherds for grazing their cattle. The paths used by the shepherds for grazing cattle were known as jhoel. A small brook was called khol. When the Britishers lodged the Italian prisoners of war in Yol in 1942, the area started becoming popular. In addition to the Italian POWs, political and other prisoners were also lodged here. Italian POWs first used Yol as an abbreviation of Your Own Lines. Later, when the Army formations started making the place their base, it acquired a new name Young Officers Leave Camp.
In olden times, Yol and its adjoining villages were called Papi Nagri. According to a legend, the king of the area fell in love with a damsel. The girl, however, did not want to marry him. He tried to abduct her, but she ran away and transformed herself into a rock near a temple at Narwana.
Later, a huge landslide caused a lot of destruction in the area. A number of villages were destroyed by the landslide.
Yol has a strong connection with World War II. More than 11,000 Italian prisoners of war were brought and confined here by the British rulers. The POWs were captured by the British army from different parts of the world. Apart from soldiers, the prisoners included doctors, professors and writers. The camp was set up in 1942 on the slopes between Khas-Yol and Narwana villages. The barracks built for the POWs were spread over 770 acres. Mostly wood was used for the construction of these barracks. The camp was set up in a record time of six months. The construction work started in April 1941 and was completed in October in the same year. It was an ideal place for the POWs, as the Italians soon acclimatised to the cold climes of Yol.
Almost all the barracks and other buildings constructed during the 40s at Yol have withstood the onslaught of weather and time. The barracks at Yol are a legacy of the British rule in India. Today, these stand as a mute witness to the memories of thousands of POWs who spent over four years there. The entire stretch of about 10 km between Dharamsala and Yol is replete with numerous stories and legends about the lifestyle of Italian POWs. They were lodged in four camps and one of the commandants (appointed out of the POWs themselves) was Chachera Lavera. He used to exercise strict control over the movements of other prisoners. However, it is said that almost all prisoners of war, except the hardcore ones, had the full liberty to move around. They were free to roam around and could even walk miles together on the outskirsts of the camp. It is heartening to note that they enjoyed their stay in India though they were thousands of miles away from their country.
Eightyeight-year-old Vidyawati Thapa, a resident of Dari village near Dharamsala, spoke of an Italian POW who got friendly with her husband, Ram Kishan Thapa. The Italian often visited their house and cooked food for himself in the courtyard of their house. He cooked in a makeshift hearth. "My husband developed gout in his right foot. The Italian brought medicine for him from the camp and soon my husband was cured. I have forgotten his name, but he had got close to our family. Despite the language problem, many a POW succeeded in developing good family relations with the locals. So much so that a few POWs got a piece of land leased out for themselves to grow vegetables, with only a verbal understanding. I have seen two Italians growing tomatoes in one of the fields at Dari village. I feel they were not happy with the food served to them in the camp."
Ninetytwo-year-old Brigadier (retd) Sher Jung Thapa has also closely watched the activities of POWs in Yol. He says, "I saw a few POWs selling their rugs to get Indian currency. They would even sell fruits given to them in ration. They reportedly even went to the extent of brewing local liquor within the four walls of their camp. Their frequent visits to the villages evoked a lot of anxiety and inquisitiveness among the locals. Mostly, I saw them in a holiday mood, as if they had come to India for a picnic. They behaved like tourists and resentment or remorse about their being away from their homeland eluded their faces. I remember that two POWs had deserted the camp and they crossed over to Tibet and one of them later wrote a book on Tibet."
It is believed that one of the prisoners tried to escape by jumping over the stockade. But he was soon shot dead by British soldiers. The dead Italian was buried outside the stockade and a stone slab was erected, with an inscription in Italian that said, "I fell here". The lone grave of the Italian POW can still be seen inside Yol cantonment.
While on the one hand it is said that POWs at Yol had freedom to roam around without fear, on the other hand separate barracks for hardcore prisoners were created within the camp. They were isolated and kept in enclosed barracks surrounded by a high wall, called stockade. A huge rock with iron chains inside the Army formation is still intact. It is believed that hardcore POWs and Indian political prisoners were tortured there.
One of the most notable remnants is a memorial erected by the POWs. It was raised with the help of locally available slates. No cement or mortar has been used to build the memorial. A pair of big slates atop symbolises the freedom that Italian prisoners kept yearning for. At the centre of the memorial there is an inscription written on a big grey slate and tied with chains. It states: "The rather uncommon stone relic was made by the Italian prisoners housed in the Yol POW camp from 1941 to 1946. The topmost pair of stones are symbolic of mens unsatiated thirst for freedom, depicted here as a pair of wings of a bird, struggling to free itself from captivity. The rest of the structure represents prison walls.... This beautiful idea enshrines the tribute which this band of Italians, although captives, left behind this emblem of human spirit, for posterity to uphold and emulate.... To this day it stands undisturbed by fellow soldiers and spared even by the unforging fury of both nature and time."
The authorities at Yol Camp had also made arrangements for the entertainment of POWs. Sham Lal Maini, a leading industrialist, financer and distributor of Indian films in the forties, was instrumental in opening the first cinema hall at Yol Camp. Indian and Foreign films were shown to the POWs in batches as the capacity of the cinema hall was small and only 200 persons could be accommodated.
Another building of historical importance near Yol is "Phansighar" and is situated in Tokabani village. Today, Phansighar is in a dilapidated condition and has been encroached upon by villagers. They use it as a cowshed. Though locals call it Phansighar, it appears to be a dumping place for garbage. How this building, made from pucca bricks, came to be known as Phansighar remains a mystery.
Yol Camp was used as a refugee camp for rehabilitating people uprooted from western Pakistan after Independence of the country. More than 20,000 refugees had taken shelter at the camp. According to locals, once a dispute between the refugees led to police firing in which some refugees and one police officer was killed. In 1947-48, a part of Yol Camp was used by the Jammu and Kashmir militia as a training centre. After shifting the militia camp, a part of Yol Camp was given to an Army unit in 1957. Gradually, the refugees were taken out of Yol Camp and settled in other parts of Kangra district. Most of them have settled in the Narwana, Sidhwari, Dharamsala region, and Yol.
The entire belt of 10 km between Dharamsala and Yol has been covered by haphazard constructions. The mushrooming of pucca houses with cement rooftops are in fact not in harmony with the hill architecture. However, a quaint mixture of old hill architecture with slates, rooftops and concrete housing structures can be seen from Dharamsala up to the Yol cantonment.
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