Susan Ashley – Memorialisation as valuation: the Chattri Memorial


The Chattri Memorial and annual service, on the Downs near Brighton, dedicated to the Indian soldiers who fought on the Western Front during the First World War. Photo courtesy Bert Williams.

This research explores the continuing and changing processes of valuation at the Chattri World War I Memorial, which has stood in a remote part of the Sussex Downs since 1921. The marble domed Chattri, granite platform and surrounding gardens were constructed to honour the 53 soldiers from undivided-India who were cremated on this spot. Since that time the Chattri has been through phases of disuse, pilgrimage and ceremony. I am studying the Chattri as a spiritual place, heritage object, and space of cultural practices, complicating our ideas about what constitutes Culture and Value.

This memorial is a fascinating example of Culture framed not as ‘the arts’ or as ‘the best that has been thought and known’, nor even as an anthropological ‘whole way of life’ (Griswold, 2008), but as the symbolic, expressive and sometimes spiritual realm of human behaviour. Instigated, as with most monuments, as a political tool (Hyson & Lester, 2012), the memorial’s impact lies in its extraordinary affective presence. Physically located high on a wind-swept down, with an ‘exotic’ architectural style, and possessing a unique minority ethnic history, the site has been animated each year since 1951 by a cultural ceremony that is both solemn and formal, and social and joyous, producing in participants a sense of an electric resonance and importance.

The British government, Brighton city, the British Legion, and now a consortium of local residents with Sikh, Indian, Caribbean and British ties have all had a hand in the memorialising practices at the Chattri. My research will piece together a narrative of changing senses of valuation expressed through the activities and performances of people at the site. This will come from my personal experience and scrutiny of the activities; analysis of media discourses over the years, and observations of participants and organisers gleaned through interviews and workshop. I am curious to inspect my own ideas on the factors that affect valuation, in relation to the ideas that emerge from participants.

One of the themes I will interrogate is how the ‘publicness’ of memorialising structures and activities set conditions of valuation – that such in-public displays and performances make strong intentional statements of value. Monuments are peculiar fixed objects of heritage characterised by this intention to proclaim value, and through their public prominence and permanence, project that value (and those values) into the future. The annual event is itself an in-public ritual of self-presentation on the part of organisers and participants – a form of ‘public culture’. As symbolic and expressive performances, intentionally situated in a public setting, these ceremonial activities differ from everyday cultural participation or arts spectatorship.

But what is considered important changes, runs into conflicts, and evolves, depending on the subjectivities and perspectives of those involved. Who is deemed a ‘stakeholder’ in these processes, or who self-selects as stakeholder, determines who gets to speak and define value not only within dominant discourses but within the minority communities of interest. How do such communities of interest come together as ‘publics’, determine who may contribute, and present their ‘selves’ in-public in statements of valuation? And how will participants choose to express their senses of value to me as I seek them out as research subjects? We hope that by using discourse analysis we will be able to tease out answers to such questions.

I anticipate that this study, to be completed in the midst of the centenary of WWI, will lead to further research as interest in the war builds over the next four years, and as the experiences of non-Western war participants becomes a source of contention. The Chattri is now isolated and is operated by self-organized and voluntary participants, but this could change if the Chattri Group choose to get involved in the broader commemorations. How value is defined and supported by outside agencies could (again) influence the shape and practices of those who support the memorial.