I had wanted to visit the church of St Francis of Assisi in Dehradun for a long time. And finally I made it there last week. When we reached, the church was locked, but it was opened for us to look around. The priest also gave me some postcards of the frescoes, one of which is reproduced here.
The church is famous for the frescoes painted high on the walls, depicting the life of St Francis. And there is a story associated with these. During World War II there were prisoner of war camps on the outskirts of Dehradun. One housed Italians, and the other Germans. Among the Italians there was a talented painter called Nino La Civita, of Sulmona, Italy. Did he spend his time in the camp painting? Possibly. As the Italians must have been Catholics, the parish priest of St Francis Church visited them, and noticed Nino’s talent. He asked him to pain frescoes in the church. Nino painted seven huge frescoes, high on the walls. A plaque outside the church states that these were painted in 1946, that is after the war, though stories narrate the paintings were executed while he was still a prisoner, and that he had special permission to leave the camp to make them.
In 2004, Lorenzo Cassamenti, another Italian artist, restored the paintings.
I have not yet come across an account of the Italian camp. But Henrich Harrer, who later escaped to Tibet, and wrote a book on his life there, described the German camp in his book Seven Years in Tibet. He wrote, ‘This time we were conveyed by rail to the greatest POW camp in India, a few miles outside the town of Dehra-Dun…Our camp consisted of seven great sections, each surrounded by a double fence of barbed wire. The whole camp was enclosed by two more lines of wire entanglement, between which patrols were constantly on the move.’