The imperial durbar by an unidentified artist, 1903 (Images Courtesy: DAG Archives)
THE CITY OF DELHI HOLDS a special place in the annals of history, having been the seat of power for many an empire. It beckoned the British, who had initially made Calcutta their chosen political outpost, towards the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. As they cemented their authority as an empire, they could not ignore Delhi after the violent uprising of 1857. Hence, it became the chosen venue for the three imperial assemblages—or Delhi Durbars as they were officially known—held in 1877, 1903 and 1911.
Tracing this trajectory of Delhi within the British imperial imagination is a current exhibition in the capital city titled Delhi Durbar: Empire, Display and the Possession of History. It has been curated by historians Rana Safvi and Swapna Liddle and is on display at DAG. As the first exhibit drawn entirely from DAG’s archives, it took a year to assemble and curate.
Safvi explains the appeal of the subject, “The three Delhi Durbars held immense significance in Indian history as they played a pivotal role in shaping perceptions of British rule in India. These magnificent gatherings were characterised by their grandeur, with attendance of Indian royalty and foreign dignitaries. They served as an exhibition of British authority and opulence, which while stamping their authority also drew upon Mughal symbols and customs, underscoring their influence. This exhibition, drawing upon the archives of DAG, guides visitors through the rich history of not just these three Durbars, but also of India as a British colony.”
To this, Liddle adds, “The story of the Coronation Durbars is largely about the central importance of Delhi in the history of Indian empires, an importance that the British had to engage with, and finally acknowledge by shifting the capital of their Indian empire from Calcutta to Delhi.”
Through nearly 100 displayed works and an additional 20-30 catalogued works, the curators have brought alive the cultural milieu of this time, from the vast archival collection they sorted through. On display are prints, photographs, paintings, objects, books, medals, directories, letters, furniture, and other memorabilia that shed a light on the grand spectacle of these events, and life around them. It is the first exhibition to explore the material culture of the Delhi Durbars, which isn’t restricted to photographs.
Divided into five distinct sections, it takes viewers on a journey, which begins in the aftermath of the revolt of 1857 to the proclamation of New Delhi as the new capital of the British empire in 1911. The first two sections titled ‘Delhi Darshan’ and ‘The Uprising of 1857’ were under the purview of Safvi while the remaining three, on the specific Durbars, were put together by Liddle. Safvi says, “Swapna and I saw the extensive archive, and realised it was most difficult to choose what to use and what not to, and then how to present it. So, we divided the work amongst us. We tried to see these events from an Indian perspective. The British were trying to change their perception in India by utilising Indian elements in the Durbars like the use of the Jharokha Darshan, the dais was built in a similar style to the Mughal Diwan-e-Am etc.”
The ‘Delhi Darshan’ section provides context to the history of the city. It was Delhi’s rich architecture and visual imagery that inspired the pomp and splendour of the Durbars. An apt example of this is Samuel Bourne’s photograph Chandini Chouk showcasing the erstwhile Ghanta Ghar or clock tower that no longer exists. There are also postcards of monuments like the Kuwat-ul-Islam Mosque, the Shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya and baolis by popular printers Lal Chand & Sons and HA Mirza & Sons; photographs of Sufdar Jung’s Tomb by Italian-British war photographer, Felice Beato; as well as company paintings showing the Qutub Minar and a watercolour of the Purana Kila (Old Fort) by HJ McCormack.
For ‘The Uprising of 1857’, a selection of works made during and just after the event are clubbed together. A photograph by Beato titled Tree in the Palace under which 119 Europeans were murdered in June 1857 shows the Naqqar Khana at the Red Fort, where a massacre of around 56 Europeans, mainly women and children, by Indian sepoys, did indeed take place. The exaggeration in the exact sum may have been to pique buyers’ interest in his work.
Scenes of war are also recreated through Orlando Norie’s aquatints The 60th Rifles at the Storming of Delhi and GF Atkinson’s illustration Storming of Delhi taken from his book The Campaign in India: 1857-58. Atkinson was a soldier-artist who served as a Captain in the British army. The section closes with postcards of the St Stephen’s Memorial Church and the Mutiny Memorial (located on the ridge and now called Ajitgarh), which was built to commemorate those who lost their lives during the revolt.
The exhibition then shifts focus to the “imperial assemblages”, as they were christened by Viceroy Lord Lytton. Liddle asserts, “Through the exhibition, we wanted to address the question of why Delhi was chosen as the location for these grand Durbars, and why the British had to ultimately acknowledge the importance of this particular city. It is through the Durbars that we seek to tell the story of Delhi.”
The third section, ‘Imperial Assemblage 1877’, opens with a portrait of Lord Lytton in his imperial finery sporting the robes of the grand master of the ‘Most Exalted Order of the Star of India’, which was a reward created in 1861 to felicitate Indian rulers and high-ranking British officials. An important companion to these robes is the medal made with enamel, gilt and silk, given out during the investiture ceremony at the Durbar.
Another important record is James Talboys Wheeler’s book The History of the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi published by Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer. It includes historical sketches, photographic views of Delhi, and portraits of several Maharajas along with Queen Victoria and Viceroy Lytton interwoven with a descriptive narrative. Wheeler was tasked with presenting India to “bring out the contrast between the state of India under the Native Government and its present condition under the British Rule.”
The main event is captured through a panoramic photograph titled, The Imperial Durbar, Delhi, Proclamation Day Jan 1, 1877 by John Edward Saché. It shows the reading of the proclamation by which Queen Victoria was hailed as the ‘Kaiser e Hind’, or ‘Empress of India’, at Delhi’s Coronation Park. According to Wheeler’s book, “Three structures had been set up, namely, a Throne Pavilion for the Viceroy, an Amphitheatre for the High Officials and Ruling Chiefs, and blocks for Representatives of Foreign Governments and spectators.” One can also see a photo of the Near View of the Dais on which the proclamation was read, which resembled a large circus tent, in contrast to the Mughal influences adopted for later Durbars.
An interesting personality given pride of place in this section is Begum Nawab Sekunder of Bhopal, who was the only woman apart from Queen Victoria to be honoured as ‘Knight Grand Commander’, for her loyalty to the British. In this rare portrait, she is pictured without her customary purdah. Also captured are the individual tents of princely states set up for the two-week celebrations and decorated in cultural paraphernalia from their respective regions.
The fourth section ‘Delhi Durbar, 1903’ opens with a print by an unidentified artist titled The Imperial Durbar, capturing the royal procession on its route from the Queen’s Road, round the Jama Masjid to the Viceroy’s durbar camp. A hierarchical order was strictly observed, with Viceroy Lord Curzon and his wife Mary leading important dignitaries such as the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and the rulers of the Princely States on elephants. Those of lesser rank followed in carriages and horses while the infantry pulled the rear guard.
The State Entry is also captured in another photograph, which shows people gathered in windows, balconies, and on rooftops to watch the spectacle of the procession as it moved around the city. Electricity poles around Chandni Chowk highlight the introduction of electricity to Delhi for this Durbar. Bourne & Shepherd’s album, The Coronation Durbar, Delhi, 1903 showcasing scenes of the procession, the reading of the proclamation, tented camps, and portraits of various dignitaries, is also on display.
Perhaps the most unusual items in this section are the oil paintings of Australian-born British artist Mortimer Menpes, who travelled to India to capture the spectacle of the Durbar in all its glory. His paintings were later published in a book with accompanying text written by his daughter Dorothy. In addition to the Durbar’s pageantry, he painstakingly captured scenes from daily life, along with portraits of retainers, standard bearers, horsemen and elephant riders. Dorothy writes, “State after State passed by, each one more bizarre and picturesque than the last. There were monstrous elephants hung with jewels; flaming banners; mail-clad horsemen; crimson velvet and cloth of gold; masses of precious metal; glittering fringes and tassels. It was almost too brilliant, too bright, too strange. One’s brain could not take it all in.” Menpes’ work inspired William Britain to create a series of his iconic metal, painted figurines, which are used to recreate a large and vibrant scene of daily life at the DAG show.
The ‘Delhi Durbar of 1911’ section rounds off the exhibit. With the passage of time and the emergence of nationalist sentiments, this particular Durbar gained significance. Hence, the reigning monarchs, King George V and his wife Queen Mary, decided to visit India in person, prompting the celebrations to be distinctive and grander than before. Directories describing the programmes, expectations of dress, and variety of events are on display, as are panoramic photos highlighting the vast scale of the celebration as the King was keen to make it accessible to everyone. Large-scale portraits of the King and Queen by an amateur artist show the effect their presence had on the Indian cultural and artistic landscape.
Other noteworthy works in this section include MV Dhurandhar’s award-winning painting, which reimagines a scene of the Queen requesting an audience with the ladies of the royal families, by unusually placing the King amongst them. Beautifully crafted furniture consisting of matching armchairs and footstools are also laid out. These were specifically commissioned to seat high-ranking dignitaries and were decorated with their banners and the royal cypher (‘Delhi 1911 GRI’). Above this setting rests an unusual piece—a massive khwanposh or ceremonial cloth used to cover trays, decorated with intricate zari work on rich velvet fabric and hand embroidered by artisans from Surat.
This final Durbar was where the historic announcement of the transfer of the capital city from Calcutta to Delhi was made. Hence, an entire wall is adorned with a large map of the proposed imperial city, which was to be built at Raisina and named New Delhi. The plan shows Kingsway connecting the Viceroy’s House and the Secretariats, along with other provisions, which were eventually discarded such as the university campus planned within the city.
Ashish Anand, CEO and MD, DAG, sums up the show, “This exhibition from the DAG Archives sheds new light on our colonial history—the three Delhi Durbars of the Raj and how they borrowed from and contributed to a vivid visual culture that ranges from imperial razzmatazz to the common man’s view of the scenes around him. This museum-quality exhibition opens new frontiers in our exploration of the nation’s history.” One would have to agree with this assessment.
(Delhi Durbar: Empire, Display and the Possession of History is on display at DAG, Delhi till November 6)