When Robert Bulwer-Lytton, former governor-general of India, came to Delhi in 1876 to prepare for the First Delhi Durbar to be held the following year, he “mounted an elephant and went through the streets of Delhi in a procession that lasted three hours circling the Jama Masjid, traversing a part of the Chandni Chowk street, and exiting the walled city of Shahjahanabad at the Lahore Gate, before making its way to a site to the north of the city where a tented camp had been set up”.
Such descriptions, and more, find a mention in art historian Swapna Liddle’s layered essay, published in DAG’s new book Delhi Durbar: Empire, Display and the Possession of History. It focuses on the three Delhi Durbars that were held in 1877, 1903, and 1911 respectively.
Liddle, together with historian Rana Safvi, has curated the exhibition (with the same title as the book), which is open to public till 6 November at DAG’s gallery in Windsor Place, Janpath. The idea is to give residents of the city an in-depth understanding of what Delhi looked like before independence and why it was vital to the overall growth of the British empire.
Another interesting anecdote mentioned in the book is when Maharajah Jayaji Rao Scindia referred to the Queen mistakenly as “Shahenshah, Badshah” instead of ‘Kaiser-e-Hind’ on the occasion of the First Delhi Durbar. Or, how Lockwood Kipling’s design for the dais at the Coronation Durbar in 1877 was criticised as being an “over-ornamented, cone-shaped canopy on silver pillars, surmounted by a large imperial crown perched on a too-small gilded cushion”.
After combing through the rich archival collection of DAG, the two historians have stitched together an exhibition that not only takes a close look at the city’s beginnings and the First War of Independence of 1857, but also delves into the history behind the three coronation events. The first one was to declare Queen Victoria as the Empress of India; the second, a two-week pageant in 1903, proclaimed the succession of her son, Edward VI, as King Emperor, and the third had King George V and his consort, Queen Mary, attending the ceremony in person, thus marking the first time a ruling British monarch visited India.
Of immense importance was the formal announcement of Delhi as the capital city of the British Empire during the 1911 Durbar. This marked the transfer from Calcutta to Delhi on “geographical, political, and historical grounds”.
From the archives, both Liddle and Safvi dug out old photographs, maps, books, diaries, directories, limited edition collectible figurines, letters, postal stamps, admittance tickets, original postcards, and commemorative medals, besides blueprints of designs of makeshift camps, tents, and buildings.
The exhibition also takes into consideration some of the most important paintings done at the time, including M.V. Dhurandhar’s Untitled (Homage to their Majesties the King and Queen) from 1911, wherein the master artist reimagined the coronation with the ladies of Indian royal families conducting a ceremony to invoke divine blessings for the queen.
While many of us have studied the Imperial Durbars in textbooks, it’s for the first time that the accompanying “material culture” has been put on display for public viewing. According to Ashish Anand, CEO and managing director, DAG, such a rich repository of archival material becomes a useful tool for highlighting differing views and perspectives of the past. The ‘Delhi Durbar’ is the first full-fledged exhibition from DAG Archives. Anand explains that it not only sheds new light on our colonial history, but also on how the three Durbars borrowed from and contributed to a vivid visual culture—ranging from imperial razzmatazz to the common man’s view of the scenes around him.
Safvi stresses on the historical importance of each of the Delhi Durbars. The first one was seen as “a gesture of reconciliation and healing”, especially in the aftermath of the uprising of 1857. The other two events continued to build on the idea that British rule was important for the growth of the country. They demanded allegiance from princely states while felicitating the British officials, who were stationed in the country.
The Durbar events were also instrumental in shaping the city’s character—politically, administratively, and culturally.
Throughout the exhibition, the linkages between the city’s past and the present become apparent. Take, for instance, an early 20th century site plan, done in ink on cloth, which shows the position of the ridge plan. A closer look shows that a railway terminus had been planned at Connaught Place, an idea that was dropped. Now, of course, we alight the metro in the same area but that’s another story.
Delhi Durbar: Empire, Display and the Possession of History is on display at Windsor Place, Janpath, till 6 November, 11 am to 6 pm