Imperial images

Print edition : April 05, 2013

Chandnee Chauk, Delhi (drawn from nature and on stone by Capt. Luard, printed by Hullmandell), the Alkazi Collection of Photography, or ACP. Photo: afda

The Lat or Stone Pillar, and Ruins of Palace, Delhi (albumen print by John Edward Sache, late 1860s), ACP. Photo: afdas

General View of the Qutub Minar Area (East Portion), and Aluddin's Unfinished Minar, Qutub Complex (gelatin silver Print, 1919-21), Archaeological Survey of India. Photo: afdasdf

A Tailor (coloured illustration by Mortimer Menpes from the book The Durbar, 1903), ACP. Photo: afdas

Imperial Assemblage at Delhi, 1 January 1877 (coloured lithograph from the book The History of the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi, 1878), ACP. Photo: adfasd

Coronation Durbar, Delhi: Royal Procession towards the Jumma Musjid Mosque (phototype postcard by Photo Central News, 1911), ACP. Photo: asdsf

Imperial Assemblage, Delhi, Part 2 of 3-Part Panorama (albumen print by Bourne & Shepherd, 1877), ACP. Photo: asdf

Delhi Durbar: View from the Stands into Arena (gelatin silver print by an unknown photographer from the album Peshawar, Khyber Pass, 1903), ACP. Photo: assfd

Council Chamber (gelatin silver print by an unknown photographer from the album CPWD Secretariart, 1930), CPWD Archives. Photo: afaaf

An exhibition on Delhi from the late 19th to the early 20th century, which was recently on in Bangalore, gives visitors a chance to understand the pomp and pageantry of the British Raj.

WHEN Delhi was once again designated as the capital of India in 1911, a “New” Delhi was built to reflect the majesty of the newest rulers of India. According to R.E. Frykenberg, a historian of Delhi, the “...decision to move the seat of Supreme Government from Calcutta was intimately linked both to the Partition of Bengal (1905) and to its revocation (1911)”.

For Delhi, the ancient and medieval capital of the subcontinent, this was nothing new. Emperors who ruled India, or much of northern India, through recorded history had always preferred to govern from this strategic location and they had built a new city or rebuilt or extended an earlier one to stamp their own authority over the rich palimpsest of the city. Percival Spear, the historian of modern India who died in 1982, wrote: “The founding of a new city has been a traditional way of earning political immortality, of celebrating the rise of a new dynasty, or of crowning the glory of an individual monarch. So we find that Ala-ad-din (Khilji), Ghiyas-ad-din Tughlak, Humayun and Sher Shah all celebrated the rise of their dynasties by commencing new cities, while rulers of established dynasties like Mohammed Tughlak, Firoz Shah and Shah Jahan have similarly proclaimed their own significance.”

In one of the early histories of Delhi, published in 1906, Gordon Risley Hearn, a captain in the Royal Engineers, writes about the “Seven Cities of Delhi”. Comparing Delhi to Rome, this essentialist telling of Delhi moves chronologically through the Hindu and Muslim periods, until it sees the British as the logical heirs to the great rulers of India’s past. While this chronological categorisation of seven cities has been discarded by later historians, it is a useful guide to the scattered monuments of the city’s bygone eras.

According to Hearn, the seven cities of Delhi were the “Hindu” city of Indraprastha mentioned in the Mahabharata; Alauddin Khilji’s second city at Siri; Ghiyasuddin Tughlak’s “Tughlaqabad”; Mohammed Tughlak’s “Jahanpanah”; Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s “Firozabad”; Sher Shah’s city near Firozabad; and the great Mughal Shahjahan’s “Shahjahanabad”, which reflected the splendorous architectural apogee of medieval India.

Delhi grew gradually in the 19th century through the “twilight of the Mughals” and even recovered from the body blow that it received from the events of 1857 although residents would lament that the city had changed irrevocably. Delhi’s tryst with its destiny as the eternal first city of India was fulfilled when the British made it the capital of British India in 1911. Fittingly, the announcement of the change in capital was made at the grand durbar for the coronation of King Emperor George V and the Queen Empress on December 12 that year. A new city was raised by the architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, evoking the grandeur of the many cities of Delhi’s past but surpassing all of them in their imperial power as it was from here that a vast South Asian colony was administered. It is from here that post-independent India has also been governed.

An exhibition on Delhi from the late 19th to the early 20th century, called “Dawn Upon Delhi: Rise of a Capital”, was on at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore from February 17 to March 16. The rare photographs, maps, plans and engravings were also displayed at the National Galleries of Delhi and Mumbai over the past few months. The exhibition draws extensively from the Alkazi Collection of Photography (ACP) and also from the archives of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD).

Of the 250 pieces, the show-stealers are clearly the photographs of the Coronation Durbars of 1903 and 1911. Three Delhi durbars were held—in 1877, 1903 and 1911—to mark the coronation of English monarchs as emperors or the empress of India. In the three durbars, the Emperor and the Queen were actually present for the coronation only in 1911. Stage-managed by the Viceroys in India, these durbars were clearly meant to follow the legacy of the Mughals in the spectacle of pomp and glory that they offered. For the British, who thought that they were the heirs of the Mughals, the tradition of the durbar was needed to legitimise their rule. The anthropologist Bernard S. Cohn writes that the durbars were the archetypal “Victorian-invented tradition”. Many photographic albums for official and personal purposes were commissioned to be shot at these durbars. Postcards that could be circulated through the British Empire were also printed, and they form a major part of the exhibition.

In one of the photographs on display (“Coronation Durbar, Delhi: Royal Procession towards the Jumma Musjid Mosque”, 1911, ACP), a huge procession of King Emperor George V can be seen. Flanked by armed infantry and cavalry for its entire length, the grand procession winds its way to the Jama Masjid, whose bulbous domes and tall minarets provide an impressive backdrop to the royal entourage. Hordes of Indians crowd the steps of the mosque as they await the procession, and people can also be seen viewing the spectacle from the sidelines. An Australian schoolboy’s brief account of the event has been reproduced by Jim Masselos in his article “The Great Durbar Crowds: The Participant Audience”. The schoolboy describes the steps of the Jama Masjid as “...crowded with natives, and with natives too on top of the walls and minarets. Indeed there were natives everywhere—the place looked like a monstrous hive of multi-coloured bees.” The durbar itself had 250,000 visitors and was an international wonder at the time.

A panoramic picture from the 1903 edition of the durbar (“Delhi Durbar: View from the Stands into Arena” from the album “Peshawar, Khyber Pass”, 1903 Delhi Durbar, Kashmir, ACP) is also part of the exhibition. The wide angle of the photograph captures the proceedings of the durbar. The picture is shot stylistically, with the silhouettes of the Indo-Saracenic columns foregrounded and a large mass of people sitting in the stands. A collage of the same durbar shows an imaginary scene of Lord Curzon and the Duke of Connaught (who was representing the Emperor) surrounded by “Chiefs and Nobles of the Anglo-Indian Empire” (unknown artist, 1903). Another standout picture is a coloured illustration of a tailor by the Australian-born travelling artist Mortimer Menpes (“A Tailor” from the book The Durbar, 1903, ACP).

The 1903 Durbar was intended to be “modern” and adopted the Indo-Saracenic style that was common among British architects in India. The structures for the durbar were made of iron and wood, writes Julie. F. Codell, an art historian, but they were painted white to look like marble. According to Stephen Wheeler, a contemporary author of Curzon’s Durbar, the 1903 Durbar, “...closed the page of the India of the past... of ancient chivalry and... mediaeval pomp [and] opened the new chapter that was more prosaic, but also more progressive, of the empire’s modernity”.

An albumen print from the Delhi Durbar of 1877 (“Imperial Assemblage, Delhi”, Part 2 of 3-Part Panorama, ACP) shows a scene from the first of these majestic gatherings. The 1877 Durbar was held to crown Queen Victoria as the Empress of India after Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli proposed this idea and made it into law in 1876. Lord Lytton, the Viceroy at the time, wrote that the Queen’s assumption as Empress “...conspicuously places her authority upon that ancient throne of the Moguls”. A brightly coloured lithograph of the same durbar also finds pride of place at the exhibition (“Imperial Assemblage at Delhi, 1 January 1877”, from “The History of the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi”, 1878, Coloured Lithograph, ACP). Julie Codell, analysing the event, writes that the “...first Delhi Durbar was intended to bring closure to residual feelings and tensions generated by the 1857 Uprising by replacing the memory of brutalities on both sides with a celebration of a new imperial, harmonious order”.

About the durbars, Julie Codell writes: “Coronation durbars were meant to evoke and create national and cultural memories to replace Mughal history and ‘remember’ the British Raj in perpetuity, the time span they expected the empire to last.”

Apart from depictions of the Delhi durbars, there are other items at the exhibition that span the modern history of Delhi. While some, like the engravings of Chandni Chowk (“Chandnee Chauk, Delhi, drawn from nature and on stone by Capt. Luard, ACP) and John Edward Sache’s “The Lat or Stone Pillar, and Ruins of Palace, Delhi” (albumen print, late 1860s, ACP), are older, others are newer, including scenes from the construction of the Secretariat in New Delhi. These photographs are mainly from the 1920s and 1930s.

The exhibition, curated by Rahaab Allana of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, one of the pioneering bodies in India that has been building a visual repository of modern India, gives the visitor a chance to understand the pomp and pageantry of the British Raj.

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