Re-creating Memories of ‘Delhi Durbar’

An exhibition chronicles the material cultures of the three historic Delhi Durbars, put together by Swapna Liddle and Rana Safvi, curated from the archives of Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), on view at their Janpath Studio in New Delhi.

A chromolithograph of the 1903 Durbar on depicts the procession with its distinct order based on hierarchy̶ the most important dignitaries rode on elephants, followed by carriages, horses and finally infantry. This popular print shows the procession passing in front of the Jama Masjid led by the Viceroy, Lord Curzon and his wife, Mary, seated on the first elephant.

No more befitting chief guest than Gaj Singh II of Jodhpur – fondly known as Bapji – could have presided over the opening of an exhibition commemorating the three Delhi Durbars held during the Raj to emphasise the might of the Empire. Never mind that it was ironic that the ceremonial events were held in the old Mughal capital even though the Raj ruled the subcontinent from distant Calcutta (now Kolkata). Fittingly, the third and last Durbar announced the shifting of the capital to Delhi, laying the foundations for the vibrant city that is still getting over the euphoria of hosting the successful G20 meet in the capital.

Gaj Singh flew in especially from Jodhpur for the event, but there was no dearth of celebrities in attendance—from Shashi Tharoor to Sunita Kohli, from Rajeev Sethi to Ram Rahman, Meera and Muzzafar Ali, Naresh Gujral and Yashodhara Dalmia. The French ambassador was there, as was the Norwegian – both of them new – and there was a smattering of royals: MK Ranjitsinh of Wankaner, Nawan Kazim Ali of Rampur, Aishwarya Katoch from Kangra, among them.

During the period of the Raj, the British held three great ceremonial durbars in Delhi. The first, in 1877, was staged to declare Queen Victoria as Empress of India. The second, in 1903, proclaimed the succession of her son King Edward VI as King Emperor. The third, in 1911, proclaimed King George V, and on this occasion both the King and his consort, Queen Mary, attended in person, marking the first time a ruling British monarch had visited India. The pomp and ceremony of these events were on a lavish scale, to display the majesty and power of the Raj, and the loyalty of eminent Indian subjects, including maharajas and nawabs of the princely states.

Curated by leading historians Swapna Liddle and Rana Safvi, it was drawn from the archives of DAG and included photographs of the three durbars taken by prominent photographers of the day, as well as objects relating to the durbars, from portraits and medals, to maps and official guidebooks, and to tickets and programmes, even a pair of royal chairs complete with footstools, used during the 1911 Durbar. Historians in the past have analysed the ideology of the Delhi durbars, but never before has such a collection of the material culture of these events been brought together for display.

The visual imagery of the durbars drew heavily on the heritage of the city: on Mughal courtly ceremony of the past—as the very name ‘durbar’ indicates—as well as the stately architecture of the Mughal and sultanate periods. Delhi had also, of course, been the scene of some of the bloodiest conflicts during the Uprising of 1857, and the first of the durbars was held in Delhi just twenty years later, partly as a gesture of reconciliation and healing. Consequently, the exhibition begins with a ‘darshan’ of the great monuments of the city, as seen in paintings, photographs and postcards of the time, and then includes images of Delhi in 1857, before proceeding to the three imperial durbars in turn.

The exhibition will be on view at DAG, Janpath, New Delhi, till 6 November 2023.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *