When royalty came visiting

Countless photographs of royal visits to India during the 19th century are preserved in the Royal Photograph Collection in the Windsor Castle at London, writes B. N. Goswamy

Queen Mary inspecting the Ashokan lion capital at Sarnath; panoramic photograph, 1906. Royal Photograph Collection, Windsor Castle
Queen Mary inspecting the Ashokan lion capital at Sarnath; panoramic photograph, 1906.
Royal Photograph Collection, Windsor Castle 

IT had the feel of a poem—though it wasn’t—by Nazeer Akbarabadi, that delightful people’s poet who chronicled the ordinary and the routine in our lives, but I still remember from my school days snatches of verses containing an account of its writer’s visit to the then Imperial city of Delhi. "Shehar dilli mein kya kya dekha?" was the burden of the long poem. There, among other things, the poet wrote:

Hazrat Duke Connaught ko dekha

Qutab Sahib ki laat ko dekha

Gorey dekhey, kaale dekhey

Band bajaane waale dekhey

Paani thaa har pump sey jaari

Sadkein theen har camp sey jaari

The poem was not exactly a part of the lesson on "Angrezi raaj ki barkatein" (The Blessings of British rule) that was obligatory for us to learn almost by heart, but it came quite close. In any case in it was reflected the awe, the glitter, in which the imperial image was skilfully wrapped and handed down to everyone. There was majesty in the Raj, we were told, and things undreamt of. Our colonial ‘masters’ certainly knew how to project themselves.

In a very real sense, as everyone knows, the three ‘Delhi Darbars’ that were held between 1877 and 1911 were quintessentially imperial projects: the first to commemorate the proclamation of Queen Victoria as the ‘Queen Empress of India’; the second in 1903 to glory in the coronation of King Edward VII (even though the King himself never came for the occasion, and was represented by his brother, the Duke of Connaught); and the third, in 1911, to celebrate the coronation of King George V at which the shifting of the imperial capital from Calcutta to Delhi was also announced. Each of these was meant to be an occasion to remember, each of these conceived as ‘a dazzling display of pomp and power’.

But, in the eyes of many, the one that stood well above the other two, was the 1903 Darbar. For behind its grand orchestration and its ‘split-second timing’, loomed the figure of Lord Curzon, arguably the most flamboyant of the British Viceroys of India. The festivities as they were planned lasted a full two weeks; in Delhi a deserted plain was transformed into an elaborate tented city; to attend the event a trainload of white notables travelled from Bombay to Delhi while the Viceroy himself came, with all his government, from Calcutta. Every single Indian prince and potentate was ‘invited’— a euphemism, really, for commanded — to be present. And when the two British teams converged upon Delhi, awaiting them was an assembly of Rajas and Nawabs, wearing "possibly the greatest collection of jewels to be seen at one place anywhere in the world".

On the first day of the festivities, Lord and Lady Curzon entered the arena ‘together with the Maharajas, riding on elephants, some of them with huge candelabras stuck on their tusks’. The grand Darbar ceremony was observed following a strict and glittering protocol, each Indian prince presenting himself before the Duke and making an offering in token of fealty. There was music everywhere; days were crowded with polo and other sports, dinners, balls, military reviews, bands, and exhibitions. It seemed to go on forever. And left a clear imprint upon their minds.

What is fascinating is how, in the projection of the imperial image reflected in the Delhi Darbars, a relatively new medium—photography—was pressed into service by the British. The camera, one knows, had arrived in India almost within a year of its invention in Europe in 1839; one also knows that professional photographers had started working, sometimes setting up in India studios and shops, from the 60s of the 19th century on: Felix Beato, Samuel Bourne, John Sache, Fred Bremmer, among others; and, of course, Lala Deen Dayal. It is these men and others travelling with members of the royal family to India who kept recording details of the royal visits. It is in their work that one gets photographs with captions such as ‘Ruling chiefs doing homage to the Duke of Connaught’, or ‘The homage of a native prince to the Duke and Viceroy’. It is as if everything had been thought through. Great albums were prepared and kept; some images were shared and circulated, obviously in the interest of creating the right impact in the right quarters. It may be true, as has been suggested, that by the end of the 19th century, India was "at the centre of a representational revolution". But, in thinking hands, photography soon turned also into a political instrument. Dominion and power were not far from anybody’s thoughts.

Countless words have been written about the Darbars, and countless photographs of royal visits — not all flattering to Indians—are preserved in the Royal Photograph Collection in the Windsor Castle at London. There are some striking but not unexpected images: princes in all their regalia, spectacular tent-cities, white men on elephants, shikar trophies nailed to royal walls, and so on.

But what caught my eye recently was a 1906 photograph that not many might have seen. It captures Queen Mary, appropriately standing under the shade of an umbrella, looking at the Lion capital—now our national emblem—in its original setting at Sarnath. The broken column atop which it once stood lies in the background. I had never seen the great capital in this state, and was fascinated. What the Queen made of the carved Ashokan lions, or the dharma-chakras, or the four animals that appear on the abacus, one can keep wondering about. But the image is compelling.