The State Entry into Delhi : Painting and Poetry at the Delhi Durbar of 1903.

How has the meaning of this painting changed over the years?

This iconic painting titled ‘The State entry into Delhi‘ from the collection of the Victoria Memorial Hall (Kolkata), shows a ceremonial procession held as part of the 1903 Delhi Durbar. This was the grand opening to a celebration of the 1902 coronation of King Edward VII which spread over two long weeks of festivity, though the Durbar day itself was held on New Year’s day (January 1, 1903). The event, a significant moment in history included banquets, an investiture ceremony, a review of 34,000 military troops, an art exhibition, and a State Ball hosted by Lord Curzon who was the Viceroy of India.

Painted by Roderick D. MacKenzie, this 17ft by 11ft large oil painting was meant to showcase Britain’s imperial might – a reflection of the Delhi Durbar event itself. It is widely stated that the pageantry of the Delhi Durbar of 1903 was unmatched – neither its predecessor (1877) nor the Durbar of 1911 were as dazzling in their display.

There have been several written accounts of the Durbar of 1903, but a nazm paints a picture of the Durbar in a way that is a fitting companion to this iconic artwork.

sar meñ shauq kā saudā dekhā
dehlī ko ham ne bhī jā dekhā
jo kuchh dekhā achchhā dekhā
kyā batlā.eñ kyā kyā dekhā

To view this painting, we turn to the satirical poem by Akbar Allahabadi titled “jalwa-e-darbar-e-dehli“.

The Urdu poet Syed Akbar Hussain Rizvi, popularly known as Akbar Allahabadi was known for his witty and satirical poetry. His frank and fearless expression of the spirit of his age earned him the title Lisan-ul-Asr or ‘Voice of the Times’ by the Urdu press.

Unlike the one in 1911, this Delhi Durbar, was not attended by the King himself; instead, he was represented by his brother the Duke of Connaught (who arrived in India amidst much fanfare).

jamunā-jī ke paat ko dekhā
achchhe suthre ghaat ko dekhā
sab se ūñche laat ko dekhā
hazrat ”duke-connaught’ ko dekhā

state entry delhi durbar painting jama masjid

In the painting, you can spot the Duke (and Duchess) of Connaught on the second elephant. He is dressed in a red military uniform, and a turbaned Indian sits behind him. Ahead of them, leading the procession are Lord Curzon and his wife, Lady Curzon. Behind the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, are the Indian princes ( the Nizam of Hyderabad in his blue sash and the Maharaja of Mysore).

The State Entry into Delhi : a painting of a fascinating procession

The poet, like any other spectator notices the troops (comprising of Indian and British soldiers) carrying their impressive weapons and men playing the band instruments as part of the procession.

paltan aur risāle dekhe
gore dekhe kaale dekhe
sañgīneñ aur bhāle dekhe
band bajāne vaale dekhe

state entry delhi durbar painting bands
a band from Kutch – illustration by Mortimer Menpes

The eye then moves towards the elephants decked in gold (zari-cloth). As a viewer, you try to spot the different elephants and when you spot the howdah on the farthest right end, you realise how the painter conveys the scale of the procession. The poet too, writes about the heavy elephants and their exquisitely crafted golden-brocade coverings – he describes the scene of endless extravaganza such that one could spot the grandeur of the slow moving procession as far as the eye could see (for miles).

state entry delhi durbar painting elephants

hāthī dekhe bhārī-bharkam
un kā chalnā kam kam tham tham
zarrīñ jhūleñ nuur kā aalam
mīloñ tak vo cham-cham cham-cham

The perspective is markedly different when seen from the eyes of the English writer-illustrator couple, Mortimer and Dorothy Menpes. As per her account, these elephants from Burma (pictured below) had started walking in October to make it in time to Delhi!

state entry delhi durbar elephant bikaner painting
“The jhool upon this elephant and the embroidery on the velvet is worth a king’s ransom” – Dorothy Menpes about the elephants from Bikaner

As the procession passes by, the Jama Masjid makes for a magnificent backdrop. In fact, the upper half of the painting is dominated by the domes, minarets and arched gateways of the mosque against the blue sky. Quite interestingly, Mughal stateliness (the mosque was built by Shahjahan) meets colonial opulence in a strange jugalbandi in this painting. Was this intentional? Compare it to the Menpes’ view from Jama Masjid – how does the perspective change your feeling about the painting?

Akbar Allahabadi’s description of teeming crowds filling Jama Masjid’s procession-facing side (you can spot people on the stairs, and on the balconies) is in accordance with Mackenzie’s painting. In a crowd such as a this, the poet mentions, nobody paid heed to anyone and everyone was hungry for a glimpse of the procession. The poem and painting both, are a reflection of the sense of awe that the event was meant to instil.

pur thā pahlū-e-masjid-e-jāme
raushaniyāñ thiiñ har-sū laame
koī nahīñ thā kisī kā sāme.a
sab ke sab the diid ke taame

Here’s another version printed in the LePetit Journal (artist unknown). This artwork does not feature the Jama Masjid in a way Mackenzie’s painting does. How does the “sense of awe” change when you alter some elements in the painting? How does the medium and size of the artwork affect your feeling? Slide to compare the paintings.

What does the painting show?

The years after 1857 were turbulent in the Indian subcontinent. It was a period marked by Britain’s relentless efforts to establish sovereignty over the region and an event (and painting) such as this served the purpose well. In these lines, the poet conveys the visual spectacle of the procession and the military marching past the crowds; the satire is unmistakeable though, as he hints at the stifling feeling one gets (as in a crowd) recalling the blood-bath of 1857 that occurred in the same vicinity. In fact, after the 1902 Boer War had severely dented Britain’s global image, a show of pomp was indeed stifling. The poet witnesses the fireworks and celebrations lamenting on how the ‘wealth of leisure’ is being squandered away to create this image of power. The Imperial expenditure alone amounted to £2,99,000 as per records.

surḳhī sadak par kut-tī dekhī
saañs bhī bhiid meñ ghut-tī dekhī
ātish-bāzī chhut-tī dekhī
lutf kī daulat lut-tī dekhī

Menpes in her account justifies the expenditure as much needed to “make the natives realise the great power of the British Empire and fire them with loyalty”. It was not however just paintings or processions that contributed to the image of superiority. Disparaging Indian infrastructure by demonstrating technologically advanced infrastructure had been part of the colonising tactic for long. This was evident in the setup of tents or ‘camps’ to accommodate the 1,50,000 attendees. In his book, ‘Delhi in the Electrical Age’, Leo Coleman mentions that ” a power plant for producing electricity was specially imported from England, and a network of underground wires piped clean, efficient electric power throughout the tent-city.” There was also a railway terminus, circuit house, and telegraph offices that had been set up as part of organizing the Durbar.

state entry delhi durbar baroda camp
Entry to the Baroda-camp

In a bid to counter-demonstrate their power (and win Imperial attention), Indian aristocrats went overboard spending money from their own coffers.

ḳhemoñ (tents) kā ik jañgal dekhā
us jañgal meñ mañgal dekhā
barahmā aur varañgal dekhā
izzat ḳhvāhoñ kā dañggal dekhā

The poet also highlights the flawless planning and execution by Curzon and his team to convey the might and power of the Raj.

sadkeñ thiiñ har kamp se jaarī
paanī thā har pump se jaarī
nuur kī maujeñ lamp se jaarī
tezī thī har jump se jaarī

Lord and Lady Curzon : Leading the State Entry into Delhi

The Menpes’ account of the 1903 Durbar is largely a reflection of how Curzon wanted the event to be perceived by the world.

Akbar Allahabadi writes about witnessing the British rule at its pinnacle, and the man of the moment : Lord Curzon. Curzon had been credited handsomely for the Durbar – not just for the successful display of the Empire’s influence, but also for having brought together “under one roof for the first time, one hundred independent Chiefs & Rulers from all over India – many of them never having seen one another before”.

avaj brīsh raajā dekhā
partav taḳht-o-tāj kā dekhā
rañg-e-zamāna aaj kā dekhā
ruḳh corzon mahrāj kā dekhā

pahuñche phāñd ke saat samundar
tahat meñ un ke bīsoñ bandar
hikmat-o-dānish un ke andar
apnī jagah har ek sikandar

The poet doesn’t hesitate to take a jibe at pro-British Indians and stooges of the Raj. He even hints at the English way of life that was slowly becoming the trend and how the colonial influence (“on peasant and prince alike”) had started to take shape.

ham to un ke ḳhair-talab haiñ
ham kyā aise hī sab ke sab haiñ
un ke raaj ke umda Dhab haiñ
sab sāmān-e-aish-o-tarab haiñ

A door from Mysore, a balcony from Jodhpur and a Peacock Gown : the Curzons’ eye for Indian craftsmanship

art exhibition delhi durbar photo
Lord Curzon opening the Indian Art Exhibition, Delhi, India, 1903. Publisher: Underwood & Underwood

At the behest of Lord Curzon an art exhibition (with a budget of Rs. 4 lakhs) had been planned at the Qudsia Bagh. On the lines of the Great Exhibition of 1851, arts and crafts from across India were displayed here – the result of Sir George Watt (who later authored Dictionary of the Economic Products of India) and Percy Brown’s extensive tour around the subcontinent. The exhibition was so popular (it witnessed 40,000 visitors in 2 months!) that the entry fee had to be reduced from Rs 1 to 4 annas.

egzibshan kī shaan anokhī
har shai umda har shai chokhī
aqlīdas kī naapī jokhī
man bhar sone kī lāgat sokhī

The intent behind this cultural event at a Durbar meant to show the political power of Britain was clearly reflected in Curzon’s (exhibition-opening) speech : increase patronage from Britain’s aristocrats for India’s dying art industry and simultaneously demonstrate “social responsibility”. A look at the catalogue also hints at a deep survey of Indian-made goods.

art exhibition delhi durbar artisans

Speaking of patronage, Lady Curzon and her zari-embroidered Peacock Gown for the State Ball made quite a splash in the world of fashion.

jashn-e-azīm is saal huā hai
shāhī fort meñ ball huā hai
raushan har ik hall huā hai
qissa-e-māzī haal huā hai

Though the final gown was tailored and fashioned by the House of Worth in Paris, each part of it was embroidered in alternating peacock feather patterns by Indian artisans. Embellished with glass beads, rhinestones, and shimmering green beetle wings, the gown weighed almost 5 kilos! Can you spot her in the picture below?

state ball delhi durbar
1902, the State Lancers dancing at the Viceroy’s Durbar Ball, in Diwan-I-Am, Delhi Fort

hai mash.hūr-e-kūcha-e-barzan
ball meñ nācheñ lady-corzon
tā.ir-e-hosh the sab ke larzan
rashk se dekh rahī thī har zan

lady curzon peacock gown delhi durbar painting

hall meñ chamkīñ aa ke yakā-yak
zarrīñ thī poshāk jhkā-jhak
mahv thā un kā auj-e-samā tak
charḳh pe zohra un kī thī gāhak

The success of Lady Curzon’s zardozi gown inspired other aristocrats (and Queen Alexandra as well) to turn to Indian fabrics; Lady Curzon herself continued her patronage of Indian silks and brocades.

The State Entry into Delhi : how should we view this painting today?

Looking at the artwork sparks discussion and debate about how one should view the Empire or India’s colonial legacy. How has the meaning of this painting, once commissioned by Lord Curzon changed over the years?
Seen from a global perspective, what is the image of India conveyed by this artwork?
Does the “orientalist extravaganza” distance Indian culture from the world by highlighting the ‘otherness’? Consider these images:

The Delhi Durbar in Pop Culture : The Adventures of Tintin (Cigars of the Pharoah)

state entry delhi durbar tintin

The Delhi Durbar that inspired a Circus (what a pun!)

state entry delhi durbar circus print

The painting by Mackenzie is a masterpiece; standing before it at the Victoria Memorial may be an unforgettable experience – but when viewed with Akbar Allahabadi’s words, you tend to see a picture of the Delhi Durbar of 1903, beyond the painting.



    Frequently Read Together