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Sunday, 11 December 2011

Dilli Durbar of 1911

As we in Delhi vacillate whether to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Coronation Durbar or not, it might be useful to look at some of the contemporary responses to the Dilli Durbar. Like nearly everything else in modern Indian history, we find there is no uniform, monochromatic, monolithic response either to the shifting of the imperial capital or the presence of firang royalty in one’s midst.

Held in Delhi on the 12th day of December 1911, the coronation durbar was an occasion where, with great pomp and ceremony, King George V and Queen Mary were proclaimed the Emperor and Empress of India. Princes, noblemen, landed gentry and persons of rank and repute sat under a gilded canopy, each according to his stature in the colonial pecking order, to hear His Royal Highness address His subjects. While this durbar, the third and last of its kind held in Delhi, was significant for various reasons, chiefly it marked the return of the imperial capital to Delhi from Calcutta and heralded the onset of near-feverish building activity in the new city. A bit like the Commonwealth Games 99 years later, the Delhi Durbar of 1911 marked frantic preparations to ‘present’ the city to the world. While some preparations for the durbar, such as those in Coronation Park, were of a temporary nature to serve the purpose of the brief royal visit, several other blueprints were shortly drawn up that would, over the next twenty years, transform the hilly outcrops that lay beyond Shajahanabad into a grand imperial city.

While the royal couple had laid the foundation stone for the new capital city within the durbar camp, it was eventually decided to shift it elsewhere: somewhere sufficiently far away from the old city of the Mughals so that the distinction between the Old and the New Delhi would be sharply evident. The village of Raisina offered a salubrious air and excellent views of the surrounding countryside from its top; moreover, it had enough space all around for a new city, laid out according to a grand master plan, to spread itself out. By 1912 Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker were commissioned to build the new capital: one that would reflect the aims and aspirations of a city that would, henceforth, be not merely the beating heart of the political entity that was India but also embody the Imperial vision in its fullest and minutest detail.

To return to the momentous event of December 1911, it must be noted that the Delhi Durbar had evoked mixed reactions among the Indian populace. This high point of British rule in India was viewed and interpreted in different ways by different people. There was the satirical, questioning Urdu poet Akbar Illahabadi (1846-1921) deriding the Durbar because he saw it as an affront to national pride:
            They are favoured with rising fortune:
            The seven-fold heavens belong to them.
Theirs is the cup and theirs the wine:
Only the eyes are mine: the rest belongs to them.

Ahmed Ali’s seminal novel, Twilight in Delhi, carries a similarly sharp critique of colonial excess in his portrayal of the grief and heartbreak of Delhi’s Muslims through the character of Mir Nihal who goes to see the royal procession, and notes:
The procession passed by the Jama Masjid whose fa├žade had been vulgarly decorated with a garland of golden writing containing slavish greetings from the Indian Mussalmans to the English King, displaying the treachery of the priestly class to their people and Islam.

We get yet another response to the Delhi Durbar in the writings of influential Urdu writers and editors. A few months before the Dilli Durbar, on 22 June 1911, King George V’s coronation had been celebrated by the Muslims of Lahore at a gathering in the Shahi Mosque, and among the speakers was the poet, Iqbal who emphasized the Muslims’ bounden duty to bear allegiance to the ruler of the day.

There was another response, too, to the Delhi Durbar -- one of acquiescence, even celebration – in other parts of the country. Rabindranath Tagore’s, Jana gana mana which was later to become India’s National Anthem, was first sung in Calcutta to celebrate the ‘Dilli Durbar’ at the annual session of the Congress, under the leadership of moderates like Surendranath Banerjee who had decided to accord an appropriate welcome to the visiting royal couple. Besides adopting a loyalty resolution, the leaders arranged for the singing of a suitable song to mark the occasion. The sequence of events on December 27 1911, on the second day of the session, was as follows: (a) singing of Jana gana mana adhinayaka; (b) reading out of messages of goodwill received from well-wishers including Ramsay McDonald, the British Labour Prime Minister; (c) adoption of the loyalty resolution; and (d) singing of a Hindi song in praise of the King specially composed for this purpose.

(. This article appeared in The Indian Express, The Real Page 3, 11 December 2011.)


  1. Very good and impressive article.

    Parvez Muzaffar

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