Revisiting Delhi Darbar

This piece appeared in The Asian Age on February 29, 2012
Delhi Darbar, 1911: The Complete Story
By Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal
Lotus (Roli),
pp. 176, Rs 495
There is a lot that lies buried in the ruins and ramparts that catch your eye when you take a tour of Delhi. The tombs, parks and monuments, tucked away on a quiet street or off a busy thoroughfare, silently tell the tale of their past, somewhat forgotten, glory, besides the story of our monumental civic neglect. The commemorative sandstone obelisk that stands tall on a square plinth at the heart of the 50-acre Coronation Park in North-West Delhi is one place where a slice of the city’s majestic past battles with an apathetic present. History lies buried here: The history of the coronation darbar of King George V. Delhi Darbar, 1911: The Complete Story, by senior journalist Sunil Raman and erstwhile Army officer Colonel (Retd) Rohit Agarwal, resurrects and resuscitates this slice of history that remains, by and large, unrecorded. Through rare photographs, sketches, news clips, letters and drawings, the book (Roli) revisits the aura and arrangements of the 1911 Delhi Darbar, recreates the royal regalia of the Raj that  
Authors Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal
dazzled the city in British India.
December 12, 2011 marked the centenary of Delhi’s designation as India’s capital,
following King George V’s announcement to shift the British Indian capital from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Delhi. The authors, who worked with a tight deadline, researching the book even as the city was being decked up for the Commonwealth Games, write: “Today, a hundred years later, memories have been erased under the weight of dust, the sound of honking cars and motorcycles, the rush of people and indifferent residents…”
The 1911 Delhi Darbar might eventually have become a mere “moment” in the history of
British rule over India, but it is fascinating to take a peek into what was one of the largest
congregation of the king and the commoners, the ruler and the ruled.
A little less than 10 km from the medieval walls of Shahjahanabad, the 1911 darbar was held in makeshift tents on the vast open ground. Before 1911, the site had seen the coronation of British monarchs in 1877 and 1903. The 1877 darbar, organised by Lord Lytton, indicated India’s inclusion into the British empire, coinciding with the formal announcement of the elevation of Queen Victoria as the Empress of India. After her death in 1901, her eldest son, King Edward VII, ascended to the throne. The 1902 darbar was held under the prudent supervision of Viceroy Lord Curzon, who mounted “a far grander imperial darbar than Lord Lytton’s. But King Edward VII didn’t make it to the darbar.
The Delhi Darbar of 1911 was far more significant for the simple fact that King George V was present in person. And his distant subjects could see him in flesh and blood, hear him speak.
The book details how King George V, in his first speech in Parliament surprised everyone when he announced his India visit. The authors argue that the “thought of ordinary people seeing the king in person was seen as a political astute move that would translate into greater allegiance to the British crown. This, at a time when the Swadeshi Movement had gathered momentum and the Nationalists had found fervour in the wake of Lord Minto’s 1909 Constitutional reforms that was widely seen to be the first step towards dividing Hindus and Muslim.
The British goal was set: Divide and rule. And while King George V might have been thinking about unification, his desire to visit India arose from a “personal experience of the country” as he and his wife, Queen Mary, had spent six months travelling through the length and breadth of the country in 1906.  It was Lord Hardinge, the new viceroy of India, who made the formal announcement for the darbar in Parliament on March 23, 1911.
For the 1911 Delhi Darbar, a temporary tented city sprang up, spread over 45 square miles. The darbar went on for a week. Around 150 ruling chiefs, maharajas, zamindars and feudal lords were on display in full regalia, even as 100, 000 spectators revelled in the royal splendour. There were special arrangements and enclosures for women in purdah. Begum of Bhopal, the most photographed ruler at the darbar, attended the 
Begum of Bhopal pays her allegiance 
ceremony in purdah.
With over £900,000 spent on it, the 1911 darbar was arguably the most expensive and
ambitious assemblage. This was also an occasion for the British to show their military might. And this explained the extensive military bandobast with a total of 50,000 troops and the contingent of 50 bands of different units that were stationed in Delhi. Some of the prominent Indians present at the darbar included Motilal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, R.N. Mudholker and Sachidanand Sinha.
Over Cappuccino, the duo lamented the lack of archives on such a grand event, organised with all the amenities and with such remarkable precision and fanfare, which is regrettably reduced to be a mere footnote in the history books on Delhi. Their book Delhi Darbar, they said, was an attempt to bridge the “knowledge gap” between the 
Lil ones in regalia
darbar and making of New Delhi. The idea for such a book struck Raman, who also organises heritage walks, when he
was showing around the Coronation Park to a handful of heritage enthusiasts. And since,
“there was an occasion to look at the event in 2011,” he set out to work on the book. His grandfather had covered the event, so there were a lot of tales that had passed down generations, finding their way to family discussions, to begin with. The Delhi State Archives and National Archives of India, among other sources, helped him further to put the book together.
At 46, Raman, who has been a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge, sees himself as a “student”. “The day I learn everything, I’ll be god,” he quipped. 
Agarwal, who retired as a Lt. Colonel after 20 years with the Indian Army’s elite Armoured Corps, gives lectures on management. He has earlier researched the relevance of Kautilya’s Arthashastra and the role of Indian soldiers in World War I. “It is essential to document history,” said Agarwal, who is currently “chasing” photography, a hobby. 
Researching for another book on Delhi now, the duo continue to make connections with the past, with “passion and patience”. “Without history, you have no identity,” they said, in unison.

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