DELHI DURBAR by SUNIL RAMAN & ROHIT AGARWAL

This week, New Delhi officially turned 100 years old.

On 12 December 1911, at the Delhi Durbar, in front of maharajahs, rajahs, princes, and thousands of British and Indian citizens, King George V made an announcement that would have major repercussions for India.

The capital city was going to be moved from Calcutta to Delhi.

And thus New Delhi would come into existence as an imperial city.

Fast forward 100 years, and New Delhi 2011 chose virtually to ignore the centenary.

Mutterings about the rights and wrongs of celebrating imperialism masked the plain fact that the venue for the 1911 Durbar, Coronation Park, is a shambles, renovation work incomplete, deadlines missed.  This is not the place to discuss how a city can be years behind on deadlines, with no outcry and no accountability – but just remember that some projects for the 2010 Commonwealth Games are still languishing unfinished.

So, Delhi, thank goodness for Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal.

They have written a lavishly illustrated book about the 1911 Durbar, which as a stand alone event –  with or without the moral issues of colonialism – deserves to be commemorated.  The Durbar happened.  It is a fact of history. It brought New Delhi into being.  It was an event of long-lasting historical importance.

And more than anything else, it was an utterly fabulous, glorious expression of all that was best in royal and imperial India  –  ceremony, pageantry, clothes, jewels, titles, fanfares – and this lovely book brings out the full flavour of it all.

The authors, both passionate, hands-on historians, do not debate the rights or wrongs of spending a mind-boggling fortune on the Durbar.  They do not  enter into the politics of Delhi vs Calcutta.  They simply recount the amazing, dazzling story of how a dusty area of north India was transformed into a tented city, and became home to one of the most fabulous gatherings ever in India – the first time all the ruling prices came together.

The scale of the Durbar is staggering, even 100 years later :

“A temporary tented city was to be set up, spread over 45 sq miles. It was to last over a week, see around 150 ruling chiefs, feudal lords and zamindars in attendance, along with officials, and witnessed by at least 100,000 ordinary people. The 1911 Durbar was to be the most expensive and the most ambitious Durbar ever organized and, as it happened, over 900,000 pounds sterling were spent on it…

…Spread over 25 sq km, the Durbar Camp was to have 475 separate camps, with a total of 40,000 tents. Each camp was to be a city in itself, with arched entrances, gardens and enclosures. Apart from the King’s Camp, there were provincial camps headed by British Governors or Lt. Governors, camps of the Maharajahs and Princes, and the Government of India Camp.

All the tents were carpeted, furnished, warmed with stoves, and lit with electric bulbs.
Every Indian chief was to have his separate camp, which was like a mini city with all amenities, including a bazaar.

Clear directions were given to officials that nothing be done that was contrary to Indian customs. Cows managed by Brahmans ensured the supply of fresh milk to each camp. separate hospitals, a separate magistrate, and a separate police system ensured the independence of each camp under the overarching control of the British administrators.”

This is the story of a unique event, and the authors tell it with unbridled enthusiasm and love for their subject matter.  There are plans and drawings, articles and ads from the newspapers of the day, bills, receipts, and wonderful, absolutely gorgeous photographs to accompany the story of how the Durbar was conceptualised, planned, and carried out.

The ruling Indian princes needed careful handling, so that there would be no clash of egos in their comings and goings and dealings with the King Emperor.  There were sensibilities galore to be accommodated.  There were logistics on a massive scale to be handled.

And so the days of spectacle and pageantry flowed on smoothly and almost perfectly choreographed.

But there was the occasional headache.

The durbar tent burned down a few days before the event.

Her Majesty the Queen didn’t want the King to ride an elephant in procession – “Elephant Snubbed” was the wonderful newspaper headline.

And then there were problems with the tent for a royal dinner one night :

“The banqueting tent offended against the elements of sanitary science in the matter of ventilation; and it must be added as a warning for future occasions that being very long, very narrow and low, it presented neither a dignified nor an inviting appearance.”

For me, though, the biggest treat in the book is the photography.  Wonderful black and white photos  –  and even a startling, very early colour photo – bring to life the sheer gorgeousness of this extraordinary event.

Delhi, and every lover of history, can thank Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal for this well-written, super well-documented book.

Published by Roli Books and just Rs 495 for an attractively bound hardback.

If you would like to buy the book, after reading this review, nothing could be easier.  Simply click on the link below :