The 1903 Delhi Durbar

Delhi Durbar, 1903

It’s about time for another visit to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and this time there’ll be just one painting for my virtual viewing: The State Entry into Delhi, also known as The Delhi Durbar of 1903.

Painted in 1907 by the British-born American artist Roderick Dempster MacKenzie (1865–1941) it’s a mammoth canvas, 2.9 metres by 3.7 metres (nine and a half feet by twelve). Protected by reflecting glass I found it impossible to get a clear overall shot as it was marginally obscured by pillars supporting a balcony above, but I was at least able to get in close to observe details. (The original version in Delhi is even larger: 3.3 metres by 5, or eleven feet by seventeen.)

It’s a controversial painting these days, of course, with its explicit imperialist and colonialist messages. And, rightly, the museum last year had placed it opposite Devolved Parliament, Banksy’s 2009 satire of Britain’s archaic parliamentarianism, with adult chimpanzees taking the place of the honourable members: both canvases, each separated by a century, had been curated to encourage questioning about traditional attitudes and their relationship with evolving values in the 21st century.

Here I want to look at a few details of Mackenzie’s work and discuss its artistic merits within a broader context.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

As the museum label explains, this elaborate Durbar ceremony was particularly designed to celebrate Edward VII and Queen Alexandra being declared Emperor and Empress of India following the death of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, in 1901. We’re told the Durbar, as developed by the British Raj, involved “homage by maharajas to the British monarch, military reviews, musical performances, lavish banquets, sporting events, public entertainments, exhibitions of Indian art, receptions and garden parties.” 34,000 troops were reviewed, and the public events included an investiture, and a state ball. The programme of events took place over ten days, with the opening procession on 29th December 1902.

The Durbar procession in Chandni Chowk, Delhi

The grand procession — with guests, officials, dignitaries, British VIPs and Indian Maharajas — passed the Red Fort built by the Moghul Shah Jahan and then the Champs de Mars before continuing clockwise around the central mosque Jama Masjid, into Chandni Chowk — the street of the great bazaar — past the Town Hall and on toward the Mori Gate. The canvas depicts this procession as they enter the Durbar grounds; mounted on elephants the representives of the British Raj pass in front of the Jama Masjid, also known as the Friday Mosque.

The Duke and Duchess of Connaught

The King and Queen weren’t, of course, there — they were safely ensconced back in Britain — but were represented by the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, respectively brother and sister-in-law to the King-Emperor Edward VII. Wearing a red military jacket the Duke is positioned nearest us in the howdah, with the Duchess seated to his right and an Indian official behind.

Viceroy Curzon and his wife

Ahead of the Duke of Connaught rode Viceroy Curzon and his wife Mary. As his title signifies (vice ‘in place of’ plus roy, Old French for ‘king’) Curzon was the King’s representative in India and also head of the colonial government. Dressed in colonial white Mary sits nearest the viewer, parasol expertly poised.

Contemporary photo of the Curzons

Behind them all is the magnificent backdrop of the Jama Masjid, the central Delhi mosque used for the congregational Friday prayers at noon and one of the largest on the Indian subcontinent. With a courtyard that can accommodate over 25,000 people, it is fronted by three gates. The two minarets, each 40 metres or 130 feet high, made distinctive by their red sandstone and white marble, contrast with the massive domes of the mosque.

Jama Masjid, Delhi

In a blog post by Dr Daniel Haines he asks “Is it art or history? Should we appreciate it as a magnificent aesthetic accomplishment? Should we condemn it as piece of imperialist propaganda?” Well, imperialist propaganda it certainly was: a durbar was originally a courtly reception given by an Indian Prince, the Hindi word deriving from Persian words for a portal and a court, but in the mid-19C the British had commandeered the custom to cement their ascendancy and exact homage from the Indian princes. So the Durbar was a public show designed to reinforce who was in charge.

But I’d like now to draw attention to how MacKenzie uses art to accentuate this. First he gets our eye to focus on the foreground in the lower half of the canvas. Splashes of red from Indian military uniforms and individuals in the crowd (their impact heightened by green-tinged troops lining the roads) anchor the compositions, and the gold on the leading elephants indicate where the symbolic power lies.

The top half of the painting is dominated, literally and tonally, by the pink and creamy white of the Friday mosque with its towering minarets and domes and by the hazy blue of the sky.

Put back together, the composition now gets the observer to gaze in the direction the procession has come from, with the sight lines of mosque, procession and crowds leading to a vanishing point outside the picture. A clever trick, this, which many artists use, to take the viewer on a journey in a direction opposite to that taken by the subject: your eyes travel to the right and up while the procession moves to the left and down.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to convey the grandiose scale of this painting. Up close one is distracted by details: by contrasting individuals, by clashing colours, by competing patterns. But further off it’s possible to notice a subtle message: the picture is quartered in a way that suggests a St George cross or, maybe, simply the Christian cross.

How so? Directly below one of the mosque’s gateways passes the elephant with the representatives of the monarch, the Duke and Duchess of Connaught: they are at the crossing point of the composition. As our gaze moves clockwise from the bottom left we have a sea of green supporting the viceroy, then domes and battlements lined by spectators; continuing on there is a mostly empty quarter with blue sky; and finally, at bottom right are the following elephants of maharajah and other dignitaries, held in check by troops.

Once you see this quartering it’s hard to unsee it. Here is art definitively used as propaganda, a spectacle underpinned by subliminal messages: the Crown is centrally placed, as indicating British rule in India; the Islamic mosque, so dominant in the picture and important in Northern India, overlain by a cross wielded as it were by the Church of England.

So, here is a image designed to impress — by its size, its detail, its hidden symbolism — a visual statement of power containing implications of British exceptionalism and moral superiority over other ethnicities and creeds. Now it just seems crude — as it must have been for many critical viewers then — this naked assumption of benevolent despotism masquerading under the banner of ‘Art’; but art for art’s sake it certainly wasn’t even if the artist had mastered the essential painterly skills.

More than a century on the old proclamation of an empire on which the sun never sets rings extremely hollow, while Britain’s power and prestige shrink and its claim to the moral high ground sinks without trace.

Artwork details

Contemporary film footage

Historical context

18 thoughts on “The 1903 Delhi Durbar

  1. Really enjoyed this–thanks for sharing the video as well, I didn’t realise that there was one from those days. Can’t help thinking how the Jama Masjid remains just the same, as does the Red Fort while things around them have changed so much. They’ve seen so much, so if they could talk…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My parents, born in India in 1919 and 1921 respectively, would never have experienced one (that planned for George VI was wisely cancelled), and I wasn’t consciously aware three of this nature had taken place until I examined the canvas last year and thought of the implications.

      Myself, I’ve never been to India (though one of our daughters travelled through North India for a few weeks, even meeting the Dalai Lama in the foothills) but now wished I’d organised my parents to talk in detail of their life under the British Raj — too late now, of course — as their family trees in India go back to the late 1700s. Maybe sometime I may get to see the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid but time is running out…

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      1. I didn’t know either but there is a mystery story set in 1911 in the background of one which I’d heard of ( though not read yet.

        I would have said do make plans soon had things been ‘normal’ but do when things start looking up again (normal seems to be too far away to think of)–the Jama Masjid doesn’t look at that different from the picture, in fact not at all, though the surrounding areas–Chandni Chowk is a different story–very crowded and narrow lanes, but once one enters the monuments, things are ok.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, thanks for that link, I’ll look it up now. Yes, most areas in cities have undergone huge changes from a century ago — it would be weird if Delhi was any different. My teenage and later years in Bristol saw much insensitive changes to the historic environment with devastating traffic schemes and inappropriate modernist infills, but it’s a much more eco- and user-friendly place these days if still highly polluted (or was, before lockdown). I’d love to travel to India but my partner is physically averse to flying (and I dislike it on environmental grounds) and maybe an overland train journey is the only option now. We’ll see! 🙂

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  2. This is a fascinating read, thank you. Your explanation of the composition of the painting had me nodding in understanding but I hadn’t realised the significance of various aspects before. Although I have never seen it “in the flesh” I have seen it reproduced in books and will in future view it with a more trained eye thanks to you!

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      1. Hi, Nigel / neighbour, and thanks for your appreciative comments! I’ll email you direct (and directly) as we’re supposed to be social-distancing, but it’ll be a poor substitute for a face-to-face chat, I’m afraid…


    1. Thanks, Anne, I’m no Sister Wendy, James Fox or Janina Ramirez but I do like to immerse myself beneath the superficial aspects of two-dimensional works. I can’t say that the painting’s composition is in any way what Mackenzie intended but as a classical musician I tend to look at structure as a mannequin clothed by ideas, patterns and narratives. If you ever go to Bristol when lockdown ends the picture may still be there in the main entrance on the left…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. piotrek

    So much of art is propaganda, political, religious, commercial… it’s good to analyse art’s function, it’s very interesting (I’m a sociologist by training 😉 ) but we concentrate on that aspect too much, while judging its value.

    Shall we put disclaimers in front of Assyrian reliefs, “it’s actually not nice to cut off people’s noses”? I find such things annoying.

    Putting Banksy there, though, sounds like an excellent idea, that’s a dialogue of worthy art 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah! Assyrian reliefs, I’ve got a couple of panels to show in this sequence from Bristol, Piotrek, but no noses out of joint let alone missing that I’ve noticed. 🙂

      Seriously though, I was trying to do three things here: (1) to discuss artistic aspects, obviously, (2) discuss the specific and general historical contexts, and (3) indicate my stance regarding issues arising from (1) and (2). But I couldn’t stop myself making a political point in my parting shot about the UK government’s abysmal (and I would say criminal) response to the pandemic.

      And, yes, Banksy, his art was overtly political while Mackenzie merely underlined implied attitudes towards colonialism. I couldn’t bear to discuss either artwork in a cultural or a moral vacuum.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        I’m oversensitive, and under the influence of a recent, hot discussion I had on similar issue 🙂 and I had this idea of mentioning the Assyrians and I just had to somehow put them in here…

        Of course, I’m quick to go into politics myself…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I like a man who can show his sensitive side, even if it’s oversensitivity! But you win the jackpot, Piotrek, I shall discuss the Assyrian bas-reliefs in my next virtual visit to Bristol Museum.. 😊

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I completely agree, a lot of art has propaganda roots or underpinnings – let’s just take a look at all those benevolent sponsors placed strategically here and there near Jesus and Mary, or the faces of the sinners on all those Last Judgment paintings 😉 And from there we could go on and on, ending with photography and manipulated videos of our times… I guess this says more about human nature than particular works of art – though, to be fair, there were many independent artists, fully devoted to art as an ideal in itself 🙂

    Banksy’s Devolved Parliament surely makes a nice counterpoint to this show of colonial power! 🙂


    1. Yes, even the Art for Art’s Sake stance, despite its assertion that it has no ulterior motive — political, religious, ethnic etc — cannot be removed from its cultural context, for context is everything, even for aesthetics.

      Bristol Museum, a grand Edwardian building with baroque and neoclassical touches, like many such institutions is playing its part in opening discussions regarding cultural legacy. Bristol built up its fortunes through imperialism and colonialism, profiting from slavery and tobacco plantations among other trades, but now as an increasingly young urban population trying to embrace environmentalism, communal values and so on one hopes it will continue to both critique and appreciate its past.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A fascinating lesson in impressing messages through art. And now I’m very curious about that mosque, too. That must have taken years to construct–what a structure! And while it dominates the painting physically, it is not the real power-holder.

    So much psychology…damn, but I wish art museums are open. I’d love to walk my daughter through pictures like this to show her what art can really do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The mosque is still a Delhi landmark despite the city massive development. And the painting’s particularly interesting, given all the controversy over whether it’s better to remove offending statues or to contextualise them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, there’s quite a to-do over that right now with statues the rioters keep pulling down. There are so many more opportunities for education here if we could provide that crucial context. The fact I see tweets honestly declaring that “history doesn’t matter because we live NOW” is so…just so sad.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t know much about the Stateside statues but the one pulled down in my old hometown Bristol had been a point of contention for many years with nothing resolved — Bristol having had a massive role in the slave trade — and the worldwide BLM protests following the death of Floyd found this a ready focus. I don’t blame them at all (nobody was hurt, after all, just the feelings of some white guys who somehow saw themselves as victimised) and, as it is, the statue has been retrieved to be displayed in a manner where the context is made crystal clear.

          As for ‘history’ it’s notable that many anxious about such provocative symbols haven’t really much idea of, let alone interest in, the discipline itself.

          Liked by 1 person

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