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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Contemporary film footage