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Delhi Opulence: A DAG Exhibition on the Delhi Durbars and the Tapestry of Delhi

By Devanshi Panda

In late September, The Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) - located on Janpath road - opened its doors to the public, showcasing an excellently curated exhibition of the three Delhi durbars. Curated by historians Swapna Liddle and Rana Safvi, this exhibition utilises a modest space to create an image larger than life.

Photographs at a glance
Photo: Divya Mehta @divyadrishti._._

Watercolour paintings, vintage photographs, postcards, letters, and albums carefully preserved from the early 20th century Delhi durbars adorn the walls of this dimly lit, dazzling gallery. The letters provide an almost intimate look into the correspondence between important governors and officers, deciphering their handwriting is a detective-like experience.

The exhibition itself has been put together using DAG’s in-house archival material, and the collection is truly impressive. At the inaugural walk-through, attended by a throng of Delhi enthusiasts, Gill Tilloston, the Senior Vice-President of the exhibitions, tells us that the exhibition is truly about the rise of Delhi. The decision to make Delhi the capital was a strategic move; the British wished to make a statement – that they too were powerful, and capable of occupying the old imperial capital of the Mughals. The earliest photographs of Delhi by the British were taken in 1857, and the gallery draws our attention to the disciplined documentation the British have partaken in ever since.

All three of the historic Delhi durbars were significant commemorative events. In the 1876 durbar, Queen Victoria in addition to her title of 'Queen of Great Britain and Ireland' assumed the title of ‘Empress of India’ or ‘Kaiser-i-Hind’. The durbar of 1903 marked the succession of Edward VII. It was not until the third durbar, that took place in 1911 and marked the shift of the imperial capital from Calcutta to Delhi that the durbar was open for spectators to view. All three durbars, however, left out the common inhabitant, on whose lands these grandiose affairs took place. In an ode to the everyday lives of the average person, the exhibition also gives space to those who were otherwise missing from the spotlight. The toy-manufacturer William Britain’s figurines have been used to put together a charming Indian market scene in one of the glass cases.

Photo: William Britain's figurines
Photo: William Britain's figurines / Divya Mehta @divyadrishti._._

A digital touchpad in the gallery also allows viewers to swipe through interesting newspaper clippings commenting on the three Durbars and hailing the English royalty. These clippings are also one of Liddle’s favourite finds. She finds them very interesting; they “provide an insight into the British imperial imagination”, she says, though she admits that she can’t pick favourites from the collection.

For Liddle, the exhibition is about how Delhi has played such a vital role in imperial imaginations, and not simply that of the British. The aura of power surrounding this city, and its rich history, is not something easily captured, but DAG and the curators certainly make a remarkable attempt. The exhibition is open for viewing till the 18th of November, this year. The collection can also be viewed online, here.


About the Writer:

Devanshi is an undergrad history student at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi with the memory of a goldfish (the irony is not lost on her). She is the Editor-in-Chief of her college's magazine and her poetry has been published in many university magazines. Her words have also appeared in the Monograph Magazine and one of her essays is all set to be published in a food anthology by Nivaala and the Alipore Post. Devanshi is particularly interested in weaving tales on personal experiences, art, culture, and the confluence of fashion and history. She hopes to own a bookcase that leads into a secret chamber one day.

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