A walk through a century

Sumati Mehrishi walks the route of the Coronation Durbar that ended with the shifting of India’s capital from Kolkata to Delhi in 1911 and find that when it comes to spectacles, the old city was as good as the new.

I am a migrant to Delhi. But that really doesn’t matter. I had hopped over to the Capital only 11 years ago to make a living out of writing. That doesn’t matter too. My life makes for less than one-third of the period King George V’s statue at the Coronation Park has existed for. And that’s really inconsequential compared to the historicity of the ground I am standing on. History throws you back into history. My time travel from the Salimgarh Fort and the Delhi Gate in a re-enactment of the Coronation Durbar procession that culminated in the announcement of New Delhi becoming the new capital of India is not just about colonial grandeur but about a dream of the city to become a jewel of the orient, to become as defining as Paris in the western world.

Alwin Singh, my photographer colleague, raves about his familiarity with the Capital. I tell him that in 1911, he and I, as Presspersons, would have been invited to view the arrival of the royals and their reception by the ruling chiefs at the Salimgarh Station, and then dropped at the Flagstaff Tower and the Ridge Road after been given a suitable batch — in motor! Alwin jumps sitting inside his car, a Korean brand, out of sheer excitement. And of course, he gets the goose bumps. The Coronation Durbar procession was very well planned. It was designed to massage everyone’s ego. From royals to the commoners, from sportsmen to cavalry men, from Begums to bobs posted at the bastions, everyone had a role to play, a rehearsed script to live.

As a senior photo journalist, Alwin wouldn’t have been treated half as royally during the Commonwealth Games held in the Capital last year. Plus, going by his loyalty to the Capital, he would have been a celebrated man today. He would have been credited for the enormous prestigious photographic account that Indian and foreign press are relying on for authentic historical accounts. In his life or in a portrait on the wall, Alwin’s handle bar moustaches would grow longer owing to his association with the imperial pride and pomp.

A century and a full circle

As for me, I stumble upon a strange connection with the Capital and the momentous historical moment. My great grandmother had travelled to Delhi from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh with her husband, an ambitious and well-read loyal of the British rule to attend the Coronation ceremony. Walking the Coronation Durbar route, I am not only re-visiting Delhi’s history, but stepping over a bit of family history too. Moving over a circle of a century, like different hands of the clock. Or may be like Jim Masselos, the photographer who had re-visited the places photographed by his virtuoso predecessor Felice A Beato.

Though I had been hearing bits about their visit to the 1911 Durbar in my childhood bedtime stories, this association has begun to sound very romantic only now, at a time when Delhi is gearing to celebrate the centenary of its designation as the Capital and the commemoration of the Durbar. The great-grand mother initially was not very happy with the idea of travelling for an event that “did not belong to Hindustanis”. The idea sounded very ambiguous and unromantic to her. A deshbhakt, she was quite displeased with her husband’s enthusiasm. There was a mild discord for a couple of days between the two. But she eventually agreed to travel.

The brocade for her puffed sleeves blouse was sourced from somewhere in Punjab and the blouse was stitched in Meerut. A sari with a corresponding border and “golden threads” was brought. Older members of the family do not remember much from the Durbar stories they were told a hundred times over by the granny. But they do remember a few important facts like — the great-granny had returned impressed by the Queen’s gown and other fineries. She was “content” after a visit to the Chandini Chowk; and happy about the fact the husband was given time and importance by the “people who mattered.” They had visited a “huge mela” (I assume was the Badshahi mela held at the banks of river Yamuna and beneath the walls of the Salimgarh Fort). The couple had returned to Bijnor with “tokens” that were stolen decades later by a faithful servant as a return for his services. And as expected, my great-granny did not shed a single tear over the loss.

The Salimgarh bastion

The Salimgarh Fort was where the royals had alighted from trains. There were carriages waiting for the royals and they headed to the Delhi Gate. Today, the Salimgarh Fort attracts very few visitors, ghost stories float, and so do legends about prisoners who were locked during the Freedom Struggle. It is connected with the Red Fort, but only a few adventurous, willing people stroll over a huge stretch to reach the bastion. It is connected by a bridge with the Red Fort. The Fort wall outside the Salimgarh Fort and the Red Fort, the sites for parking for carriages, lie guarded and abandoned in patches. The bridge is barely managing to hold itself and its conservation drive has been quite fussed about. This is one heritage site I would have loved to visit with my ferocious great grandmother today. May be, we could catch a train rolling towards Kotdwar after a small lunch. Various day excursions and sightseeing tours were planned for the Coronation guests.

Delhi Gate and Daryaganj

The traffic signal turns green. Cars, buses and other motor monsters storm from one direction. A bunch of women wait to cross the road and giggle nervously as they take a round of the Delhi Gate trying to get to the other side, in vain. In 1911, purdah women were allowed to be at the Delhi gate to witness the procession. Some of them, belonging to important families, could see the procession from inside the carriages and were allowed to leave only after the procession had moved over to the Jama Masjid. Today, we believe in “equality”.

On either side of the State Chiefs, trumpets and bugles were played. On the left of Daryaganj, towards the Jama Masjid, shops are lined with “antique” trumpets, old saxophones, oboes and clarinets. Had I been alive back then instead of my great grandmother, I would have raked the music shops for old instruments, left-over drums and flutes. The image of an old saxophone in one of these shops clings to me. At Rs 40,000, the saxophone would have made the Begum of Bhopal, the most photographed lady of the 1911 Durbar feel very curious.

Jama Masjid

The royal procession had passed from outside the Jama Masjid. Someone perched at its southern minaret, like Beato was in the 1800s, would see the procession snaking over from the Delhi gate towards the Chandini Chowk and the Ridge. If Malik Umar Hayat Khan, the Assistant Delhi Herald of Arms Extraordinary at the Delhi Durbar was to visit the Jama Masjid today, he wouldn’t be equable enough to read the Urdu translation of the Proclamation the following morning. The sound of the trumpets after the reading of the Proclamation would have made him sweat. Today’s noisy and boisterous scene outside the Mosque gate would have disturbed him, and made him feel extremely nervous. The large number of hawkers in the pavilion outside the Masjid would have peeved him. He would have loathed the sight of plastic wares being sold in rows outside his place of worship. He would have been saddened to see belligerent shop keepers indulge in foolery and quarrels instead of a peaceful, poetic exchange of thoughts and great ideas. Today, the Jama Masjid area is furiously losing itself to the young. The old are but relics, have faded away into their congested homes. Or they while away time, silently, outside meat shops and inside book shops.

Chandini Chowk 

Heaps of powdered vermillion, crimson and saffron, lose their colour and turn sepia. The autorickshaw I am travelling in bears a strip of tinted film on the glass at the front and the back. As the common man’s carriage noses into the Chandini Chowk area, the tint serendipitously makes everything looks like it belongs to the past. The grey sky, the peepal trees, shops, people, the green, magenta and gold fabric hugging the mannequins, the motichoor laddoos, mounds of them, waiting to be sold in sweet shops, giant commercial hoardings and the Delhi Metro fade coyly and willingly to the past I have come seeking. History has a colour, may be.

I step out of the autorickshaw. The vision clears. The colours return to the powdered vermillion, the trees and the mannequins. History, on the streets of Delhi, does not feel or smell the same it does in damp old books and journals and possessively preserved old photographs. It walks out of a static, time frozen frame and moves around, like a verbose old woman who loves to be adored and given attention. It heaves and ticks into every hour that gives this bustling Capital its character, like an old pale watch dial tucked into a tacky pair of plastic straps, trying to live its glory.

The Chandni Chowk the granny had visited sure was different. Or may be it wasn’t. Disciplinary instructions were issued to the residents, days ahead of the procession and the ceremonies held on December 11 and 12. People weren’t even allowed to peep out of chhajjas, or crowd on roofs. Traffic rules were issued and people were warned to not break them. Anyone who crossed the line would be fined. Well, on the day of the procession, people could manage thronging the huge windows of their beautifully built houses to catch a glimpse of the royal procession.  

Today, the aesthetic chhajjas and roofs have been done away with. Rooms stacked over old residential structures carelessly and hurriedly make space for bigger commercial aspirations and opportunities. Businessmen numbly rush in and out of the metro station, their eyes and fingers fixed at their cell phone screens. It looks like no one really is remembering the trot of the tongas or the tinkle of the rickshaw bells, the snake charmers, the sheikhs and their patient steeds.

Like many other areas in Delhi, Chandini Chowk has seen a massive churning in 100 years. Yet the co-existence of the old and the new is so strong here that you tend to not believe 100 years. You tend to forget that 100 years are but an enormous ball of 10 decades and sheets and layers of changes. Some old structures have retained the beautiful doors and windows, and some, the old name plates. The skull caps travel the market place, many times over during the day and float in bunches over the shoulders of men who sell them. Policemen have their bamboo sticks to set things in order in the busy areas and then, there are cops loaded with ammunition to ward of troubles of a scary larger magnitude.

Kingsway Camp and the Delhi Ridge

The Kingsway Camp was the meeting point for various groups of dignitaries and the Ridge area, kind of a waiting lounge for Britishers who were supposed to be stationed at the green belt until the Governors and Lieutenant Governors left. Today Kingsway is all about the flurry of commercial complexes and paying guesthouses and private hostels for students. There is, well, nothing really king like about it, except the name. It leads on to Mukherjee Nagar, the pathway for the procession towards the Coronation Durbar, which is lined on both sides with a weekly bazaar and the goods carriers, a site that makes Alwin crave for his days as a child, when the area was less crowded, more in order and less noisy. Alwin sings a terrible ode to the meadows in the Ridge area. Nothing like the practising bands of yore.

Marriages are made in heaven. They sure are, considering Edwin Landseer Lutyens, one of the two British architects who were commissioned the work of redesigning Delhi, was married to Emily Lytton, the only daughter of the viceroy Lord Lytton. He began the work with good friend Herbert Baker and garden designer Gertrude Jeykll in 1912. It was around this time that the blueprint for the new city was made including the Imperial Hotel, the historical venue of several important meetings during the Freedom Struggle. Today the Imperial Hotel is home to history. Its restaurant “1911” has photographs of the Durbar splashed on the walls.

Indians, including several Congressmen, were doubtful about the plans and opposed the movement of people and land grouping in the villages for the city extension. This brought about an institutional change at the village level. Today, economists blame the existence of shanties and the shabby mish mash on events in 1911. Dhirpur, the last locality we cross before the lofty statue of King George V — a piece of heritage that was transferred from the canopy at the India Gate to the Park in the 1960s becomes visible between the trees – is a perfect example of how people were pushed to the hemlines of the city.

Coronation Park

Sepia returns. The place is dry, desolate and slightly dejected. The silence is broken by cranes and machines that slice sheets and sheets of Dhaulpur stone – the stone from Rajasthan that has been used extensively to save Delhi’s architectural heritage. The sun dips on the left of the King’s statue. The expression on the King’s face in the white marble statue that stands temporarily with two other statues before it is shifted to another spot in the park makes me wonder whether PB Shelly would have written another “Ozymandias”. The Obelisk marks the place where the King and the Queen were seated during the Durbar; it is one of the few things that reflect pride, if not arrogance at the Coronation Park. A moment in peace and the scenes from the Durbar, out of what I have read in books and excerpts, start fleeting into my mind. I visualise school children seated somewhere under a tent. Some thousands of them, whispering and nudging each other as trumpets blow and dignitaries arrive. The only children I see today are those of the labourers who lie proudly in the sand and mud. No less than the dignitaries that would have made this event grand, they rightfully play around – without a badge on their shoulder or a pass pinned to their chests. The park belongs to them, until the renovation and conservation work moves towards completion. And going by the pace of the work, they will be the kings for a couple of years more, at least. The State horses and elephants, their necks bent in weight of the ornaments would have made the Maharaja of Mysore restless in his seat.

Hockey and boxing matches were held in the run-up to the Ceremony. It is not a mere coincidence that Indian hockey saw a revival at the Commonwealth Games held last year by beating England in a heart numbing tie breaker. In 2012, when the Capital celebrates the 100 years of Delhi, Indian hockey will play for a ticket to the London Olympics at the National stadium. The bus lanes of the Games, special tracks on the Capital roads designated for buses carrying dignitaries and players remind me of the special pathways, and routes laid out to the public toward the Red Fort. At the Fort, lawns aren’t the same they were in 1911, when the garden party and the reception were held. But the spirit of the host continues as Delhi gears up for more spectacles.

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