There is a small but very interesting exhibition at the Delhi Art Gallery called “Delhi Durbar: Empire, display and the possession of history” and I would urge all my fellow citizens to go and see it.

These days, when the very word “colonialism” is a heinous insult in the minds of our current government, and so many rapid, drastic changes are being made to the architecture and nomenclature of New Delhi, this exhibition provides a fascinating look back at the city, as she was.

And as she was destined to be.

In the minds of the British, of course.

The pomp and display of the British at their imperial durbars was intended to mark their presence and to show their influence, and to do so in a lavish, very public way.

Today’s versions favour laser shows, and holograms, and ceremonies such as the inauguration of the new parliament building in May this year, which saw a “sengol” (or sceptre) being blessed and processed into the new building.

The contrast of then and now is interesting in so many ways.

Some things have changed enormously.

Some things haven’t changed at all.

And despite the centuries and the change of political leaders, the underlying message of the people in control showing authority through pomp and circumstance remains.

Firstly, there are monuments which have hardly changed an iota over the decades:

The glorious tombs of Safdarjung (above) and Humayun (below) have not really changed in essence since these early 19th century photos were taken.

The gardens may be a little more landscaped, and they are certainly more crowded during the day, but if you visit either of these beauties early in the morning, you honestly feel as though not too much has changed.

Then of course, there are places that are now totally unrecognisable.

I give you Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi c1860, now one of the most congested and (on my last visit) filthiest, litter-strewn places imaginable:

Hard to believe, right? It looks so calm and serene.

And this below, dear reader, is Tis Hazari, now all built up and metro-ed…so I find the temporary Durbar railway station particularly charming and apt:

According to the info panel next to this 1911 photo, and I quote:

“The photograph shows a temporary station for the light railway constructed in the durbar area. The amphitheatre and the camps together made up a temporary city, which was more extensive than even the city of Delhi itself. Additional railway facilities had to be constructed to provide transportation for the thousands coming in from various parts of the country, as well as for conveying them from one venue to another.”

The thing I enjoyed the most was a massive city plan for the yet-to-be built New Delhi. here is just one tiny detail from the plan:

No detail was seemingly overlooked – please note the area allocated to Keventer’s dairy!

A worthwhile little exhibition, allowing us to press the pause button, as it were, and look back at our city at a very different time and when the political landscape was totally different.

Delhi Art Gallery is near Windsor Place, at 22a Janpath.

The exhibition, which is free, is on until 6 November 2023 and the gallery is open from 10.30-7pm.

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