The Delhi Durbar

The 1911 Delhi Durbar, showing the royal pavilion. From Wikimedia Commons

To the north of Delhi lies a deserted and desolate patch of open ground, surrounded by slums and a dual carriageway. Trees and scrub are broken up here and there by empty pedestals. Some statues stand there, though most have lost the inscriptions that told passers-by who the once great figures they represented were. One statue is still cared for, that of King George V, standing forlornly over a space where he once witnessed the pinnacle of his greatness, if greatness was what it was.

The space is Coronation Park, location in 1877, 1902/3 and 1911 of the three Durbars held to mark the establishiment of the Empress or Emperor of India. Though there are moves to restore the park, its desolate state now seems a rather appropriate comment on the vaingloriousness of the British Raj, and on human ambition generally. But while the Durbars are now chiefly of interest to imperial historians, romantics and collectors, the 1911 Durbar in particular is of importance to film history. It was one of the most important newsfilm subjects of its time, serving as a testing ground for the newsreels which had only recently be established. One film in particular of the Durbar, whose main ceremony took place 12 December 1911, one hundred years ago, became the most celebrated and influential film of its age. So let us spend a little time recounting the history.

A durbar was a Mughal word (taken from the Persian) meaning a reception, a court, or body of officials at such a court. The term was appropriated by the British Raj and used to describe the formal ceremonies held in 1877 to acknowledge the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India. Delhi was selected as the location, being the old Mughal capital, and the Viceroy Lord Lytton devised a celebration that set the pattern for the Durbars that followed. A temporary city of tents was constructed, and an ampitheatre wherein the main ceremonies were staged. In a richly colourful display, British rule in India, and the privileged but inferior position of the Indian princes (on whose presence particular emphasis was placed) within the ruling hierarchy was illustrated through procession, pageantry and obeisance. Queen Victoria did not attend.

When the second Delhi Durbar was held in 1902-3 (at the same location), to recognise Edward VII as the new Emperor of India, once again the King-Emperor did not go to India and was represented by the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. The ceremonies attracted several film companies, and some pioneering Indian filmmakers. The significant difference when it came to the Delhi Durbar of 1911 was that this time the King-Emperor himself attended. It was King George V’s own idea to go to India. George believed profoundly in the solemnity and responsibility of his position, and he wished to see his annointment as Emperor of India properly sanctified, as well as expressing a wish to do what he could to calm seditious tendencies (which had been insufficiently placated by the India Act of 1909 which established the Indian councils) by his presence.

His idea was not greatly welcomed by the British parliament, which feared the great expense that would fall upon the government of India. The eventual cost would be £560,000, plus a further £207,000 covering the management and manoeuvres for 80,000 troops (multiply those figures by 100 to get a rough idea of what those cost would be today). The King had suggested that he should be crowned Emperor on Indian soil, an idea vetoed by the Archbishop of Canterbury (noting that a ceremony of Christian consecration would be offensive to Muslim and Hindu sensibilities), and instead a new crown was made, the existing crowns not being allowed to leave British soil, at a cost to the people of India of £60,000. Preparations took over a year, and were organised by Sir John Hewett, the Lieutenant-Governor of the United Provinces.

The ceremonies were to take place in the same location outside Delhi as in 1877 and 1902/3, and a giant ‘city’ of 40,000 tents was erected, which was eventually to house some 300,000 inhabitants. On 11 November 1911 King George V and Queen Mary left on the P&O ship Medina for the three-week voyage to Bombay, arriving on 2 December.

Charles Urban (centre) with his camera team at Delhi

Awaiting them in Bombay were the film cameramen. Five British film companies had successfully applied to the organising committee for permission to film the ceremonies: Barker Motion Photography, Gaumont, Pathé, Warwick Trading Company and the Charles Urban Trading Company. Each sent at least two operators; Charles Urban had a team of seven or eight, of whom probably four were cameramen (Joseph De Frenes, Hiram Horton, Alfred Gosden, Albuin Mariner). Urban’s intentions were to make two films – one newsfilm in black-and-white, but the other on a far greater scale was to be in colour. There were various announcements by Indian film companies that they would be filming the Durbar, though only the Bengali film pioneer Hiralal Sen definitely did so (his films, sadly are lost).

The day of the Coronation Durbar itself was 12 December. Up to 100,000 people filled the ampitheatre during the morning before the formal ceremonies began. At the head of the procession came veterans of past wars, including over a hundred survivors of the 1857 Mutiny, both Indian and British. Next came the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge (temporarily divested of his official power during the King-Emperor’s visit) and Lady Hardinge in an open carriage. An escort and the sound of fanfares preceded the entry of the royal carriage, with its canopy of crimson and gold, the King-Emperor and Queen-Empress dressed in their purple imperial robes, each wearing crowns. They processed down the central road, then round in a semi-circle past the central Royal Pavilion, to the Shamiana (a pavilion at the far end of the arena in front of the guests’ enclosure), where the Viceroy led them to their thrones. Here the Indian princes were to do homage to their Emperor, and after the King had given a short address, the maharajahs and princes of India came one by one (in strict order of precedence) to express their loyalty to the crown. One of the maharajahs, the Gaekwar of Baroda, caused a diplomatic incident when he declined to bow properly and then walk backwards after paying homage, instead turning his back on the King and Queen. Accident or deliberate act of defiance? Whichever, frame stills from the film record would later be used by the newspapers as evidence of the slight, for those who might not otherwise believe that such an act could even have been contemplated.

The prince identified on the Gaumont newsfilm of the Delhi Durbaras being the Gaekwar of Baroda, turning his back to King George and Queen Mary. Whether it is the Gaekwar is uncertain (see discussion below)

The Emperor and Empress rose from their thrones and walked to the central Royal Pavilion. Fanfares sounded. The official proclamation of the King’s coronation in June was made, in English and Urdu, and there were various announcements concerning beneficial funds and concessions made to the people of India. The royal couple returned to the Shamiana, while a salute was fired and cheers were taken up by the thirty thousand troops, then the sixty or more thousand guests, then those many thousands more outside the arena. At the Shamiana, the Emperor gave two last announcements concerning political changes, which had been kept in the greatest secrecy for months. These were that the capital of India was to move to Delhi, and that the partition of Bengal (an unpopular decision from the Curzon era) was to be cancelled. Both announcements, but particularly former, were received in almost stunned silence, before being greeted by general cheering. The Durbar was declared formally closed, the royal couple returned to their carriage, and departed.

The mood at the time, at least among the British, was one of complete awe as the majesty and colour of the spectacle, which seemed to be the very apex of the imperial dream. Journalist Philips Gibbs summed up its (British) impact:

Sound and colour combined to form a panorama of beauty and grandeur such as one might suppose could have its being only in a dream. Uniforms, robes, turbans of every shade and tone produced an effect which, though infinitely varied in its contrasts, was blended into one flawless harmony by the orderliness of the entire scheme. There seemed a mystic bond that welded the tremendous music of the bands, the clear notes of the bugles, and the tramp-tramp-tramp of marching hosts, into one vast paean of triumphant praise to the King-Emperor, and that found its more material counterpart in the riot of colour displayed so lavishly on every side.

The film companies hurried back to Britain. Only Urban’s camera team filming in the Kinemacolor process stayed behind (his black-and-white films were returned to Britain, however). He was seeing things beyond the news, and felt that so precious were the films that his team has captured that there was danger of their being stolen or damaged by his rivals. He later recalled:

We had the choicest of all possible positions; the officials afforded us the best of protection. They had heard rumors that rival film companies were bent on damaging or destroying our pictures and inasmuch as the King expected to see these pictures in London, it was up to the Army to see that we got them safely there. Each night we used to develop the negatives exposed during the day, and bury them in cases dug in the sand in my tent with a piece of linoleum and a rug on top – my bed on top of them, a pistol under my pillow and armed guards patrolling our camp.

The other film companies had also brought with them film processing equipment, so that they could show their films locally as well as dispatch prints back to Britain. Prints were sped back to Britain by ship and train. According to Stephen Bottomore, pre-eminent historian of the films of the 1902/3 and 1911 Durbars, all of the companies got their films onto screens in London on the same day, Saturday, 30 December 1911, including Kineto (Urban’s company filming in black-and-white), most if not all showing their results in the first show of the morning at 11:00. The films were news records, between five and fifteen minutes in length.

King George and Queen Mary viewing Barker Motion Photography’s black-and-white films of the Durbar at Calcutta House, 6 January 1912, from the Illustrated London News. Lord Hardinge noted in his diary: “In the evening we had a dinner of 50 and a cinematograph afterwards giving scenes from the Durbar and the Calcutta visit. They were not good but the King and Queen seemed to enjoy seeing them”

The films were a great, if brief, commercial success. Viewed as news, they were the toast of the town in January, and a dead duck by February, as Bottomore notes. News has to be fast, then it has to die, and a strategy of speed in order to capture the passing interest of the crowd was the only one the newsreel companies understood. Prints were sent out around the world, though perhaps not surprisingly few territories view the ceremonies with quite the same enthusiasm as did the British. But wherever you were, and whatever your sympathies, by February the Delhi Durbar was history. Its pomp was past.

On 2 February 1912 at the Scala Theatre in London Charles Urban revealed his strategy. He did not see the Delhi Durbar as news; he saw it as living theatre. His plan was to recreate the experience and the emotion of the Delhi Durbar as far as might be possible on a London stage. It was not that people were tired of the Durbar; they had not seen it as it had been seen, and as it could now be presented. Urban organised his Kinemacolor footage into a two and a half hour programme (16,000 feet), a previously unheard of length for a film show, and with introductions and intervals it in fact stretched to three hours in full. It had the overall title With Our King and Queen Through India. Its centrepiece was entitled the Coronation Durbar at Delhi, but the programme as a whole covered the whole tour. The Scala stage was turned into a mock-up of the Taj Mahal, with special lighting effects. Music was composed and scored for forty-eight pieces, a chorus of twenty-four, a twenty-piece fife and drum corps, and three bagpipes. Music that had been played at the actual event was used whereever possible, including fanfares. This was virtual reality – pictures, sound, colour, pomp and circumstance, and all for a better and cheaper seat than if you had been one of those who had sailed off to India. The show at the Scala was going to be better than the real thing.

The Taj Mahal backdrop used for the screenings of With Our King and Queen through India at the Scala Theatre, from the National Media Museum collection

Things turned out as Urban had dreamed. With Our King and Queen in India became a huge hit, commercially and socially. It became the show that every discriminating person in London had to go and see, then repeated that success acros the UK, and then worldwide (it did particularly well in America). Society came to the Scala to see a medium that it would never have deigned to cast an eye on before. Duke and duchesses, lords and ladies, royalty themselves (King George and Queen Mary visited the Scala to see the film on 11 May 1912), all came to see the Durbar recreated on the screen. Children were taken to a show whose worthiness greatly commended it to parents who had previously been suspicious of moving pictures. Among such visitors were the young John Grierson (aged 11), Ivor Montagu (7) and Paul Rotha (4), future lions of the British documentary movement.

With our King and Queen in India was not a conventional film. Quite aside from its length, and the fact that it was in colour, it was more of a theatrical event than a film per se. Its different components recording incidents from the whole royal tour could be selected or ordered according to the length of available programme, so that no one screening might be the same as the next. The use of a lecturer throughout, the special music, stage and lighting effects, the whole sensory impact created something that was rather more than a mere picture show (to use a phrase said by one of Urban’s acquaintances at the time).

Four colour images from the 1912 Kinemacolor catalogue showing scenes from With Our King and Queen through India. It was not possible to reproduce Kinemacolor in print, so the images were conventionally coloured for print and do not accurately represent how the film actually looked. Clockwise from top left – the arrival of the royal couple in Bombay, state entry into Delhi, the royal review, and the Durbar ceremony itself

The film made a fortune. Urban calculated that through a combination of the Scala programme and five touring road shows in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the film grossed more than £150,000 (though this figure may be for all Kinemacolor exhibited in UK); over the two years that Kinemacolor had its residency at the Scala, gross receipts (from a theatre that seated just 920) were £64,000. That’s six and a half million pounds in today’s money, from one small theatre alone.

And what of the film now? Just as Coronation Park, venue for vaingloriousness has become a deserted wasteland, so the Kinemacolor film that so entranced a world that still believed in the pageantry of empire is lost, with only reviews, catalogue records and memoirs to give us a second-hand sense of what experiencing it must have been like. Well, not entirely lost. Just as a statue or two, a commermorative obelisk and a plaque stand in the park as reminders of once was, so something of the Kinemacolor film survives, having been discovered in the Russian state film archive in 2000. It doesn’t show the main ceremonies; the single reel shows a parade of British troops and an artillery display that took place two days later. It is marvellous that it survives, and was undoubtedly grand to experience at the time, but it is a sideshow. The greater part is lost.

Frame still showing the Kinemacolor effect from the surviving reel of With Our King and Queen through India. The colour synthesis has been recreated electronically, because true Kinemaclor can only be see by projecting the films (via a rotating red/green filter). From the Russian State Archives

But fate has been kinder when it comes to the black-and-white films that were made. Those of Barker, Gaumont, Pathé, Warwick survive and can be found online in various places. They show us the spectacle, the deep sense felt of the power of the visual to express power, and the absurdity of it all. The best to watch is probably that by Gaumont, which is available on the Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire site (despite some nitrate damage at the start). It includes a title that reads “How the Gaekwar of Baroda paid homage to King George”, but Stephen Bottomore has queried whether the prince shown is in fact the Gaekwar. Intriguingly the evidence of the films show that there was more than one Indian prince who turned his back on the royal couple (two turn their backs, both dressed in white, but one with a dark turban, the other white). Was this mass disdain, or was the whole incident manufactured by the press?

If you are interested to pursue the history of the 1911 Delhi Durbar and its films, there are several online sources available:

Parts of this post have been taken from my article “The modern Elixir of Life”: Kinemacolor, royalty and the Delhi Durbar, Film History, vol. 21 no. 2, 2009. I am also indebted to Stephen Bottomore’s essay ‘Have You Seen the Gaekwar Bob?’: filming the 1911 Delhi Durbar, Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, vol. 17 no. 3, August 1997. Both are available online, but only via academic subscription services.

Finally, there are plans to redevelop Coronation Park, with gardening, more trees, a cricket area, an interpretation centre, and a general tidying up, though they have missed their original deadline which was the Durbar centenary. The Wall Street Journal has the story.

Coronation Park today, from The Wall Street Journal blog

8 responses

  1. Thanks for the excellent information on the Delhi Durbar film! I’ve just finished reading John Scotland’s book ‘The Talkies’ (London 1930), which includes one chapter on early colour film, and gives a short but very interesting first-hand account of seeing Kinemacolor motion pictures -the author mentions the Delhi Durbar and the Investiture of the Prince of Wales at Carnarvon film (pp. 165-166).

  2. Thanks very much for the reference to The Talkies, which I’d not picked up on before now. I’m interested in any first-hand accounts of Kinemacolor shows.

  3. Hello again! There’re a couple of brief mentions to Charles Urban’s films in a small booklet entitled ‘The Use of the Kinematograph in Education. A Scheme for India’, by Bulchand Karamchand and Morley Dainow, published in June 1916. In page v, the authors write: ‘Mr J F Madan of Calcutta has made attempts to elevate cinema shows by displaying films of educational value such as Mr. Charles M. Urban’s Scientific and Geographical Kinemacolour films’. No much more info unfortunately, but a source to probe that Urban’s Kinemacolor films were screened in India. You probably knew about this, but thought of including it here just in case… Thanks again for doing The Bioscope, what an excellent blog!

  4. Many thanks again. I’ve never come across any evidence before now that Kinemacolor films were screened in India, though it seems unlikely that Urban would not have arranged some sort of screening (the films were processed in India at the time of the Durbar). Madan was the leading exhibitor in India, so if anyone was going to have a Kinemacolor contract it would be him. However, there is no record of a Kinemacolor licence or patent rights being awarded to anyone in India in Urban’s papers. Distributor Maurice Bandman handled Urban’s 1915 film Britain Prepared in India, but it looks like the version Bandman managed did not have that film’s Kinemacolor sequences.

    Anyway, a new source to probe. And thank you for the kind words about the blog.

  5. Hi again! I am reading Karl Brown’s memoirs ‘Adventures with D W Griffith’, which begins with Brown’s first-hand account of working for the Kinemacolor Film Company in Hollywood in 1913. He mentions the ‘full faithful colour’ of the ‘great Durbar staged in India’ (in page 3) and says: ‘The one theater in Los Angeles area equipped to show Kinemacolor pictures was the California, at Ninth and Main’. Brown was in his teens, working at the development lab of the company. His story actually begins as the Kinemacolor system ended… :-( The book includes a very nice image with the following caption: ‘This is the only picture (1912-13) I have of a Kinemacolor set’. Thanks again for the info about Urban’s exhibitions in India -it’s a pity there’re not documents in Urban’s papers to probe the screenings of Kinemacolor there…

  6. Brown’s original manuscript says much more about working with Kinemacolor. It was cut so that the narrative began at the point where he joined Griffith, but Kevin Brownlow has the original and let me make use of it when I was doing my Urban research. From memory there’s something like 100-150 pages of it.

  7. Wow, 100-150 pages, that’s excellent! Sorry to hear it had to be cut for publication purposes… It’s an extraordinary book, though, I’m enjoying very much its reading. All the best and thanks again for the info and the great blog!

  8. I’ve now got access to the Times of India online archive, and there are reports there on Kinemacolor shows in Bombay throughout 1911, organised by Maurice Bandman. However, I have found no acount as yet of a Kinemacolor show in 1912, suggesting that the Durbar films were not screened in India. I need to find out more.

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