Photographs of the Delhi Durbar of 1911 by a young Englishwoman are unveiled for the first time.
As Delhi gets ready to celebrate 100 years as the capital of India this month, a photography exhibition depicting the Delhi Durbar of 1911 has brought to the city images of the coronation of King
George V and Queen Mary and their proclamation as emperor and empress of India.
Unveiled for the first time ever, the vintage photographs, several of which were taken by 23-year-old Anglo-Irish beauty, Lilah Wingfield, during her maiden expedition to India in 1911 were on display at The Imperial New Delhi from November 29 to December 1. The first frame that greeted visitors was that of a somewhat demure Wingfield looking at them. But her granddaughter and biographer Jessica Douglas-Home, who has brought the photographs to India, says that Wingfield was anything but reclusive. “She was a stubborn one,” she says. “She wanted to break the rules and taste freedom. It was this longing for independence that brought her to India to attend the Delhi Durbar.”
The exhibition tells the story of her journey through India captured on her handy Kodak camera. “To me, this collection of photographs paints an authentic picture of Delhi exactly a century ago, seen through the eyes of a young Englishwoman,” says Homes.
One of the pictures is of that moment when, without public forewarning, the capital of India was shifted from
Calcutta to Delhi. Others take the viewer through the Tented City — a canvas metropolis for 250,000 visitors, erected in three months for the Durbar on a barren marshland equipped with its own railway, electrical and postal systems, which were dismantled as soon as the king left.
Wingfield’s journey to India began aboard the SS Maloja, the ship that brought her to India along with her chaperone Judy Smith and friend Sylvia Brooke. Once in Delhi, Wingfield’s accommodation was attached to the 10th Hussars, a regiment with a long, distinguished history of service in India and Afghanistan. Rumour has it that the enigmatic Gerald Stewart, captain of the 10th Hussars, fell in love with Wingfield. He, too, has been captured by her lens in a striking pose. Wingfield herself was quite taken in by the Maharaja of Indore whom she found “disturbingly suave,” says Homes.
One of the more captivating photographs depicts the glorious procession of ruling princes that followed the Emperor who was revered as a “semi-deity”. In another one, Wingfield herself becomes the subject — she sits petting a mongrel as she waits to begin her journey to the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border. With her dark, uncombed hair encircling her face and dressed in somewhat ill-fitting Indian attire, she hardly resembles the recluse in the picture right in the beginning of the exhibition. In another photograph, a well-dressed Wingfield, now looking like the Englishwoman that she was, stands in the bustling Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi.
While her visit to India won her a fleeting sense of independence that allowed her to introspect, Homes believes Wingfield’s mother was awaiting her return to England with great anticipation to prepare her for her upcoming marriage announcement, much to her daughter’s ire. This is perhaps why one finds a sombre Wingfield staring back from one of the photographs on her way back to London.
“The British had a mixed relationship with Delhi,” says historian and writer William Dalrymple who inaugurated the exhibition. If the city witnessed architectural achievements during the Colonial rule, it also saw some architectural blunders. “Delhi,” he says paying a tribute to the city, “has an extraordinary ability to reinvent itself.”
The exhibition, which has moved to Jodhpur, will be showcased in London on December 12 in the presence of the grandson of King George V.