India hasn’t known quite how to mark the first centenary this week of the founding of its modern capital city, Delhi, by Britain’s King George V in 1911. Though many of the country’s elite continue to polish their English accents, and relish their links with long-dethroned maharajas and lesser royal families, it is not quite politically correct to celebrate things done by former colonial masters.
So, after much debate (while British High Commission diplomats kept their heads well below the parapet), it was eventually decided earlier this year to celebrate the historical “re-emergence” 100 years ago of Delhi as the capital – a sly dig at the British who had earlier moved the capital from Delhi to Calcutta in the late 18th century.
Yesterday morning I drove to the north-eastern outskirts of the capital and found 200 or so labourers shifting earth and chipping stone walkways to turn that “re-emergence” into new ornamental gardens. They were working at Coronation Park, where statues of King George (above and below) and other dignitaries were dumped on brick plinths in the 1960s by a government that was unsure what to do with these embarrassing relics of a not-so-distant past – totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union and China (plus the US in Iraq) demolish such statues, but the world’s largest democracy was more self-consciously caring. (King George had previously stood under a canopy at India Gate on central Delhi’s grand Raj Path).
King George’s statue, and a ceremonial column with a plaque (below) that he unveiled in 1911 to mark his coronation a few months earlier, will be the notable features along with four other remaining British statues. “How does it matter – it’s history,” says A.G.Krishna Menon, who heads the Delhi branch of INTACH, a conservation organisation that is running the work with Delhi authorities. “It doesn’t matter if it was the Moguls or the British. We are interested in conserving history and we can’t not do it just because it’s King George the Fifth”.
There have been no celebrations at Coronation Park this week, but events in the past few days have included receptions to launch a splendid book, Delhi – Red Fort to Raisina, published by Roli Books, and an associated exhibition. The book includes a wide range of photographs (see durbar below) of old Shahjahanabad, now known as old Delhi, mostly assembled by J.P.Losty of the British Library with essays by Salman Khurshid, a lawyer and writer who is currently India’s law minister, and others. There has also been an exhibition and music evening at the Indian Council of Cultural Relations and a grand maharajah’s dinner, appropriately in Delhi’s Imperial Hotel. More events are planned during the coning year.
The forsaken Coronation Park location was apt – not only was it largely hidden from view, but it was also the site of three imperial British durbars. The third of these huge celebrations of colonial pomp and power was the one in December 1911 when King George visited the country with his wife Queen Mary to mark his coronation a few months earlier. Addressing some 100,000 spectators of varying grandeur, he announced the new capital that was eventually built in the 1920s and 1930s some 15kms south in what is now New Delhi.
While Delhi was growing into a conurbation of approaching 20m people, grass grew around the crumbling imperial monuments, encircled (as I discovered when I last went there a decade or so ago) by a wall and rusty gate with a padlock that a bored attendant would sometimes open to curious (usually British) visitors. Several statues vanished, leaving topless plinths that added to the desolate symbolism. Some of the statues went I am told to welcoming destinations in the UK, Ireland and Australia – Rufus Daniel Isaacs, the 1st Marquis of Reading and a Viceroy of India in the 1920s, now stands in the English town of Reading.
Conservators have sometimes tried to renovate the Coronation Park site. An attempt in 2007 was stopped because it was the 150th anniversary of what the British called the Indian Mutiny but is now seen as the First War of Independence, when the British demolished significant parts of Shahjahanabad near the Red Fort. Eventually Delhi authorities agreed that the park should be renovated and expanded, and that is what is now happening (right), with the main part due for completion next August.
The Delhi of today is a city of immigrants. Hindus and Sikhs who fled from Pakistan after independence in 1947 and turned it into a major business centre as well as a seat of government. Now it is home of millions who throng here for work, especially from the poorer states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, as well as multi-national companies and others that have helped build the chaotic under-resourced satellite city of Gurgaon and the neater satellite of Noida.
It is a city of energy, vibrancy, resourcefulness and skills – all more evident in old Delhi than the wide and elegant but rather anti-social avenues of the 20th century city. And it has a rapidly growing and efficient metro railway. But there is also worsening pollution, corruption, illegally dangerous buildings, poverty and the brash selfishness of the newly rich. Last year’s Commonwealth Games were a low point on many counts – prompting politicians and others to call this week for a renewal of the city’s values and pride.
But though often condemned by its residents, with the best-off usually saying they would prefer to live somewhere else, it is a place that people always come to with hopes and dreams. That has probably applied to all the eight (some historians say nine) cities that have been built here since it became the first capital of Muslim India in 1193 (plus an earlier one dating back to 5000 BC).
Soon King George V will be able to survey this vast mosaic from his restored lofty perch in Coronation Park (below), saved from the rubbish heap by conservationists’ sense of the city’s history.