Rabbiting On

Rabbiting on is slang for chatttering pointlessly or aimlessly . Which is what this Blog will do - on topics that interest me : History, Prints, Churchill, Wodehouse, Architecture, and so on. The URL is from Hamlet : "the graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman Streets".

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Curzon's Delhi Durbar 1903 & the Photorealism of Mortimer Menpes

There were three Delhi Durbars, the one of 1877, then the 1903 Curzon's Durbar and lastly the 1911 Durbar. The notable thing about them is that they were all held in Delhi. British India may have been ruled from Calcutta upto the time of the 1911 Durbar, Bombay might be Kipling's urbs prima in indis and Madras the oldest of the three Presidency cities but Delhi was rightfully the imperial city. Delhi has a three thousand year history, some of its old buildings boast of a 1200 year vintage and it was the capital of the Moghul empire. In comparison the three hundred plus years old Madras, Calcutta and Bombay are mere upstarts.

The first two Durbars were not graced by the presence of the Sovereign but King George V and Queen Mary were present at the 1911 Durbar. The absence of the Sovereign notwithstanding, Curzon's Durbar seems to have been the grandest, the most colourful and entertaining, not to mention widely acclaimed.

Curzon's Durbar

The British considered a Durbar a distinctly Indian idea, exemplifying the Indian love of fanfare and ceremonial. In fact, a Durbar is no different from a Coronation or Investiture and such ceremonies are universal. For who in the world does not like a little tamasha or fanfare and ceremony with a free banquet or two thrown in. Durbars in India were traditionally held to celebrate the accession to the throne of a King or the marriage of a Prince and similar milestones. So, the 1903Durbar, held on New Year's Day, was to proclaim the accession of King Edward VII. It was intended both as a celebration and as a reinforcement of the idea of Empire and of India's place in it. We kick off with a watercolour, of the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and the Curzons astride their respective elephants, by Sheldon Williams :

Th e moving spirit behind the 1903 Durbar was the Baron Curzon of Kedleston, Viceroy between 1898 - 1905. What makes Curzon's Durbar so interesting, apart from its colourful and grand pageantry, is the personality of Curzon himself. And then there is the pictorial record of the proceedings left for us by the artist Mortimer Menpes.

Curzon loved any form of public display of imperial power. Having initiated the Victoria Memorial project in Calcutta, he was not one to let go of the opportunity to grandstand once again by staging a Durbar. Extremely able and scrupulously fair minded, Curzon's chief shortcoming was to consider as a personal affront, any criticism, modification or veto of his proposals by his superiors.

So, the undercurrents were there from the beginning, two of which involved the India Office and the British Cabinet. And the third notable cause of aggravation was Curzon's handling of the 9th Lancers, a British regiment then stationed in India.

The India Office

The India Office in London had always been a body for the status quo insofar as management of Indian affairs was concerned. The Secretary of State for India was a minister in council, just as the Viceroy in India was a proconsul in council.

And the council of the India Office was made up of retired Indian Civil Service officers. They had served out their time in India, retired as Governors or Lieutenant Governors or as members of the Viceroy's council and the India Office appointments were sinecures for just such loyal and senior retired civil servants. John Maynard Keynes, the economist, worked for the India Office at the beginning of his career (1905) and left in disgust after about a year. Keynes described the functioning of the India Office council as "government by dotardry", observing of its members that "a little over half showed manifest signs of senile decay and the rest did not speak".

The British cabinet was little better. Arthur James (Bob's your Uncle) Balfour had just become Prime Minister.As Curzon watched in amazement, Balfour populated the cabinet with his cronies and schoolchums. While some of them were able men many, like St John Brodrick, were completely out of their depths in the cabinet roles they were given. Curzon knew many of the ministers, inluding Balfour, Brodrick and Lord George Hamilton at the India Office, intimately.

Curzon & the Cabinet Lock Horns

The bone of contention was firstly about a party given at the India Office to the Indian Princes or, more properly, Maharajahs who had attended the 1902 convocation of King Edward. The dotardry of the India Office council decided that the cost of this reception, about Sterling 7000, should be paid by India. Curzon protested : India had contributed handsomely towards the just concluded Boer war, the expenses of the Duke of Connaught's attendance at the Durbar were to be paid by India; so, why could the British Treasury not pay for the reception of the Maharajahs instead of foisting the charge on India?

Curzon had in mind that the Indian press, both English and vernacular, was voluble and alert to such iniquities. The Congress party could, moreover, make political capital out of such a decision. But, above all else, the Viceroy was being totally fair in insisting that India alone, of the colonies, should not be discriminated against in this way.

This protest by Curzon ruffled feathers at the India Office. The normally gentle and placid Lord George Hamilton, cabinet minister for India, took the knuckleduster out. He did not want the Viceroy's protest to go forward to the cabinet and asked that Curzon withdraw his letter. Hamilton wrote to Curzon : " the Secretary of State in Council, who has, by law, exclusive control of Indian revenues, decided, after full consideration .... ...., to incur this charge ....in my judgement the expenditure on the Delhi Durbar and the cost of the India Office ceremony stand or fall together. The greater cannot be justified by impugning the lesser. I have sanctioned both and am ready to defend both". Impugning the lesser - these guys certainly knew how to write a letter!

Curzon refused to back down. The Viceroy's council supported him fully and he wrote back that he was not questioning the authority of the Secretary of State but the fairness of asking India to pay for the entertainment, by the British government, of the Princes in London . Since the expenses of the Duke's Durbar visit would be paid by India, the inequity would be noticed and viewed unfavourably by the Indian press and nationalist circles. The protest now had to be put forward to the cabinet who were unhappy to be pressured in this way by the Viceroy. But there were no logical grounds for turning down Curzon's demand; there simply was no case for the entertainment of the Maharajahs to be passed to India. Curzon won the battle but surely lost goodwill with the cabinet.

A second run in with the cabinet was over the announcement of a fiscal relief as customary in India on the occasion of a Durbar. Curzon wanted to announce a reduction in the tax on salt. The worthies in the India Office demurred insisting that such a measure would be associated with the Sovereign as, after all, the Durbar was in his honour.

Being people who lived by precedent,they were naturally against the creation of a new one. More wrangling and acrimony with the cabinet resulted before a compromise was reached and it was agreed that Curzon, as head of government in India and without taking the King's name, would announce a promise of early fiscal relief.

The 9th Lancers

There was also the incident of the 9th Lancers : two of its soldiers had clubbed an Indian cook to death and the victim had identified them before dying. There were also some other witnesses but the matter was hushed up by the regiment without even a court martial. Curzon was livid when word of the incident reached him and wanted the culprits to be brought to book. Some 84 Indian menials, cooks, batmen etc, had been killed in this way in the previous 20 years by the British other ranks and only two of the culprits had been sentenced. Curzon, understandably, was outraged and demanded exemplary punishment.

But the regiment closed ranks and the chief of the local command, Gen Sir Bindon Blood, supported them.

In the face of this bland insistence that there was no evidence of wrongdoing, the Commander in Chief and Curzon decided to withdraw leave privileges for the entire unit for a six month period, sufficient stricture and indictment for such a proud regiment.(Curzon minuted : " if it be said that dirty linen should not be washed in public, I say'let there be no dirty linen to wash' ".) Because the 9th Lancers was a socially well connected regiment Curzon became unpopular with influential circles in England. It was also at about this time that the scheming and self seeking Kitchener was appointed, at Curzon's request, commander in chief of the army in India. From the outset, Kitchener began fishing in troubled waters and an incident like this was right up his street. He had influential connections back home and spread much calumny about Curzon's treatment of the Lancers.

It was put to Curzon that, given this background, the 9th Lancers need not be part of the review at the Durbar. But Curzon, ever magnanimous, would have none of it believing that the regiment should not be disgraced in that way.

The Coronation (aka Curzonation) Durbar

There were two weeks of festivities, parades, firework displays, banquets and balls centered around the New Yaer's Day Durbar. Curzon personally planned and oversaw the arrangements which included the rigging up of a temporary city : electric lighting, telephony, a light railway, medical services were all provided. There were luxurious, colourful tents and Maharajahs by the drove complete with retainers and campfollowers.

All this in addition to the Duke's party and the British civilians and army officers and their families, the British, Indian and Princely states regiments, elephants, camels, dancers and so on, not to mention the amorphous Indian public which was known to love a grand spectacle.

There were exhibitions of the finest handicrafts from all parts of India, sales of which actually helped recoup a good deal of the expenses of the Durbar. Modern marketing and sponsorship also arrived in India with British companies paying for the right to be the official travel agents, tent suppliers or beverage dispensers.

But I was not there and I had better let Mortimer Menpes bring you the colour and appeal of the Durbar through his eloquent pictorial record. But one incident I must mention is the one about the fox terrier which took it into its head to take centre-stage in the proceedings. On Durbar Day proper, January 1st 1903, the little fellow became so excited as the elephant mounted Curzons rode into the Durbar arena that he cut across to the dais and sat on the Viceroy's throne, barking excitedly.

But a lesser man than Curzon would have faced a greater embarrassment when the 9th Lancers marched past. In the words of Mortimer and Dorothy Menpes : "Just before the 9th Lancers passed, the atmosphere was electric. As the regiment came into view the whole stand rose and cheered itself hoarse; women waved their handkerchiefs .... men flourished their sticks and shouted bravados. .... There is no doubt about it : the fact of the Viceroy's guests standing up and cheering showed exceedingly little tact. .... this was hardly a fitting moment to give vent to their feelings. It was a distinct stab at the Viceroy .... He did what from his standpoint he knew to be absolutely right. For his own guests to choose that moment to insult him seemed hard and ungenerous". Let me add that Curzon had spent Sterling 3000 of his personal money to host these low people at the Durbar.

Mortimer Menpes

Menpes (1855 - 1938) was born in Australia, came to England when about 20 and apprenticed under James Mcneill Whistler the famous American artist who lived in England then. Menpes seems to have been a man of many parts, wrestler, cook, crack pistol shot and interior decorator besides being a highly rated artist and portrait painter. He became prosperous through his art, much of which was published in illustrated book form by A &C Black in London with text by his daughter Dorothy, and from fruit and carnation farming. Menpes also drew some criticism for not being able to draw except from photographs. This is patently untrue or at best true only so far as it goes in that he also sometimes drew from photos. A look at the chromolithographs and portraits in this post will show that at least some of them are based on photogravure. But a look at the Balfour portrait will suffice to understand that Menpes could draw freehand with ease and great skill. He was a truly outstanding artist of his time and was also one of the most innovative in that he also did draw from photographs besides being a highly proficiente etcher and engraver as well as lithographer. Menpes had his own printing press in London which produced all the prints for his illustrated books.

Menpes and Dorothy came out to India for the Durbar of 1903 and the book The Durbar, published by A & C Black, followed later that year with text by Dorothy and a hundred chromolithographs by Mortimer Menpes.

The plates were produced in the Menpes Press under the personal supervision of the artist. Menpes's Durbar drawings are perhaps one of the last instances of the handmade print or engraving making a brave last stand against the advent of photography and photo offset. Menpes is on record about his Durbar and other Indian drawings : "his wish was to capture the brilliancy of Indian sunlight, the dazzling luminosity of atmospheric effects, rather than to make studies of local colour and native types". Judge for yourselves how well he succeeded.

My favourite is this one, titled 'After the Show', a common enough scene even today in our villages and cities. It is night time and the only thing missing from the picture is the chillum pipe but one can imagine that for oneself. The conclave is evidently taking place after dinner and this is where Kipling comes in :

In a turquoise twilight, crisp and chill,
A kafila camped at the foot of the hill.
Then blue smoke-haze of the cooking rose,
And tent-peg answered to hammer-nose;

.... .... ....
The lid of the flesh-pot chattered high,
The knives were whetted and -- then came I
To Mahbub Ali, the muleteer,
Patching his bridles and counting his gear,
Crammed with the gossip of half a year.
But Mahbub Ali the kindly said,
"Better is speech when the belly is fed."
So we plunged the hand to the mid-wrist deep
In a cinnamon stew of the fat-tailed sheep,
And he who never hath tasted the food,
By Allah! he knoweth not bad from good.

We cleansed our beards of the mutton-grease,
We lay on the mats and were filled with peace,
And the talk slid north, and the talk slid south,
With the sliding puffs from the hookah-mouth.

.... ....

I bought my copy of Durbar sometime ago for well under a hundred dollars. I see copies now offered online for prices ranging from $ 500 to 2000 but there are still a very few going at about a hundred bucks. If you wish to own a copy, let me send you here to access the online version and you can decide then.

I have included a selection my favourite Durbar views of Menpes but there are more online : evocative of early 2oth Century India with a feel and immediacy for the costumes, the "brilliancy" of the dazzling Indian light, the colour and the splendid animals. There is also the ugly bear portrait of Kitchener, probably cheering the loudest when the 9th Lancers gave the eyes right to Curzon.

But this post is as much to bring to attention the highminded and fair character of Curzon, possibly the best of our Viceroys, as it is to display the images of the Durbar that Menpes has given us. The Viceroy made sure that over three hundred veterans of the Mutiny were invited to the Durbar and honoured. One of them, long bearded with sword in hand, is shown above. Menpes gave the fanciful title "Akalis Fanatical Devotee" to the picture but he is no fanatic and what is more, a brave veteran of the Mutiny who fought loyally for his British masters.

I have used throughout the pics of Menpes online at the internet archives, not wishing to break up my precious copy. In the hand the pics look even grander since the touch and feel and 'see with the real eye' are everything when it comes to colour visuals.

The Durbar excited the popular imagination in England but the incomparable Saki (H.H.Munro) brought to the proceedings his own uniquely lopsided view which is all about the Durbar and also really nothing to do with it at all. Can not resist including, as a tailpiece, this story by one of my favourite authors. Enjoy!!

Clovis sat in the hottest zone but two of a Turkish bath, alternately inert in statuesque contemplation and rapidly manoeuvring a fountain-pen over the pages of a note-book.

``Don't interrupt me with your childish prattle,'' he observed to Bertie van Tahn, who had slung himself languidly into a neighbouring chair and looked conversationally inclined; ``I'm writing death-less verse.''

Bertie looked interested.

``I say, what a boon you would be to portrait painters if you really got to be notorious as a poetry writer. If they couldn't get your likeness hung in the Academy as `Clovis Sangrail, Esq., at work on his latest poem,' they could slip you in as a Study of the Nude or Orpheus descending into Jermyn Street. They always complain that modern dress handicaps them, whereas a towel and a fountain-pen---''

``It was Mrs. Packletide's suggestion that I should write this thing,'' said Clovis, ignoring the bypaths to fame that Bertie van Tahn was pointing out to him. ``You see, Loona Bimberton had a Coronation Ode accepted by the New Infancy, a paper that has been started with the idea of making the New Age seem elder and hidebound. `So clever of you, dear Loona,' the Packletide remarked when she had read it; `of course, any one could write a Coronation Ode, but no one else would have thought of doing it.' Loona protested that these things were extremely difficult to do, and gave us to understand that they were more or less the province of a gifted few. Now the Packletide has been rather decent to me in many ways, a sort of financial ambulance, you know, that carries you off the field when you're hard hit, which is a frequent occurrence with me, and I've no use whatever for Loona Bimberton, so I chipped in and said I could turn out that sort of stuff by the square yard if I gave my mind to it. Loona said I couldn't, and we got bets on, and between you and me I think the money's fairly safe. Of course, one of the conditions of the wager is that the thing has to be published in something or other, local newspapers barred; but Mrs. Packletide has endeared herself by many little acts of thoughtfulness to the editor of the Smoky Chimney, so if I can hammer out anything at all approaching the level of the usual Ode output we ought to be all right. So far I'm getting along so comfortably that I begin to be afraid that I must be one of the gifted few.''

``It's rather late in the day for a Coronation Ode, isn't it?'' said Bertie.

``Of course,'' said Clovis; ``this is going to be a Durbar Recessional, the sort of thing that you can keep by you for all time if you want to.''

``Now I understand your choice of a place to write it in,'' said Bertie van Tahn, with the air of one who has suddenly unravelled a hitherto obscure problem; ``you want to get the local temperature.''

``I came here to get freedom from the inane interruptions of the mentally deficient,'' said Clovis, ``but it seems I asked too much of fate.''

Bertie van Tahn prepared to use his towel as a weapon of precision, but reflecting that he had a good deal of unprotected coast-line himself, and that Clovis was equipped with a fountain-pen as well as a towel, he relapsed pacifically into the depths of his chair.

``May one hear extracts from the immortal work?'' he asked. ``I promise that nothing that I hear now shall prejudice me against borrowing a copy of the Smoky Chimney at the right moment.''

``It's rather like casting pearls into a trough,'' remarked Clovis pleasantly, ``but I don't mind reading you bits of it. It begins with a general dispersal of the Durbar participants:

`` `Back to their homes in Himalayan heights
The stale pale elephants of Cutch Behar
Roll like great galleons on a tideless sea---' ''

``I don't believe Cutch Behar is anywhere near the Himalayan region,'' interrupted Bertie. ``You ought to have an atlas on hand when you do this sort of thing; and why stale and pale?''
``After the late hours and the excitement, of course,'' said Clovis; ``and I said their homes were in the Himalayas. You can have Himalayan elephants in Cutch Behar, I suppose, just as you have Irish-bred horses running at Ascot.''

``You said they were going back to the Himalayas,'' objected Bertie.

``Well, they would naturally be sent home to recuperate. It's the usual thing out there to turn elephants loose in the hills, just as we put horses out to grass in this country.''

Clovis could at least flatter himself that he had infused some of the reckless splendour of the East into his mendacity.

``Is it all going to be in blank verse?'' asked the critic.

``Of course not; `Durbar' comes at the end of the fourth line.''

``That seems so cowardly; however, it explains why you pitched on Cutch Behar.''

``There is more connection between geographical place-names and poetical inspiration than is generally recognized; one of the chief reasons why there are so few really great poems about Russia in our language is that you can't possibly get a rhyme to names like Smolensk and Tobolsk and Minsk.''

Clovis spoke with the authority of one who has tried.

``Of course, you could rhyme Omsk with Tomsk,'' he continued; ``in fact, they seem to be there for that purpose, but the public wouldn't stand that sort of thing indefinitely.''

``The public will stand a good deal,'' said Bertie malevolently, ``and so small a proportion of it knows Russian that you could always have an explanatory footnote asserting that the last three letters in Smolensk are not pronounced. It's quite as believable as your statement about putting elephants out to grass in the Himalayan range.''

``I've got rather a nice bit,'' resumed Clovis with unruffled serenity, ``giving an evening scene on the outskirts of a jungle village:

`` `Where the coiled cobra in the gloaming gloats,
And prowling panthers stalk the wary goats.' ''

``There is practically no gloaming in tropical countries,'' said Bertie indulgently; ``but I like the masterly reticence with which you treat the cobra's motive for gloating. The unknown is proverbially the uncanny. I can picture nervous readers of the Smoky Chimney keeping the light turned on in their bedrooms all night out of sheer sickening uncertainty as to what the cobra might have been gloating about.''
``Cobras gloat naturally,'' said Clovis, ``just as wolves are always ravening from mere force of habit, even after they've hopelessly overeaten themselves. I've got a fine bit of colour painting later on,'' he added, ``where I describe the dawn coming up over the Brahmaputra river:

`` `The amber dawn-drenched East with sun-shafts kissed,
Stained sanguine apricot and amethyst,
O'er the washed emerald of the mango groves
Hangs in a mist of opalescent mauves,
While painted parrot-flights impinge the haze
With scarlet, chalcedon and chrysoprase.'' '

``I've never seen the dawn come up over the Brahmaputra river,'' said Bertie, ``so I can't say if it's a good description of the event, but it sounds more like an account of an extensive jewel robbery. Anyhow, the parrots give a good useful touch of local colour. I suppose you've introduced some tigers into the scenery? An Indian landscape would have rather a bare, unfinished look without a tiger or two in the middle distance.''
``I've got a hen-tiger somewhere in the poem,'' said Clovis, hunting through his notes. ``Here she is:

`` `The tawny tigress 'mid the tangled teak
Drags to her purring cubs' enraptured ears
The harsh death-rattle in the pea-fowl's beak,
A jungle lullaby of blood and tears.' ''

Bertie van Tahn rose hurriedly from his recumbent position and made for the glass door leading into the next compartment.
``I think your idea of home life in the jungle is perfectly horrid,'' he said. ``The cobra was sinister enough, but the improvised rattle in the tiger-nursery is the limit. If you're going to make me turn hot and cold all over I may as well go into the steam room at once.''

``Just listen to this line,'' said Clovis; ``it would make the reputation of any ordinary poet:

`` `and overhead
The pendulum-patient Punkah, parent of stillborn breeze.' ''

``Most of your readers will think `punkah' is a kind of iced drink or half-time at polo,'' said Bertie, and disappeared into the steam.

The Smoky Chimney duly published the ``Recessional,'' but it proved to be its swan song, for the paper never attained to another issue.

Loona Bimberton gave up her intention of attending the Durbar and went into a nursing-home on the Sussex Downs. Nervous breakdown after a particularly strenuous season was the usually accepted explanation, but there are three or four people who know that she never really recovered from the dawn breaking over the Brahmaputra river.


  • At January 13, 2009 at 2:08 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

    thank you for the information. very well done.

    memsahib suri

  • At February 22, 2009 at 11:55 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

    Reall interesting, not sure I always agree about Curzon, but the stuff about Menpes in particular is really informative.

  • At January 20, 2010 at 4:25 PM , Blogger empeejay said...

    You may want to read Kamala Markandaya's novel The Golden Honeycomb, in which the 1902 Durbar is described in detail from the viewpoint of a fictional Raja and his illegitimate son.

  • At December 17, 2010 at 5:57 AM , Blogger Hels said...

    You have beautiful paintings here, many thanks. Menpes was indeed a very fine painter, etcher, engraver and lithographer.

    But two things I didn't know: a] Menpes had his own printing press in London which produced all the prints for his illustrated books and b] daughter Dorothy wrote the text for the book.

    thanks for the link

  • At January 28, 2011 at 12:20 PM , Anonymous generic viagra said...

    I could know good references about Curzo Dumbar , Calcutta , Bombay and other important things I didn't know, that's the reason please continue with work.

  • At September 3, 2011 at 9:59 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Menpes was a member of my Club, the Arts Club in Dover street, and much liked.
    I have also assembled a die cast display of the 1903 Durbar made up from different makers, but cannot find the 9th. Lancers anywhere!

  • At November 24, 2011 at 4:09 AM , Blogger Sohail Hashmi said...

    Great Piece, and your love for P.G shines through the conversation between Bertie and the poet wgo killed a magazine. What a co-incidence that you picked up a Bertie, one of my favourites from P.G.

    the bit about 9th Lancers incident was educative not only about Curzon but also about the idiocy of the Brass.

    A side light of the 1903 durbar was the contribution of Curzon in getting back from the V and A galleries the pietra dura tiles of the Deewan-e-Khas that were removed by captain John Jones in the after math of 1857 and taken to england and sold to V&A, Curzon was able to get them back and re fixed with the help of an Italian expert, using Mughal miniature paintings as a visual reference. A rare act of conservation that stands outstands out against the senseless pillage of the Brits that went on and on.


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