Edwardian Britain may have been more reticent than resplen-dent, but in

the East in 1911 a fabulous feast of pageantry and pomp heralded the

dawn of the modern age. India and her 315 million subjects were “the

brightest jewel in the Imperial diadem” when King George V’s coronation

as King-Emperor was held in Delhi. He was the only monarch to visit

British India, once as Prince of Wales in 1906 and once to be in-vested

with his imperial title. It was the biggest news event for the fledgling

film industry and the spectacle was one of the first colour feature

films to be seen worldwide.

The durbar was a tradition that the

Mogul rulers had long adhered to, and equated to the European court or

levee. Ceremony was the tool by which a small British contingent ruled a

massive population, with 147 languages and 2,380 castes, and it was

vital in maintaining India’s submission. Viceroy Lytton, who presided

over the 1877 durbar, recognised the essential function of this Indian

spectacle: “The decorative details of an Indian pageant are like those

parts of an animal which are
no use at all for butcher’s meat, and

even unfit for scientific dissection, but from which augers draw the

omens that move armies and influence Princes.”

All three durbars

(1877, 1903 and 1911) took place on the plain outside Delhi, the seat of

government before 1858, when control of India passed to Britain. The

1911 durbar lacked the old-school lavishness of Lord Curzon’s 1903

hoopla when the Viceroy arrived by elephant and there were 200 others in

the procession, but it gave a nod to the modern world. Motor cars were

used for the first time and political concessions were granted –

reversing the partition of Bengal and moving the capital from Calcutta

to Delhi.

The scale of the 1911 durbar was staggering. The focal point of the King’s five-week tour from Bombay to Delhi to Calcutta was their majesties’ state entrance into Delhi on 7

December. At this time there were myriad festivities, topped with pukka

British Indian activities – a polo tournament and point-to-point

racing. An inclement climate did little to curtail the British Raj at

play, and the pagal [a crazy gymkhana], jackal-hunting, pig-sticking and

fancy-dress parties were de rigueur.

It took a year to prepare for

the anticipated 200,000 visitors, and cost £1 million. There were 233

separate camps over 25sq miles (the King-Emperor’s camp covered 85

acres). Three bakeries were equipped to produce 20,625 loaves a day;

2,220 cattle and 2,941 sheep were slaughtered; and two rail lines were

built for the site. For the troops and followers there was a free issue

of jam, cheese and butter for the 10 days. Four hundred ruling chiefs

and princes, maharajas and rajas were in attendance. A guest who

stayed at the camp of the Madras Presidency recalled, “Every tent was

lighted by electricity, enormous marquees formed the living and

reception rooms, and these contained large brick stoves for fires in the

evening, which, at Delhi, were bitterly, though healthily, cold.” Each

Governor was allowed 10 guests and in front of each camp there was a

well-trimmed lawn.

This enormous encampment heaved itself to

attention for the State Entry. Unlike in Curzon’s day, a nascent

political correctness encouraged the King to make his entry on horseback

and led to confusion among the crowds who failed to recognise him, as

they were looking for elephants. The Field Marshal uniform the king

chose to wear as head of the army, with the light blue riband of the

Order of the Star of India, looked little different to any other

military uniform to most of the crowd. The King had chosen this type of

entrance “so that he might more easily be seen of the people” and as a

sign of recognition that the troops were the backbone of British India.

There was a deliberate attempt not to hark back to 1903, which had

plumbed tradition for its splendour. The Standard Motor Car Company

supplied 70 vehicles for the Royal party and officials, all painted in

royal blue with red lines, upholstered in blue leather, with the Royal

crown on the side panels and a crown mascot on the bonnet. The Times

re-ported the lack of elephants with disappointment.

At this modern

durbar the press were an important presence. The 90 pressmen who

attended were each charged £120 but quartered in an excellent location

near the King-Emperor’s camp and were so complimentary about the durbar

that the King thanked them for services rendered. The growth of the film

industry between 1903 and 1911 meant this durbar was to be seen by the

wider public for the first time. Several film companies were present.

Gaumont was the first to screen footage in Britain, and American pioneer

Charles Urban filmed it in Kinemacolour. Fictitious books were written

about it, such as An American Girl at the Durbar, which recounted the

excitement of the heroine, an unlikely character with a penchant for

army officers.

Gilded carriages, bejewelled princes, boy-kings,

rubies the size of a pigeon’s egg, a British emperor and his subjects –

all made perfect footage for one of the first colour feature films ever

made and all were present for the main event on 12 December.

Eyewitnesses vied with each other to describe the spectacle as India’s

princes came to pay homage to their new emperor. ND Barton, a boy from

The King’s School in New South Wales, was among the thousands lining the

road on which they would arrive. “The Begum [of Bhopal, the only woman

in the procession] with a chainwork of gold over her face. The princes

from Sikkim with their turret-like golden crowns, and those from Burma

with crown-like soup-plates turned upside down…” he marvelled.

Their

majesties arrived at noon, preceded by 824 British and Indian veterans

of the 1857 Mutiny who wore a small bronze ‘V’ on a scarlet riband on

their right breast. In full state regalia and imperial crown, with the

huge scarlet emblem of Empire, shaped like a fan, held above him, the

King took to his throne with the Queen as the Proclamation was made. The

Coronation Park held a huge semi-circular audience stand for 12,000

guests, opposite a bigger semi-circular terraced earthen mound, where

 60,000-70,000 native spectators were housed. Between the two stood two

pavilions and a parade-ground bursting with soldiers. The King’s address

was followed by the princes of the Raj paying homage in the shamiana

(homage pavilion). They then walked to the royal pavilion, where King

George V and Queen Mary were crowned Emperor and Empress of India, and

the King made the political announcements concerning the new capital of

Delhi.

The riot of colour was astounding. The Imperial Cadet Corps,

part of the King’s es-cort, in their white-and-gold uniforms with

turquoise-blue turbans and turquoise sashes, seemed like the “dernier

cri in artistic beauty”, reported Miss LG Moberly. The King had 10 pages

grouped on the steps of the shamiana, rajakins in exquisite dress, no

two alike. Each had a diamond brooch of the King’s initials, a gift from

the King, fastened in his turban. The officers of Probyn’s Horse wore a

scarlet-and-gold cummerbund over a dark blue coat edged with gold and

topped by striped gold-and-turquoise turbans. Skinner’s Horse were

resplendent in mustard-coloured uniform. The raj and the Indian princes

shimmered with extravagant finery.

Not everybody was overawed,

though. John Fortescue, who had lamented the lack of elephants at the

state entrance, was scandalised by the red carpet around the foot of the

shamiana, and which led to the royal pavilion. “It was of commonplace

red baize which is, perhaps, most generally associated with weddings at

churches in the west end of London,” he harrumphed, “and thoroughly

miserable for the officers dressed in scarlet to have to walk on as it

clashed abominably.”

There were strict instructions for the princes

coming to pay homage to the King at an event that consolidated their own

place in the ruling elite. Hierarchy among the princes was strict, with

the five paramount chiefs receiving 21 gun salutes. The rest of the

hierarchy was divided aurally. Sixteen princes had a 13-gun salute, 30 a

nine-gun salute, and so on. The Gaekwar of Baroda was among the first

rank, but was suspected of fomenting anti-British sedition and had not

attended the rehearsal. He arrived without his full regalia, but

sporting a cane. After giving a curt bow to the king he turned his back

and jauntily sauntered away. “The Gaekwar Bob” became the talking point

for people at home watching the film at their local picture palace. The

“disgraceful incident” does not seem particularly exceptional when all

the film footage is viewed, but he had the misfortune of becoming the

symbol of British offended pride.

The 50,000 troops at the durbar –

horse, camelry, foot and artillery – all took part in the Royal Review

on 14 December, an exceptional show of military might culminating in an

awe-inspiring cavalry charge.  The Emperor, preceded by a trooper,

passed down the army lines on his black charger, then galloped back to

the saluting point where he remained in the sun for two hours. The

crowds thrilled to see famous regiments such as the Gordon Highlanders

and the Camel Corps. The seven-year-old Nawab of Bawalpur rode past the

king on a camel, and the 14-year-old Maharaja of Jodhpur outstripped the

hardest riders on a magnificent white steed at the head of his mounted

troops.
As celebrations in Delhi came to a close His Imperial Majesty

left to go tiger-hunting in Nepal, where he finally rode the elusive

elephant. He shot 24 tigers and bagged a right-and-left tiger and a

bear.
A splendid spectacle in every way, the 1911 Delhi durbar was a

herald of the modern age, but with the magnificence of the old one

giving its last colourful huzzah.


The 1911 Delhi Durbar was the first major news story for the fledgling film industy. The Delhi Durbar saw competing news companies vie to secure footage to show at home and around the world.

The Delhi Durbar became a world event, seen by people across the globe.

Kinemacolour was used at the Delhi Durbar to record colour footage.

The infamous incident of ‘The Gaekwar Bob’ became a hotly contested topic of the day, as the picture palaces showed footage from ther Delhi Durbar to crowds at home.

The Colonial Film Institute: Delhi Durbar 1911