By Pramod K Nayar As the world, in different ways, expresses its feelings on the passing away of Queen Elizabeth II, several commentators have also referenced the imperial connections of this monarch. On her first visit to India in 1961, Elizabeth had been accorded a warm welcome, starting with Dr S Radhakrishnan, Jawaharlal Nehru and […]
By Pramod K Nayar
As the world, in different ways, expresses its feelings on the passing away of Queen Elizabeth II, several commentators have also referenced the imperial connections of this monarch. On her first visit to India in 1961, Elizabeth had been accorded a warm welcome, starting with Dr S Radhakrishnan, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad at the Delhi airport. She was the second British monarch to visit India, after King George V in 1911. She would return to India later too. During her 1983 visit, Elizabeth bestowed the Order of the British Empire on Mother Teresa. She would also come in 1997, to join India’s 50th Independence anniversary celebrations.
It was an entirely different nation that Elizabeth was visiting: an India that had stopped being part of her imperial escutcheon. But the cavalcade, the romance and the glamour continued. The rides on elephants, the royal receptions recalled a key feature of the Empire: public spectacles. All of these spectacles are documented in huge visual archives that have now been reproduced in the wake of her death. This visual archive of British monarchs and their colonies may be traced back to the 19thcentury. Today, a different visual archive of new vistas, renamed cities and streets and new sculptural icons also emerges, as ironic continuities, in the postcolony.
First Views of Empire
Panoramas of India had been exhibited in England since the early decades of the 19th century. Robert Ker Porter’s ‘The Great Historical Picture of the Storming of Seringapatam’ — 2,550 square feet of canvas — of the battle with Tipu Sultan opened at the Lyceum Theatre in London’s Strand in April 1800 and was a hugely popular exhibit. This introduced the imperial spectacle to the British public where scenes from India, with all their melancholic or triumphant features could be experienced. The English viewer in London was a sovereign gazing over his ‘possessions’. It gave the Britons at home a sense of imperial identity, destiny and responsibility.
Spectacles showcasing their colonies were necessary for the Britons back home to acquire a sense of imperial identity, destiny and responsibility
Later there would be the 1877 Delhi durbar and the 1911 Pageant of London, of which accounts survive in the form of Talboys Wheeler’s The History of the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi and SC Lomas’ Festival of Empire: Souvenir of the Pageant of London. Through these, the distant corners of the Empire, particularly India, were brought home to the British. They constituted the making of a visual empire.
A Royal ‘Impression’
It was with Queen Victoria that ‘Brand Empire’, so to speak, arrives in the public imagination and visibility. Places, both natural and manmade, began to be named after the British Queen. Take a look at this list: Victoria Nile (Uganda), Victoria Falls (Zambezi), Lake Victoria (six of them), Cape Victoria (two). Towns, hills, headlands, ranges, bays, coves and valleys across Africa, Australia and other regions were all named after her.
India had, of course, the Victoria Terminus at Bombay Railway Station, colleges in various cities, memorials, among others. Streets in towns and cities had Victoria statues. To adapt the historian David Cannadine’s words, the ‘sense of the royal presence’ was imposed through ‘cartographical, sculptural, architectural or cadastral’ symbols, from place names to architecture (this is not, as we know, unique to the Empire, contemporary governments seek to impose their stamp and authority through architectural means — witness the recent transformation of the NCR). In other words, the Empire had to be imprinted with visible signs of the royal power, benevolence and presence. It ensured that the inhabitants across Asia, Africa, Australia recognised that they were not citizens: they were subjects of the Empire.
The lands and natives of the colonies were imprinted by signs of imperial monarchy so that they recognised they were subjects of the Empire
In other domains too, the natives were made to understand the hierarchy. Writing in Charles Dickens’ Household Words, a commentator described the process of dispensing justice in India:
The magistrate in his own chair, on a platform raised a couple of feet from the ground, so as to give him a view of the Court, and impress the spectators with just notions of his exalted position…
Further, the subjects, especially of the native royal families, local rulers and aristocrats, needed an additional sign — one that would achieve two objectives. First, the sign pronounced the loyalty of the prince or king to the British Emperor and, therefore, to the Empire. Secondly, it ensured that the native prince or king, who had been bestowed a title, an honorific, would always be seen as a vassal to the Empire. India had its Rai Bahadurs, the Star of India, the Imperial Order of the Crown of India. The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, which was originally meant for the residents of Malta and Ionian Islands was expanded in its scope to include those who governed the British Empire. The KCMGs and CMGs (Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George) were sub-categories of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, and awarded to various sultans and sheikhs in Africa, the Arabian Gulf and other regions. The Knight Commander of the Indian Empire (KCIE), the Knight Grand Commander of the Indian Empire (GCIE) and others were designed for Indians.
Honorifics and durbars were modes of imperial improvisation to position the English authority as one that can unify the natives
This honours system also served to make the native rulers feel that they were, despite the racial divide, treated as the class equals by the British. It was one more method of buying loyalty — this was particularly necessary after 1857, of course — of the native princes and kings, an illusion of acceptance and class- and birth-based equality of the British and the Indians.
The buildings, the names and titles were, literally and metaphorically, crafted and pressed upon the imperial dominions. These symbolised imperial relations and showcased a ‘politics of recognition’, to adapt philosopher Charles Taylor’s eloquent phrase. The recognition had to be seen for what it was: from a higher power to a supplicant or subordinate.
An Imperial Progress
Indian princes visiting Victoria’s court were surrounded by objects and paintings that showcased her as the ‘Empress of India’ (declared thus in 1876). The 1862 London Exhibition featured 7,000 Indian exhibits. The objective of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1884 was intended, according to its catalogue, ‘to give to the inhabitants of the British Isles, to foreigners and to one another practical demonstration of the wealth and industrial development of the outlaying portions of the British Empire’.
Imre Kiralfy’s company, London Exhibitions Ltd, had its first major event in the Empire of India Exhibition of Earl’s Court, 1895, followed by similar events on imperial themes. The stated aim of the 1911 Crystal Palace Exhibition was ‘to demonstrate to the somewhat casual, often times unobservant British public the real significance of our great self-governing Dominions, to make us familiar with their products, their ever-increasing resources, their illimitable possibilities’.
Viceroy Lytton in his letter of August 1876 announced his intention of holding the Imperial Assemblage:
It is my intention to hold at Delhi, on the 1st day of January 1877, an Imperial Assemblage, for the purpose of proclaiming to the Queen’s subjects throughout India the gracious sentiments which have induced Her Majesty to make to Her Sovereign Style and Titles and addition specially intended to mark Her Majesty’s interest in this great Dependency of Her Crown, and Her Royal confidence and affection of the Princes and Peoples of India.
But the brilliance of this event was to define it as continuing an Indian tradition. Talboys Wheeler writes of the event:
An Imperial Assemblage is one of the oldest institutions in India. From the remotest antiquity the Rajas and princes of India have assembled to celebrate the establishment of a new empire, or the accession of a new suzerain. The story of such gatherings is told in the earliest traditions of the two famous Hindu epics — the Ramayana and Mahabharata …
It was the one thing that the princes could thoroughly understand. It was the only thing wanting to establish the reality of the British empire in the hearts of the people of India as the representative of the imperial power which traces back its origins to Indra and the Sun…
Yet he also points to its uniqueness:
There was nothing Oriental in these structures. They were not borrowed from any native designs … Every effort was made to mingle the Ruling Chiefs with European officials, so as to avoid questions of precedence which have excited bitterness and heartburn in India from the remotest antiquity.
Taken together, the honorifics and the durbar were modes of imperial improvisation to position the English authority as one that can unify the natives. The Proclamation for the 1911 Coronation Durbar announced this racial ranking:
“The said solemnity has so been celebrated and call to Our presence Our Governors, Lieutenant-Governors, and others of Our Officers, the Princes, Chiefs and Nobles of the Native States under Our protection”
For the 1902 Delhi Durbar, Lord Curzon ordered an amphitheatre whose canopy was styled after a Saracenic dome. His aim was to avoid European styles and instead use Mughal-Saracenic forms. This, as historian Thomas Metcalf points out, was a way of locating the British in India as successors to the Mughals.
The Souvenir of the Pageant of London termed London an ‘empire city’. It was the capital not only of England but of an Empire. A comment in The Times (8 July 1851) captures the sense of wonder and affiliation at the Empire’s extent (the report is describing an elephant at the 1851 Exhibition):
It [the elephant] will, no doubt, be looked upon by thousands of spectators with emotions of pride and wonder as a genuine British production, captured by the prowess of an official of the Executive in the wilds of a neighbouring country.
Now, the Pageant of London was part of the Festival of Empire. Detailed India references in the Souvenir of the Pageant of London (Lomas 1911) began with accounts of the return of the ‘Return Home of the First Expedition of the East India Company 1603’. For realism it used quotes from the Court Minutes of the Company and replicated the arrival of Thomas Roe at the Mughal court (1615).
The event concluded with a ‘Masque Imperial’ which called upon the imperialists to be just and fair in their Empire:
When you conquer make your rule
As your war was, for the best
Of that nation’s interest ;
Let them learn to love your school,
And to call your teachings blest
To return to Cannadine, an imperial monarchy and a monarchical empire were both emphasised through these spectacles. They spectacularised racial and social hierarchies, the pomp of imperial Briton, the extent of British territory. Imperial power and authority became a brand through such acts of political communication.
The tradition — statues, naming, buildings — has been passed on from the imperial rulers to the post-imperial ones. Leaders still want their statues, powers-that-be still want architecture to reflect their vision. Politicians, academics and bureaucrats demand that notices of the seminar/meeting/ceremony in which they perform some miniscule role, usually indifferently, carry their photographs, for without these signs, we may not know who our leaders, Vice Chancellors or bureaucrats are.
We accepted the imperial signs then, we accept the post-imperial signs now. The imperial sign is another spectacle and a ‘spectacle’, wrote Guy Debord in his classic, The Society of the Spectacle, ‘is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity’. We recognise that we are subjects still, perhaps not citizens, dominated by the images of the powerful leader, the organisation and the boss.
Apparently, we remain in the grip of a visual empire.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)