Dawn Upon Delhi: Rise of a Capital explores the historical journey of Delhi as it evolved through the 19th and 20th century to become the capital of India

When the exhibition, “Dawn Upon Delhi: Rise of a Capital”, currently on display at the National gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) was being conceived, the idea, says its curator Rahaab Allana was to use a media that commemorated the birth of the capital in 1911.

The exhibition, organized through a collaboration between the NGMA and the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, showcases a collection of late 19 century and mid 20 century engravings, maps, plans, vintage and modern photographs from the Alkazi Collection, the Archaeological Survey of India, the Central Public Works Department archives and the archives of D.N. Chaudhuri and Habib Rahman.

“The only democratic media at that time was photography. In those days, photography was used not only as a means for conservation, but as a document for the imperial agendas as they unfurled during the British times,” said Rahaab on a recent curatorial walk of the exhibition.

“The importance of photography in this context was that the popular media, newspapers and journals, could not publish photography until the 1880s. So photographers had to rely on artists,” he said, drawing attention to images of an engraving of Chandni Chowk from the late 18th century showing its original layout.

“The other significance of photography is that it captures the post-mutiny period in India and specifically in Delhi. Delhi was the heart of the mutiny in many respects and the area that was the centre of the mutiny was Shahjahanabad.” Shahjahanabad is where, he establishes, the exhibition begins, with the modern history of the first war of independence.

“With this collection, you have to zoom in and out of the context. For instance, you have antiquarian maps of Delhi from 1857 showing the Red Fort and its various gates. All of these were memorial sites of the uprising, there’s a lunatic asylum in the corner. If this was the site, then the British troops were always positioned in the north, where the uprising happened.” He then points to a photograph of the Nizam of Hyderabad, entering the Red Fort, not from the original gate, which was the Mori gate but from the Lahore gate. After the mutiny Indians were denied access into the Red Fort. There was a charge that was levied to Indian citizens in order to enter the Red Fort. And in any case, all of Shahjahanabad lay abandoned for eight years from 1858 to 1865. No resident allowed into old Delhi.” This is highlighted by a panoramic image of Shahjahanabad, taken by Felice Beato, who was the first war photographer to arrive in India in 1858

Other photographs in the room, he said, show how heritage was already beginning to be museumized and (soon romanticized) in this period, where the British built spaces which they recreated to look like the royal chambers of the Mughal monarchs. The exhibition also features photographs of Delhi by Samuel Bourne, one of the first commercial photographers in India

The second wing of the exhibition is all about the Delhi coronation durbars and then the building of modern Delhi. “The whole idea of the durbars came from the Indian durbars that were an exchange of gifts. But the British durbars were about declaring your allegiance to the British crown. Every princely state was given a star of India. When the prince passed away he was meant to return that star to the crown. A sense of supremacy was clear from that time.”

Though there are a few photographs from the 1877 durbar, the focus of this section is the 1911 durbar. One such photograph of the 1911 durbar captures the interaction between the Maharajas and the British where a few people are seen carrying cameras showing that photography was becoming popular around this time. Allana said the durbars were also used to show the material gains of the British through exhibitions.

It was in the 1911 durbar that electricity is used for the first time, the photograph, Allana thought could well be the first night shot. “There’s also a panorama of the 1911 durbar taken by Bourne (and Shepherd)) in five parts, giving you the scale of events.” The 1911 durbar, he said was spread over an area of 85 sq km, 150000 people took part in it.

“The 1911 durbar ends with the laying of the foundation stone for Delhi. This is the commemoration of Delhi as the capital of India.”

The exhibition also features photographs and plans of the constructions of Delhi as under Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, apart from the buildings later commissioned by Nehru to architect Habib Rahman and photographs by press-photographer D.N.Chaudhuri.The exhibition will be on view at the NGMA, Manikyavelu Mansion, 49, Palace Road until March 16. For details, contact 22342338.