Jessica Douglas-Home has put together photographs her grandmother, Lilah Wingfield, took of her journey through India including accounts from her diaries she maintained of her journey. Lilah Wingfield’s photographs and her account of her journey to and through undivided India is also available in book form and was released by her granddaughter, Jessica Douglas-Home, to coincide with the centenary of the event.
If it wasn’t for the fact the photo exhibition was advertised as The 1911 Durbar through the eyes of Lilah Wingfield I doubt if I’d have been as inclined to make my way to the tree lined street set in the old world charm of stately stone buildings dating back from the Bombay of old.
I was intrigued by the idea of a young British woman all of 23, born and brought up in Ireland and described in the accompanying pamphlet as desperate to get away from an existence that was unbearably claustrophobic, took the opportunity of the King’s Coronation Durbar in Delhi to escape for a few months to India to breathe freedom, an experience that transformed her life.
Such an account promises varying possibilities including wanderlust, adventure, unrequited love, and romance; of the latter Jessica hinted in her interview with HT thus: “The Begum of Bhopal, the only female ruler of the time, became a good friend of my grandmother and invited her to stay with her. Her son, Prince Obaidullah, developed a crush on her. He was quite keen on her and they had a near romance, despite being married.”
To find out more about this and the rest I’d have to read the book that the lady at the gallery counter informed me was sold out. So I made up for the gaps in the visual narratives exhibited in the gallery with my own imagination though it did not take me far.
While the Raj has been sufficiently documented in photographs with respect to the relationship the British Colonial Rulers shared with their subjects, the Indian Princely States, with images rarely varying in their depiction of lives of Kings, Queens, and Princes beholden to the British Rulers for retaining their way of life, there’s little I’ve seen exhibited of viewpoints travellers shared of their impressions of India on their journeys through the sub-continent, little or none beyond the mandatory serving of fakirs, babas, medicants, and snake charmers.
I’d hoped Lilah Wingfield’s photographs would fill one such gap. It does, only to an extent. Still, it’s an important document if for nothing else than for the fact that while photographs from the time will invariably focus on events and occasions in progress as documented by official photographers, typically framing the key moments, it’s left to a meandering traveller, an invitee to the event, arriving as preparations for it reach their climax, to cast their eye about and record moments peripheral to the actual event.
And Lilah Wingfield does offer up several peripheral moments from 1911, centre stage. Among others, photographs depicting tradesmen displaying their wares in the 10th Hussars encampment where Lilah had her tent, the horse Lilah borrowed in the Tented City that came up in advance of the Delhi Durbar to house over 250,000 visitors, the arrival of Ruling Princes and their entourages by train to pay homage to King George V and swear allegiance to their British Rulers with the possible exception of Gaikwad of Baroda, who, Jessica said as she walked the three of us and another visitor through the photographs on display, “stripped off his jewels before paying homage to the King Emperor George V, even turning his back on the Monarch as he made his way back.” A gesture, Jessica explained, designed to indicate “That I’m your equal.”
It created a furore, a scandal.
A photograph on display catches the plainly clad Gaikwad of Baroda in mid-turn as he prepares to turn his back on the seated King Emperor George V before walking back. It’s a moment of defiance, making the viewer linger on for a fraction more, imagining the very moment in the context of the event, the coronation of King George V as the Emperor of India.
I wondered what he must have thought as he walked up to the Royal Pavilion surmounted by a glittering dome. Did he balk at the very last moment considering the inevitable repercussions that would follow his defiance? Did he wish he hadn’t done it as he walked back?
The power of a photograph is not restricted to the moment it frames, instead it lies in the larger frame of the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ it does not capture.
A similar feeling crept up on me as I paused by the photograph showing Lilah in the middle of a street in Chandni Chowk, captioned: Lilah visiting Chandni Chowk for the last time. In the distance she heard the sound of the 101 gun salute from the ridge as the Royal couple departed.
It's a moment that signals the end of her Delhi visit and preparation for her onward journey that would take her to Peshawar and Rawalpindi in the North West Frontier Province, before pointing her in the direction of Lucknow, Benares, Cawnpore, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Bhopal, Bangalore, and eventually Colombo, spanning close to four months from the time Lilah arrived in Bombay on 28 November, 1911, snapping up the Bombay Harbour from her cabin porthole with her Kodak, to Feburary 1912.
It must’ve been a moment of anticipation, of trepidation, of excitement. Here was a young woman journeying to a country she’d never been to before but only heard about or read in accounts that must’ve included among other things the inhospitable terrain, the man-eaters, the ‘unbearable’ heat, the alien tongues, ‘strange’ customs to name a few, each contributing to the perception of India as a frontier offering challenges not all of which were easily surmountable let alone hospitable.
To that end, while limited in their representation of the scope of imagery her journeys will have afforded her, considering she traversed terrain breathtaking in their diversity, cultural and otherwise, Lilah Wingfield’s photographs nevertheless acquire a certain poignancy in the context of her willingness to strike out of her own comfort for the unknown of India, for making a choice and exercising it.
It’s in this context that the visitor, having navigated the black and white timeline of her impressions of the Delhi Durbar of 1911, pauses that much longer when brought up face to face with the last one in the series showing the Colombo waterfront with a hotel at the far end among coconut trees leaning out to sea and Lilah Wingfield in a hand-pulled carriage, her head turned for the camera, before catching the S. S. Malwa for England.
A journey to qualify for a lifetime, a lifetime possibly transformed in ways probably not imagined before embarking on the journey. It’s the in-betweens that Lilah did not frame that the images on display nudge the viewer into considering, extrapolating, and reflecting upon.
The exhibition is on at Sakshi Gallery, Tanna House, Opposite YMCA, Colaba, between 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sakshi Gallery is reached barely a few minutes walk from the Regal Cinema circle, past Majestic, and is located adjacent to the Holy Name Church on Nathalal Parekh Road (formerly Wodehouse Road).
The photo exhibition, A Glimpse Of Empire, ends tomorrow, Monday, 19th March, 2012.