A few years ago, when Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was released, we developed a new interest in early films. There is a certain charm and innocence in those silent, unnatural movements and more importantly they just made us understand how rapidly films developed as an artistic medium in the next couple of decades. This also made us dig into some of the most neglected eras of India’s cinematic history.
Although Dadasaheb Phalke is officially regarded as the father of Indian cinema, we all know that Dadasaheb Torne missed out merely on technical grounds (as his film was processed overseas). Even before him there was one H. S. Bhatavdekar had acquired a movie camera even before the turn of the century although he only shot real events and never made a feature film. As we stumbled on Bhatavdekar, he gradually led us to the Coronation Park, a place that we actually visited after watching those YouTube videos.
Delhi’s Own Cinematic Heritage
Now, considering the fact that all of them were Marathi gentlemen and eventually Bombay became the hub of Indian cinema, it is hard to connect Delhi with India’s early cinematic history. But the good news for Dehlites is that the city does feature in two of the earliest and most historically significant films shot in India and this is what brings us to the Coronation Park which now lies in the northern corner of Delhi, far away from the more glamorous tourist circuits of the city.
This is the ground where three major coronations took place during the British Raj. The first one took place in 1877 when Queen Victoria was proclaimed the Empress of India. They were followed by the coronations of Edward VII in 1903 and George V in 1911. The first two coronations were rather symbolic events where the actual monarchs were not present. But the last one was attended by the King himself. More importantly, the last two coronations were also filmed extensively, making them not only early cinematic works but important historical documentations.
Interestingly, at least some parts of those two films are now openly available in YouTube. The 1903 Delhi Durbar was shot by Robert W Paul Company but apparently there are other versions too. Bhatavdekar reportedly shot the event himself but his version is unlikely to be found now. In comparison, the 1911 event was a much more elaborate affair and was shot with Kinemacolor technology by Charles Urban, thus making it the earliest colour footage shot in the subcontinent. It became a part of the larger film called “With Our King and Queen Through India”, which charted the entire Indian tour of the King. This film was also thought to have been lost but some parts were recovered many years later and as of now we are left with around ten minutes of footage out of 150 minutes that were originally shot.
What do these films mean for the present generation?
All these coronations were a show of colonial might. The amount spent in these events can be considered obscene, considering the famines the land was going through at that point. They were probably used as mega spectacles to distract people’s attention. However, these coronations marked the high point of the British Raj which gradually declined as the World Wars approached along with new age political activism in India.
Now, when we view them after more than a century, they look like harmless parades replete with immaculately dressed infantry, rhythmically galloping cavalry, 21 gun salutes and of course the royal carriages pulled by as many as three pairs of horses. It is worth noting that many of these elements can still be seen during our republic day parades, which shows us the impact of British Raj that still persists in our psyche and in our processes.
The Coronation Park Now
The park itself has been recently renovated. The most noticeable feature here is a tall obelisk, which was installed in the King’s honour in 1911. It is surrounded by several intricately crafted marble statues. The tallest statue is that of King George V himself while Lord Hardinge and some other noblemen can also be found in other corners of the ground. Interestingly, none of these statues were initially located here. They were moved after independence from Lutyen’s Delhi to make space for local heroes. Puzzlingly, one part of the ground has now been converted into a children’s park.
The Coronation Park can now be easily reached from the GTB Nagar metro station by taking the road to Burari. It is not something that inspires awe with sheer size or artistry. But for those who are interested in colonial history, it should be an interesting visit if coupled with the surviving parts of the aforementioned films.
“Delhi Durbar”-1903-The Coronation of King Edward VII as Emperor of India-Robert W Paul-Documentary
The Delhi Durbar 1911: Footage from ‘The British Empire in Colour’ series
Enakshi Sharma is a traveller, storyteller and also an anchor who can be reached at http://enakshisharma.com