Posted on: 21 September 2015

The vivid paintings that record a Briton's love of Delhi
By William Dalrymple
BBC News - 19 September 2015

A book of illustrations painted in the 1840s captures the Indian capital, Delhi, in all its glory shortly before the 19th Century's biggest anti-colonial revolt - and the British bombardment, looting and sacking that followed. It was to be a poignant epitaph to two millennia of Indian painting, writes the historian William Dalrymple.

Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal emperor, and one of the most talented, tolerant and likeable of his remarkable dynasty. Born in 1775, when the British were still a coastal power clinging to the Indian shore, he lived long enough to see his dynasty reduced to humiliating insignificance, and the British transform themselves from simple traders into the most powerful military and economic force India had ever seen.

Zafar came late to the throne, succeeding his father only in 1838 when he was in his mid-60s, and when it was already too late to reverse the inexorable political decline of the Mughals. But despite this he succeeded in creating around him a court culture of unparalleled brilliance, and partly through his patronage there took place in Delhi a last great literary renaissance.

While Zafar was himself a mystic, poet and calligrapher of great charm and accomplishment, his greatest achievement was perhaps to nourish the talents both of Urdu's supreme love poet, Ghalib, and his great rival Zauq. While the British progressively took over more and more of the emperor's power, removing his head from the coins, seizing complete control even of the city of Delhi itself, and finally laying plans to remove the Mughals altogether from the Red Fort, the court busied itself in obsessive pursuit of the most cleverly turned love lyric, the most moving ghazal, the most perfect Urdu couplet. As military and economic realities of British ambitions closed in, the court was lost in a last idyll of pleasure gardens, miniature painting and poetic symposia.

It is more than ironic, therefore, that the most complete and remarkable pictorial record that exists of the last days of Mughal Delhi, known as The Delhi Book, comes from the patronage not of Zafar, nor of the Mughal Court itself, but from Zafar's would-be nemesis, the notably unimaginative British resident (or ambassador), Sir Thomas Metcalfe.

Read more:

A panorama by Mazhar Ali Khan in 12 folds showing the procession of the Emperor Bahadur Shah to celebrate the feast of the 'Id. f. 59v-E - 1843

[From 'Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi’, an album consisting of 89 folios containing approximately 130 paintings of views of the Mughal and pre-Mughal monuments of Delhi, as well as other contemporary material, with an accompanying manuscript text written by Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe (1795-1853), the Governor-General’s Agent at the imperial court. Acquired with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund and of the National Art-Collections Fund.]

[The Resident, staff and Commandant of the Escort in howdahs, with further elephants and horses.

This part of the procession is similar to 'The British Resident riding in procession of Akbar II', c.1820 (Add.Or.888), which shows the Resident Charles Metcalfe. In this view, Charles has been replaced by Thomas Metcalfe, who was not the Resident but agent to the Governor General at Delhi, even though the inscription still says Resident. Behind Metcalfe, the Nawab of Ferozpur and the other British officers in both views appear to be the same.]
Inscribed: The Resident, Assistant & Commandant of Escort.

© The British Library Board

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The Resident, Assistant & Commandant of Escort

Bahadur Shah Zafar, last of the Mughal Emperors (see “Destruction of Delhi’) in Eid procession, 1843