Edward VII was, if you go by his official titles, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Defender of the Faith and Emperor of India. His reign was short, spanning just nine years from 1901 to 1910. Unfortunately perhaps for Edward, his mother, Queen Victoria, was a remarkably hale and hearty woman who sat on the throne of the empire for a full 63 years. Poor Edward was 60 years old when they crowned him.
However, the king’s regal soul may rejoice in the fact that the administrators of the Veermata Jijabai Udyan in Byculla, Mumbai, have given him pride of place among their assorted collection of statuary dotting the city’s museum, zoo and park complex. His illustrious mother must make do with a position inside a gated little lawn tucked away between the Udyan and the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum next door, among other less noble figures.
Lawn of fame: Statues at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai. Photograph: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
The lawn is lined with statues on one long side and little stone artefacts on the other; the third side is taken up by a colossal lamp post-fountain that once occupied the junction near Metro Cinema. The Fitzgerald fountain—erected in 1867 in memory of governor Sir Seymour Fitzgerald—however may get a second lease of life. Last year, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) said it was contemplating returning the fountain to its old home as part of a beautification drive.
“Moving the fountain is easier said than done. I think it’s pretty safe where it is right now. We’ve refurbished it and even restored the lights,” says Vikas Dilawari, a conservation architect who was instrumental in the refurbishment of the museum.
Some of the statues at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum were disfigured four decades ago. Photograph: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Dilawari explains how the statues congregated at the complex: “In the mid-1960s, on a wave of patriotic fervour, the statues were all removed from locations around town and, very logically, moved to the museum.”
Landmarks such as the Victoria Terminus and Flora Fountain were zealously stripped of figures till finally, in the late 1960s, the kala ghoda at Kala Ghoda, a 12ft bronze statue of a horse-borne King Edward VII, was moved to the Udyan.
This last act killed a delightful myth—locals once said that the statues of King Edward and the one of Shivaji at the Gateway of India came to life after midnight and battled it out on the streets.
Today, a brisk walk is all that is needed to take in decades of colonial celebrity. Tasneem Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director of the museum, points out that much of the damage to the statues happened during the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement (1950s): “Victoria no longer has a nose. But we’ve restored the statues and maintain them carefully now.”
Dilawari adds, “The damages perpertrated speak messages in themselves. Cornwallis lost his head while Dr Thomas Blaney kept his.” Blaney worked in the city for more than 50 years taking care of public health.
Queen Victoria sits, regally, next to the headed statue of Edwin Samuel Montague, once secretary of state for India, and two statues away from the headless Lord Wellesley, the sixth governor-general of India. Victoria’s head is intact—but has a thin line of cement at the throat where it was probably re-capitated by conservators.
Next to Wellesley is the headless statue of Lord Cornwallis. Severely damaged, Cornwallis also has to suffer the ignominy of a 4-inch long line in faint green permanent ink right across his crotch.
A little away, the kala ghoda stands splendidly just to the right as one enters the park. But there is no argument about the featured statue on the premises— further down the central avenue, Veermata Jijabai sits on a chair reaching out for, or maybe sending forth, a young Shivaji who looks valiant with sword in hand.
Perhaps there were more statues within the quasi-jungle that the park has become. But then the rain strengthened and everyone got up and left, leaving the lonely statues to themselves again. Maybe, just maybe, after midnight, they all come alive, sit around and chat about old times.
The Coronation Park is a misnomer—in the sense that it is not at all like Nehru Park or Children’s Park or any other park in Delhi. It is, in fact, the antithesis of a park, perhaps by design. It has been aptly described as a junkyard of Raj-era statues—of King George V and some other eminent British personages—which, exposed and neglected, are day-by-day being whittled down by the elements.
The park, in the city’s north, stands at the site of the three grand imperial durbars held in Delhi during the halcyon days when the sun never set on the empire—in 1877 and 1903, and then in 1911 when George V’s coronation as the emperor of India was commemorated here. The occasion was historic for two reasons: One, a British monarch was visiting India for the first time and second, he announced the shifting of the imperial capital from Kolkata to Delhi.
Exiled: (left) George V and others at Coronation Park, Delhi;(right) the bust of Sir Guy Fleetwood Wilson at Coronation Park. Photographs by Ramesh Pathania / Mint
This spot was meant to be the centre of the new capital—the emperor laid the foundation stone for the viceroy’s residence here— but then it was deemed unsuitable and the site shifted to Raisina Hill, where the Rashtrapati Bhavan now stands.
Today, the Coronation Park stands forgotten. Once past the main gate of the vast, flat and empty compound, you are greeted by the improbable sight of an obelisk, atop a stepped platform, etched against the blue morning sky. On either side of the driveway leading up to it, amid the wild grass and vegetation, are big sandstone plinths which, instead of supporting statues, are crowned by shrubs of Ficus religiosa—peepul.
Emaciated pye-dogs loll about, giving company to the chowkidar, who is sprawled on a charpoy. It is clear from even 30ft away that he does not want his siesta disturbed.
Four bolt holes at the base of the obelisk mark the corners of a discoloured rectangle where there was a metal plaque stating, in all likelihood, that King George V and Queen Mary were here on 12 December 1911. On the opposite side, the plaque with Urdu engraving remains intact.
There are five statues and two busts in an enclosure to the left of the obelisk. There are also a number of empty sandstone plinths. The wilderness all around must have been a garden once, but now it would be foolish to step off the cement path and venture into the tall grass.
George V’s marble statue— once installed under the canopy behind India Gate—stands on a tall marble plinth, his cape cascading all the way down to its base. The marble plinth, in turn, rests atop a sandstone plinth, with the result that the monarch towers 60ft above the ground, staring straight ahead, and a tad mournfully, at the obelisk that commemorates his coronation here nearly a century ago.
Behind the emperor, four nameless statues stand along the semicircular path—all in greater states of neglect. Their full regalia—medals and stars, sashes and rapiers, kid gloves in hands— throws into bolder relief the dirt-flecked cobwebs on their torsos, the honeycomb of an abandoned beehive hanging from the fold of a cape and the layer of dust and grime on them. In comparison, the two marble busts with names engraved on them—Sir Guy Fleetwood Wilson and Sir John Jenkins—are compact, better preserved and have an air of dignity about them.
This is a fitting monument alright—to the ghostly, fading remnants of the British Raj and the dispensation that has replaced it. As I tiptoe out past the garden’s sleeping guardian, a beat-up Maruti cuts random arcs around the obelisk—someone is learning to drive, putting the large ground to some good use.