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Fitting in to the Durbar Hall

Praveen Siddharth | Updated on September 18, 2020 Published on September 18, 2020

Poignant moments: President Ramnath Kovind conferring the Padma Shri on 107-year-old Saalumarada Thimmakka in 2019 at the Durbar Hall   -  RASHTRAPATI BHAVAN ARCHIVES

The grandest room of the Rashtrapati Bhavan was designed only for royal gatherings, but ended up opening its doors to spectators

* Befitting the importance of the Durbar Hall, one would suppose that it is also large in size. Surprisingly, though, the Durbar hall is small — so small that the investitures and swearing-in ceremonies become rather cramped affairs.

* However, in India, guests are an essential part of ceremonies. The common man expected, nay demanded, to be a part of every national event.

Set in a 320-acre estate and boasting over 340 rooms, the Rashtrapati Bhavan is one of the world’s largest presidential palaces. And one of its grandest rooms is the Durbar Hall. The main hall set under the massive central dome has been the venue for historic occasions such as the swearing-in ceremony of independent India’s first government in 1947, when Jawaharlal Nehru took oath as the country’s first prime minister.

In 1950, the same hall saw Rajendra Prasad sworn in as India’s first president. It is the place where the body of President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed lay in state when he passed away in February 1977. This is where the government hosts heads of State from around the world and where national awards, including the Bharat Ratna, are conferred on honorees by the president. The hall has seen its share of poignant moments too. Last year, President Ramnath Kovind received blessings from 107-year-old Saalumarada Thimmakka, known as ‘Vriksha Mathe’, when he presented her with the Padma Shri for planting thousands of trees in Karnataka.

Making history: From the swearing-in ceremony of India’s first president, Rajendra Prasad the Durbar Hall has witnessed history unfurl in modern India   -  RASHTRAPATI BHAVAN ARCHIVES

 

The circular hall, with 42-ft-high marble-cased walls, is often described as spectacular. “The impact of the Durbar Hall, however approached, is immediate, overwhelming and utterly silencing,” Christopher Hussey, an authority on British architecture, noted in 1953, in his book The life of Sir Edwin Lutyens.

The hall is encircled by columns of yellow Jaisalmer marble, with white caps and bases. Light streams into the hall through 12 marble jalis in the attic. The floor is a blend of white marble from Makrana and Alwar and a deep chocolate colour marble imported from Italy. All of it gleams under the two-tonne Belgian glass chandelier that hangs at the centre.

Befitting the importance of the Durbar Hall, one would suppose that it is also large in size. Surprisingly, though, the Durbar hall is small — so small that the investitures and swearing-in ceremonies become rather cramped affairs. In fact, in the 1970s, the use of the Durbar Hall for swearing-in ceremonies was briefly discontinued and the more spacious Ashok Hall was used for it.

I was curious about the smallness of the Durbar Hall and decided to pore into old records in search of explanations. Interestingly, the smallness of the hall had been felt even 90 years ago, when it hosted its first event. After an investiture function held in February 1930, Viceroy Lord Irwin had a message sent to Edwin Lutyens, the architect of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and much of colonial New Delhi. It read: ‘Durbar hall is much too small for its purpose… we were all very squashed together in it’.

This observation set off a lengthy correspondence between the viceroy and Lutyens, who defended the hall size in a letter he wrote from London on March 27, 1930. It read: “…arrangements on such occasions should be very much on the same principle as in the Buckingham Palace… the Viceroy and his staff only should occupy the Durbar hall and the people to be invested should be assembled in the degagements north and south of the Durbar hall”.

In a letter dated March 30, 1930, Lutyens further explained how the ceremonies should be conducted, with a sketch showing the movement in and out of the hall by the persons to be invested. In essence, the Durbar Hall was never intended to accommodate spectators.

Lutyens observed critically that the hall was not built to accommodate all manner of “riff-raff and scum”. In his scheme of things, the name ‘Durbar Hall’ would itself be a misnomer. In the original drawings of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the hall was more revealingly referred to as the ‘Throne Room’.

On reflection, I realised an important ideological difference. Swearing-in ceremonies or investitures for the British were solemn occasions with the centre stage taken by the Queen or the viceroy. However, in India, guests are an essential part of ceremonies. Furthermore, our budding national spirit meant that the common man expected, nay demanded, to be a part of every national event.

Indeed, when Nehru was sworn in at the Durbar Hall, crowds thronged outside the vast forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan, trying to get inside the complex. More recently, the swearing-in ceremonies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his council of ministers, both in 2014 and 2019, were held in the jam-packed forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan rather than the Durbar Hall. This, despite outside temperatures soaring at 40 degrees Celsius.

Today, ceremonies are still held in the Durbar Hall. But the character of these ceremonies has changed. Chairs are placed in the corridors around the hall so that more guests can be seated. Proceedings are beamed live on television to ensure that millions can be a part of the events. In the end, the smallness of the hall was overcome by the largeness of our hearts.

(Head quarters is an occasional column on the story of the Rashtrapati Bhavan)

Praveen Siddharth is Private secretary to the President of India at Rashtrapati Bhavan

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Published on September 18, 2020
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