I’m about to make a statement that’s based on my personal observations of India. It may actually be a wildly inaccurate generalisation. And I apologise to any Indian who thinks otherwise. But it surprises me how relaxed Indians seem to be about the period of their history when they were incorporated into the British Empire and treated as imperial subjects of the British Crown.
As evidence for this statement, I’ll cite the day I visited the Queen Victoria Memorial Museum, which stands in an area of parkland at Maidan in central Kolkata. This is a huge white building with a central chamber dedicated to the memory of the longest-serving monarch in British history. (For the time being, at least. If the current Queen Elizabeth can hang in there till September 9th this year, she’ll break old Victoria’s record of 63 years and seven months – or to be more precise, 23,226 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes. Yes, it’s amazing what facts you can find in the Daily Telegraph.)
As you go into this chamber, you pass a foundation stone with an inscription saying that the building was “erected in memory of Victoria, first Queen Empress of India 1837-1901, by the contribution of the princes and peoples of India” and the stone was “lain by her grandson HRH George Prince of Wales on January 4th, 1906.”
The day of my visit, the museum was thronged – and thronged almost entirely by Indians, who seemed to be absorbing everything in a spirit of calm historical curiosity. I come from Ireland and I can safely say that if this building – commemorating the regal emblem of British imperialism during its most powerful and global era – stood in, say, Dublin, it wouldn’t be as popular with the local public. In fact, the IRA would probably have blown it up 50 years ago.
Anyway, what’s on offer at Kolkata’s Queen Vic?
In the centre of the main chamber stands a statue of Victoria bearing an orb and sceptre. Display-tables, cases and cabinets holding a variety of bric-a-brac are arranged around the statue, their contents including antique swords, a hefty model of an East India Company merchant ship called The Alumgeer and a model of the museum-building itself. Also parked here, for some reason, is a grand piano.
Halfway up the sides of the chamber is a circular gallery; and above that, occupying the space between the gallery and the base of a cupola at the chamber’s top, are a dozen alfresco paintings. The paintings show important scenes in Victoria’s life, including her coronation in 1838, her marriage in 1840, her Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897 and, following her death in 1901, her body lying in state. Meanwhile, alcoves in the wall around the gallery house busts of important (British) personages of the time, including one of Victoria’s son and successor Edward VII. The famously fun-loving king’s eyes seem a little too fixed on the middle-distance, as if he’s determinedly trying to conceal the fact that he’s just quaffed a few brandies. Meanwhile, at the summit of the cupola, a round hole opens into a small belfry-shaped dome, where pigeons flap around oblivious to the crowds below.
An entrance lobby before the main chamber contains a statue of the building’s foundation-stone layer, George Prince of Wales, in his future monarchical incarnation as King George V. There’s also a statue of his wife, Queen Mary; and the two statues face one another mutely, as if both are in the bitter, smouldering aftermath of a fierce matrimonial row. Off to the left of this lobby is a gallery. At the time of my visit it was hosting an exhibition by Abanindranath Tagore, founder of the Bengal School of Art and a nephew of the famous Nobel Prize-winning polymath (poet, novelist, dramatist, composer, song-writer, painter and political activist) Rabindranath Tagore. One of the younger Tagore’s most famous paintings is Bharat Mata, which personifies India as a saffron-wearing mother goddess. And I suppose that, by rights, it should be her who occupies the plinth in the next room, not Queen Victoria.
On the far side of the main chamber is another lobby, which has more statues – including one of Major-General Robert Clive, looking a bit pompous – and three antique field guns. Two of those guns are French ones that Clive captured at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The third gun is a brass Bengali one, with an ornately patterned barrel and a curious, pointy-nosed, fox-eared face moulded onto the barrel’s end.
Two more galleries are located at either end of this second lobby. The one to the left was, at the time, hosting an exhibition called The Artist’s Eye of India 1770-1835, which was a collection of paintings of early colonial-era buildings, townscapes and landscapes by Western artists. I liked Thomas Daniell’s Dead Tiger in a Forested Landscape, but overall I found the exhibition rather dull. To the right of the lobby is the Kolkata Gallery, which displays copious paintings, photos, sketches, maps, weavings, woodcuts and artefacts relating to the local city and which I found much more interesting.
There are some charming grounds around the building, although – appropriately – they’re subject to a horde of rules and regulations that show a Victorian-mentality strictness and stuffiness: No food, no smoking, no exercise, no plastic bags and use the bins. The building was undergoing extensive maintenance when I visited, so that both its wings were encased in a dense mesh of scaffolding; but nonetheless, in the hazy early-evening light, it looked very appealing as it stood overlooking an artificial lake that’d been installed in front of it – with its reflection shimmering in the lake-water and with the retreating sun making a golden splash beside it. A little way behind the building, you’ll encounter Edward VII again, this time on the back of a horse perched atop a stone archway; while some majestic stone lions lounge on pedestals beside the grounds’ entrance.
Finally, in the middle of a lawn just outside the building’s back doors, surrounded by pink and purple flowers, is a statue of Lord George Curzon of Kedleston, who was Viceroy of India when the building was constructed and who also served as British Foreign Secretary under David Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin. Curzon hardly distinguished himself during his time in India. He was much criticised for the Indian Famine of 1899-1900 and for an attempt to partition Bengal in 1905. And yet a century after Curzon’s failures, I saw countless Indian sightseers happily pose for photographs with his statue in the background. No doubt this had less to do with any historical awareness of the Viceroy and his record, and had more to do with the fact that you aren’t allowed to use cameras inside the building and this is the handiest spot to take a picture as soon as you come out of it.
And that seems to sum up local attitudes to the Queen Victoria Memorial Museum. Don’t vex yourself by thinking too much about the historical realities underlying the building. Just relax and enjoy the majesty of its architecture and the pleasantness of its backdrop.