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Bristol Museum: Remembering the British Empire in India

27/04/2014 01:46 BST | Updated 26/06/2014 10:59 BST

As we enter the Bristol Museum, just opposite the reception desk, a grand painting, 289.8 x 366 cm in size, hangs on the wall. It is so precise in detail that at first, all I could admire was the generosity of Mughal architecture at Delhi's Jama Masjid (or Friday Mosque). I have seen the Jama Masjid in photographs and in Indian films; its architecture resembles many other buildings that the Mughal emperors built in India. One of the final legacies of the Mughal Empire in India was that they achieved the integration between people of Hindu and Islamic faiths. Their legacy is alive centuries later in the Indian society, and more prominently in Indian cinema, where no one is Muslim, no one is Hindu, and no one is Christian; they are simply actors adored by the nation's young and old alike.

Having said that, empires are controversial, and they are never created to empower the occupied territories. In that respect, the Mughal legacy in India could be best seen in the advancement of the arts, architecture, culture and food. Additionally, the Mughals also accepted the millennia old Indian cultural values. However, a Mughal building in this painting at Bristol Museum is just a backdrop and not the entire story. The painting is called 'The State Entry into Delhi'. It was commissioned around 1907 by Lord Roberts, a former Viceroy of India, and was painted by Roderick MacKenzie to capture the occasion that marked "the declaration of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as Emperor and Empress of India" (Source: Bristol Museum, explanatory notes accompanying the painting). Further on, the explanatory notes read, "How should we remember the British Empire in India?"

As I looked at this painting in detail, now understanding that it was commissioned to 'celebrate' Edward and Alexandra's rein, I could not help but question: Who chose them as the Emperor and Empress of India? It was certainly not the wilful and informed mandate of Indians, the people of a country, which in present-day international conventions would have been an occupied and invaded territory. This painting is a classic example of propaganda art: It legitimises an empire and its power over another country.

Exhibiting this painting in the present-day goes against the art for a culture of peace, and glorifies a 'culture of occupation'. For this reason alone, I would urge the Bristol Museum to decommission this painting. The British Empire was culturally, morally and economically deteriorative to India than being a 'force for good', something that formed the belief of the empire and of some of its artists during the time, e.g. poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).

An alternative to decommissioning this painting could be an unbiased present-day interpretation accompanying it, explaining that India was a nation occupied against the wilful mandate of its people, and the damage this caused. In curating the explanatory notes for this painting, the museum might like to gather inspiration from Ulster Museum, which exhibits an honest record of how the Irish people were discriminated and suppressed during the Ulster Plantations of the seventeenth century.