A forever corner of India on a British island

On the Isle of Wight is a story of India's reverse influence on the coloniser

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Fri 15 Jul 2022, 11:44 PM

Samuel Johnson, the iconic 18th century writer, famously wrote that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”. Such is the allure of the capital for residents and others that most visitors from the Indian sub-continent rarely, if ever, venture beyond. There is much to see, experience and enjoy in London, particularly for those with some interest in history. Walk to any corner of London and you find a reminder of the past: statues, memorials, museums, buildings, gardens — many linked in some ways to British India. There is usually a tinge of regret among visitors that priceless items from back home are in Britain, but there is also much appreciation of the ways in which the British preserve history.

But rare memorabilia are not only based in London; they are strewn across Britain, reflecting the close engagement of people and places from across the country with the British Empire. In Powis Castle in north Wales, nearly 300 km from London, is the largest collection of officially acknowledged ‘loot’ from India, comprising priceless items brought by Robert Clive (1725-74) and his son, Edward Clive (1754-1839). There are similar reminders of the past elsewhere, but few visitors travel beyond London, to places such as the Isle of Wight, a small, sylvan island off the southern coast of England. A short ferry ride from Lymington, Southampton or Portsmouth transports you to a less known layer of the long Indo-British encounter: to Osborne House, a sprawling royal residence closely associated with Queen Victoria (1819-1901), who was proclaimed the ‘Empress of India’ in 1877, but never visited the colony. She is associated with Britain’s great age of industrial expansion, economic progress and, especially, empire; at her death, it was said, Britain had a worldwide empire on which the sun never set.

It was during Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901 that the East India Company expanded ruthlessly across the sub-continent and the Crown took over the colony’s governance after the 1857 Uprising. She used Osborne House for more than 50 years, finding solace there after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. She entertained visiting kings and queens and ministers at the house as well as her extensive family, referring to it in her diaries as ‘a little paradise’ (she was a natural diarist and kept a regular journal throughout her life). Historians consider the house to be of outstanding significance due to its close association with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and for the survival of the house and its original contents largely intact, including the bedroom where she died. The house also communicates the Queen’s symbolic role as monarch and head of the empire, through the arrangements for the royal household and the functions of government seen in the Audience and Council Rooms.

“We have saved the best for the last”, a pleasant lady at the reception told us last week, explaining the map of Osborne House and its wide, lush environs by the private beach. Visitors enter through one door and go through the many rooms and floors with items and images just as they were during Queen Victoria’s time. As promised, the last section was clearly the best: the unique, all-white Durbar Room, richly decorated in the architectural styles of northern India, described as “the extraordinary Durbar Room, a tribute to the Queen’s love of India”. Completed in 1892, the room was the most significant addition to Osborne House in the years after Prince Albert’s death.

In the centre is a long dining table, set just as it was during Queen Victoria’s time. Externally, the room was given the same Italianate style as the rest of the house, but internally it was designed by Lockwood Kipling (father of the author Rudyard Kipling and director of the Mayo School of Art, Lahore). His elaborate India-inspired design was intended to reflect Queen Victoria’s status as the ‘Empress of India’; the white plasterwork was executed by the plasterer from India, Bhai Ram Singh. There is much intricate detailing and mythological symbolism, which includes a motif of the elephant god, Ganesh, above the door. “The Queen chose to decorate it in a rich Indian style as she was fascinated by the culture and wanted to bring something of India to her home”, says a descriptor.

Along the four walls are caskets with items from various parts of British India. Unlike the ‘loot’ from India in Powis Castle, items in the Durbar Room were sent to Queen Victoria and her family as gifts by Indian kings, princes and others. They include finely decorated weapons, embroidered pouches that once contained ‘loyal addresses’ by her Indian subjects, soapstone carving, embroidered mats, slippers decorated with emeralds, intricately designed brass plates, scabbards with calligraphy, bronze statues of Hindu gods, miniature paintings, inlay work and sandalwood carving and scent. There is also an exquisite model of the Ramnagar Palace in Benares, presented by the Maharaja of Benares in 1875, covered entirely in ivory; and a finely decorated model of a palace produced at the School of Industrial Art in Jaipur.

But the real story is not that of the Durbar Room, the gifts from India, or the lush gardens in Osborne House, but Queen Victoria’s relationship with one of her Indian servants, Abdul Karim (1863-1909), who arrived from Agra as a ‘gift from India’ in 1887, taught her Urdu/Hindustani, prepared curry, and quickly rose in her estimation (‘a perfect gentleman’) to become her ‘munshi’, and eventually her official India secretary in 1888. The Queen wrote in one of her diaries: “My 2 Indian servants were there, & began to wait. The one, Mohamed Buxsh, very dark, with a very smiling expression, has been a servant before with Gen: Dennehy, & also with the Rana of Dholpore, & the other, much younger, called Abdul Karim, is much lighter, tall, & with a fine serious countenance. His father is a native doctor at Agra”. In another diary entry, she wrote: “Am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants. It is a great interest to me, for both the language and the people”.

The corridor that leads to the Durbar Room has many paintings of Indian figures commissioned by the Queen. One of them is of ‘Munshi Abdul Karim’. The portrait by Austrian historian and painter Heinrich von Angeli in 1890 shows Karim with his head and shoulders to the front, wearing a turban. Queen Victoria wrote to the Empress Frederick that von Angeli was going to paint Karim: “He has never painted an Oriental before & was so struck with his handsome face and colouring that he is going to paint him on a gold ground! I daresay it will be very fine”. But the Queen was at first not happy, because she considered von Angeli had painted his complexion too dark.

The friendship between the Queen and Karim scandalised the royal household, some senior aides conspired against Karim. But the Queen did not tolerate the resentment, attributing it to racism. She instead heaped more gifts and titles on Karim, including houses and land in Britain and India because she knew the court would not pay him the same respect after her death. She was keen to make sure that her friend would be comfortable and remembered. As the Queen feared, when she passed away in January 1901, her children worked swiftly to evict him. Edward VII sent guards into the cottage Karim shared with his wife, seizing all letters from the Queen and burning them on the spot. Karim was instructed to return to India immediately, without fanfare or farewell.

The Queen’s heirs could not completely erase Karim from public record, but they edited and obscured his narrative in history. Karim died in Agra in 1909 with his correspondence destroyed and no children to preserve his memories. But his personal diary had survived the bonfire. It secretly stayed in the family of Abdul Rashid, his nephew, for several generations, until London-based writer Shrabani Basu extensively researched Karim’s story by accessing royal papers, other documents in Britain, and managed to find his descendants in India and Pakistan. Her book, Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, resurrected Karim and his relationship with the monarch in ways not known before. Karim’s descendants shared his diary with Basu in 2010, over a century after the queen’s death. The diary gave new details on the unexpected, intense friendship that crossed class and racial lines which, as noted by historians, began over a delicious plate of chicken curry. Basu’s book was adapted into the 2017 film, Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, shot partly in original settings in Osborne House.

Says Roy Porter, Senior Properties Curator at English Heritage, a charity which manages Osborne House: “The Durbar Room is the most sumptuous space at Osborne, one which astounds visitors with the intricacy and richness of its decoration. From its dado to its ceiling, moulded and carved Mogul motifs enrich and enliven every surface, providing a vision of Indian splendour on the Isle of Wight. This stunning confection, which Queen Victoria reckoned ‘quite lovely, & quite unique in Europe’, was the result of collaboration between Lockwood Kipling and Bhai Ram Singh, with the latter responsible for designing all the details, down to the door handles and lamp stands. As a formal dining room, the Durbar Room was intended to impress, and its appearance manifested Queen Victoria’s imperial status as ‘Empress of India’. But it also reflected a long-held interest of the queen, who expressed a desire to visit India and was fascinated by its people and culture. Portraits of the queen’s Indian subjects were hung in the corridor leading to the Durbar Room, where they can still be seen. These included some of her Indian servants, who became a feature of court life in the later years of her reign, dressed in specially designed livery and housed in their own barracks while at Osborne. So, as with Osborne generally, the Durbar Room allows visitors to observe formal and ceremonial aspects of the queen’s life while also encountering the personal”.

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