the-south-asian.com August 2004
Culture & History
A BRUSH WITH THE POLICE
A. N. Majumdar
There is little historical evidence of the system of policing in Delhi. In contemporary times too, there is almost nothing that can be considered as part of Delhi's police history. Pitamber Singh's paintings, apart from their aesthetic value, fill this void to an extent by chronicling the history of the Delhi Police.
When Pitamber Singh joined Delhi Police in 1969 as a constable, few would have imagined that he would one day grow to be one of the most respected chroniclers of police history. But as his recent exhibition in Delhi revealed, that is exactly what he has become, using the canvas to relate vividly the history of the force.
Titled Delhi Police - A Visual History, Pitamber Singh relies not merely on his experience but meticulous research too, as he goes back to Mughal times, providing a glimpse of the police at the time. Elsewhere, he describes the kind of arms and weapons that were used by the custodians of the law. Coming down to post-Independence India, he depicts the changing face of the police, the ever-changing demands on the force and how it attuned itself to new situations.
Singh generally uses oil on canvas – he is fascinated by headgear be it the traditional pugree or the modern helmet or cap. His research reveals that the choice of headgear was a compromise between convenience and symbol of authority. Of course, this has much to do with the fact that Singh was one of the few in the force who knew the art of tying the pugree which has now been replaced by the helmet. Singh tells the story of police headgear.
"I remember when I was young, police officers in British India wore the saafa. As for those in the ranks, they used a pugree and this formed part of a policeman's attire till the late 60s. There were two kinds of pugrees, one for those posted at police stations and the other for the traffic policemen. Those in police stations had a combination of khaki and red in their headgear while those with the traffic police wore blue and red."
However, the pugree, despite being more aesthetic was not quite so popular. Police officers learnt that the men were not too comfortable with it either. It was cumbersome, and not many could tie it and if they could it was very time consuming.
It was time for a change. M.L. Bhanot, who was superintendent of police in charge of traffic in Delhi in the 1970s, introduced the helmet. It was small and made everyone happy. But it had a major shortcoming. There were no holes and thus no ventilation. Recalls Singh, "The helmets became very uncomfortable especially during summer. We found them almost impossible to wear."
This led on to another change, this time a helmet with ventilation. K.K. Paul, who succeeded Bhanot as traffic incharge of Delhi, ordered a new helmet, this time that had holes. These were designed in England and the samples brought to Delhi. Based on the English design, the blue-and-white helmets were made in India and supplied to traffic cops. Those in police stations, though, wore khaki caps with the police crown stitched on.
Singh's canvases depict not merely the changing face of the police in Delhi, but the various methods adopted for crime control. They also focus on the major events in modern India having a bearing on policing: the influx of refugees following partition for instance, terrorist attacks and more.
However, as Singh found out, each system of policing was geared to meet the requirements of the time. During his research at the National Museum in Calcutta, he found that the Mughal Police usually carried swords while the door-keepers had staffs. The attire, complete with turban and an embroidered thick vest, was considered sufficient to convey authority. Usually, cops supported beards mainly to instill fear.
India developed its own ways of controlling crime. It was meant to meet the demands of the time - as the rulers perceived them. They could be restricted to mere advice, sometimes parents were punished for the doings of their juvenile kids. At the other extreme were torture, mutilation and death.
Both Muslim and Hindu rulers showed extreme cruelty and also great reasonableness when they thought fit. Inevitably, there have been landmarks in the development of the Indian justice system with reference to crime control - Manu's Dandaniti, Kautilya's Arthashastra, Akbar's system of justice, and later, the British enactment of the Indian Penal Code.
Modern Policing System
In Delhi specifically, the earliest evidence of a modern system of policing can be found in the 13th century during Balban’s rule. He introduced the Kotwali and Malikul. Umara Faqruddin became the first kotwal in 1237 A.D.
In the Sultanate period, Amir Daud was in charge of police administration and was known as the muhtasib and he employed the services of spies. Duties of police included patrolling thoroughfares and guarding important places. The kotwal became the magistrate during the period.
The policing system became more systematized, first during Mughal rule and later when the British came to India. Much of the present police system was introduced when the national capital shifted from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911.
When India became independent, the police force had to adopt a welfare role, handling the refugee influx. Later, when the police found that crime grew out of poverty, it addressed the issue of rehabilitation.
There were other changes, also essential, which Singh captures in a collage that shows not merely the changing face of the police through the ages but how new methods of crime control were adopted by the custodians of law in Delhi.
Singh, while pointing to his painting on VIP security, adds "In the earlier days, whenever a VIP passed by, the police were required to face the convoy. But things changed after terrorism became a way of life and VIPs became the targets. They now face the crowds to preempt any attack on the VIPs." This apart, the police are now using increasingly sophisticated weapons.
Singh's exhibition was also important because of its sequencing. In 1948, the increase in crime figures is registered in the FIR lodging scene. He also captures on canvas night-patrolling in Delhi, showing how the police conducted their patrols on bicycles - a predecessor of jeeps with modern wireless systems now used. There is also a painting depicting the dog squad and the introduction of the missing persons unit.
About his style Singh says, "I have been greatly influenced by the Rajasthan School. Usually, my paintings are oil on canvas. But I have used water and vegetable colours too. The problems that one faces in such drawings, like creating the history of the police, are of proportion. I have tried my best to overcome this."
Despite being a policeman, Singh's passion for the arts has taken him to Shilp Bharati where he took his in-service diploma in art. Soon he became an in-house artist of Delhi Police when Nikhil Kumar--who later became the commissioner of Delhi - was Delhi’s superintendent of police, traffic.
The police have been able to make good use of Singh's talents - he can sketch criminals merely from verbal descriptions. This helped the police immensely before the computers came in. Many senior police officials say Singh's sketches are often more reliable than computer-created images of criminals.
But Singh's real contribution is in creating a visual history of the Delhi Police. Says Gautam Chatterjee, who has worked on police history and the heritage of policing in India, "Apart from the few written records or iconographical references to the dwarpaal there is little evidence of the system of policing in Delhi. In contemporary times too, there is almost nothing that can be considered as part of Delhi's police history. Pitamber Singh's paintings, apart from their aesthetic value, fill this void to an extent. I would say they are immensely valuable and should be treasured for posterity."
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