Nawab Wajid Ali Shah The Legacy Lives On…

Anindita Mazumder

When filmmaker Satyajit Ray was shooting his period film ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’, set against the backdrop of the British annexation of Awadh (Oudh), he asked the great grandson of the deposed Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, “Why did the Nawab choose to settle in Bengal after losing his kingdom?”

Shahabzade Wasif Mirza, a direct descendent of the last king of Awadh was stumped for a moment but then thought over and replied: “The Nawab had realised that if he was to live a life of dignity and respect it would be in Bengal and nowhere else.”

Wajid Ali Shah (1822-1887), the tenth and last Nawab of Awadh, was deposed by the British in 1856 on the pretext of maladministration following Lord Dalhousie’s policy of annexation of princely states, one after another. He was a poet, a connoisseur of art and culture, a devout Muslim and secular to his core. The British chose to portray him as a decadent man, occupied by unbridled pursuits of pleasure and self gratification in order to justify their charges of misrule. As Mirza, son of Ghazamfar Mirza, the Nawab’s grandson by one of his 14 sons, puts it, “He was a man much ahead of his times.”

After losing his kingdom, the Nawab first went to Kanpur and then progressed to Calcutta in a steamer accompanied by his close relatives and large entourage comprising musicians, nautch girls, cooks and animals from his menagerie and came ashore at Bichali Ghat near Metiaburj. He had made up his mind to go and plead his case to Queen Victoria because of his firm belief in the British sense of justice. However, his physicians did not think his health would permit such a long voyage and it was his mother, brother and heir apparent who left for England. Meanwhile, he settled at the house of the Maharaja of Burdwan for a rent of 500 rupees. However, a year later when the Sepoy Mutiny spread to Lucknow and the sepoys installed one of his sons to the throne of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah was imprisoned in Fort William by the British along with his Prime Minister, due to apprehensions that he would become a rallying figure for the sepoys. HEA Cotton wrote that on Panic Sunday (June 14, 1857), there was wide spread apprehension among the White inhabitants of Calcutta because he had “one, two, three thousand” (no one knew) armed men under him. The Sepoy Mutiny dashed all his hopes of returning to Lucknow.

However heartbroken he was after leaving Lucknow (remember, that beautiful and poignant thumri composed by him: “Jab chhorr chale Lucknow nagari/Kaho hal adam par kya guzre”?), as a true poet he had carried his dear city in his heart and proceeded to carve out a miniature of Lucknow in Metiaburj. As the oldest and best known suburb, it was much popular among the fashionable Calcutta Society before the Nawab and his large retinue settled “in the beautiful house and grounds formerly occupied by Sir Lawrence Peel, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court”. Much of the adjoining property was also bought by the former king and as a consequence the suburb became less popular as a residential area for Europeans.

The Nawab received a pension of 12 lakhs rupees per annum from the British and as his descendant, Mirza, the President of Awadh Royal Family Association still gets a pension from the Union government though it has dwindled to a meagre sum. In Metiaburj, the Nawab built beautiful palaces – similar to those in Lucknow- Shah Manzil, Mirza Manzil and Rahas Manzil which were subsequently demolished after his death. Only the Sibtainabad Imambara, Shahi Masjid and the present South Eastern Railway office stand as a mute witness of his aesthetic sense. He was interred in the Imambara.

Sitting at his residence, Wasif Manzil at Talbagan Lane in Park Circus and surrounded by his son Shahanshah, daughter-in-law Fatima and two grand-daughters, Shahabzade Wasif Mirza reminisced his several meetings with Ray over his legendary ancestor. He pointed out to a painting of the Nawab, dressed in an angrakha leaving his left bosom exposed. “The Nawab deliberately kept it exposed because he believed as a poet he should keep his heart open to emotions and sensibilities,” he explained. There is another rare etching, showing the Nawab at a mature age with grey hairs but without the Taj on his head though it is inscribed with the words “King of Awadh”.

There are not many family heirlooms that have survived the onslaught of time. A treasured possession is a gold plated ceramic bowl which it is said, would crack the moment any poisonous substance is poured in it. Others include the family silver, antique jewellery pieces handed down for generations and some delicate crockery- gifts sent from the British after the family refused to attend the Delhi Durbar in protest. Shahanshah Mirza, son of Shahabzade, spoke about the numerous dislocation suffered by the family, first during the Partition when several branches chose to move to East Pakistan and subsequently to West Pakistan after Bangladesh was carved out and then again in 1964 during the riot at Calcutta following the Hazrat Bal incident. “The family lost important documents and a lot of artifacts during these dislocations,” he confided. When one comes to think about it, it is undeniably tragic that family had been hounded out at regular intervals ever since the Nawab was forced to leave his beloved Lucknow, way back in 1856.

And it is indeed in the context of warring communities in contemporary times that Wajid Ali Shah’s legacy seems to assume significance. “Do you know that after a terrible riot over the Babari Masjid the Nawab had said that the Hindus and Muslims were like his two eyes, both were precious? Mind you, he could have said that they were like his two hands but as we all know for a right handed man, his strength lies in his right hand,”  said Shahanshah. As a devout Muslim Wajid Ali Shah would observe Muharram, singing Marsiya (long elegiac poem sung in memory of the martyrs of Karbala) while as a poet and an accomplished Kathak dancer he would perform Rahas or Rasleela, attired as Krishna with bells tinkling on his feet. Regarded as the first playwright of Hindustani theatre he continued to perform Radha Kanhaiya Ka Kissa during his days in Calcutta. Till date the Taaziya that sets out in Metiaburuj on the occasion of Muharram is distinctly different, so is the Urdu spoken in this part of the city. And to this day there are century old establishments in Metiaburuj where pictures of the old Nawab still hang from pegs because the entrepreneur’s great grandfather had actually been in his service, accompanying him from Lucknow to Calcutta.

If Calcutta, a colonial city established by the profit seeking British has earned fame as the country‘s cultural capital it owes much to Wajid Ali Shah, who physically brought thumri from Awadh and firmly planted it in the soil of Calcutta. Thus began Calcutta’s romance with light classical music. His court had musicians like Ali Baksh Khan and Badal Khan who imparted training to many classical music exponents from the city. The tawaifs and courtesans too followed and settled in this city, finding patrons among the zamindars and princelings who were swayed off their feet by the beauty of thumri.

The city also got a taste of Awadhi cuisine, rich, spicy yet light on the stomach. The signature Awadhi Biriyani, Nargisi Kofta, Tunde and Gelawati kebabs are some of gastronomical delights prepared by the chefs and cooks of the erstwhile Nawabi kitchens. Each family also has its secret recipes which are never taught to the daughters but to the daughters-in-law.

The Nawab’s fondness for cock-fighting, pigeon flying and kite flying too took hold of Calcutta and are pursued even today. He was also a true naturalist and many of the species in his zoo at Metiaburuj later found a place in the Zoological Gardens at Alipore.

However, after his death on September 3, 1887, the British rulers tried to obliterate his memory completely from Metiaburuj, demolishing his palaces or auctioning what remained. His family was hounded out. Calcutta’s chronicler HEA Cotton says: “The death of Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Oudh was followed by the sale of properties to a Syndicate and the dispersion of his enormous establishment of followers, male and female. Their departure has been the signal for erection of jute mills and the construction of the enormous tidal docks and their connected wharves and works with the result that a complete transformation has taken place and the memories of the past have been altogether obliterated.” It was only in 2004, when the family was able to convince Kolkata Municipal Corporation that a road, Kacchi Sadak More beside the Imambara, was named after Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.

But much as they tried the British Raj failed to obliterate the everlasting legacy of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah from Calcutta. His thumris not only survived in the foreign environs of Calcutta but inculcated a musical aestheticism among the listeners, leaving an indelible mark on the compositions of Atul Prasad Sen, Kavi Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore. Perhaps it is a far poorer cousin of Awadhi cuisine but Calcuttans love for the Biriyani is a sure sign of its appreciation of the culinary bequest. Finally, the gentle tehzeeb, the mark of a true denizen of Lucknow – is actually the legacy of the last Nawab of Awadh which lives on, found in the all embracing love and hospitality that Calcutta showers on all and sundry, irrespective of their wealth or lack of it or their social status.