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Book Review: Sudipta Mitra’s ‘Pearl by the River: Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s Kingdom in Exile’

By Mosarrap H Khan

Title: Pearl by the River: Nawab Wajid Ali’s Shah’s Kingdom in Exile
Author: Sudipta Mitra
Publisher: Rupa Publications, 2017.

In Satyajit Ray’s film, Shatranj Ke Khiladi, as the Company Army overruns Lucknow in February 1856, two aristocrats flee to a village and sit engrossed over a game of chess. When the Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, learns of the British plan of accession of Awadh from his prime minister, Ali Naqi Khan, he says,

…when I was enthroned, I did try to be a proper ruler and to some extent, did succeed in doing a good job of it…I wasn’t fit to be king. But had my subjects complained to me, had they said, ‘Jaan-e-alam, leave the throne. We don’t want you. In your rule, we are sorrowful, we are upset,’ then, by God, I would separate myself from both throne and crown. But my subjects didn’t say that…because I never hid from them my true nature. They knew what kind of king I was. And even so, they loved me. Today, even after ten years, I see love in their eyes. They sing my songs in the streets and by lanes…just go and enquire of the Resident how many kings of England wrote songs and how many of Queen Victoria’s subjects sing their songs?”

In Sudipta Mitra’s book, Pearl by the River: Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s Kingdom in Exile, the takeover unfolds thus:

Zurd Kothee was enveloped in an air of uncertainty and doubt. Outram declared an end to the Treaty of 1801, before formally handing over the draft prepared by East India Company to the King. Overwhelmed and beleaguered, Wajid Ali Shah received the treaty and showed his dismay with utmost dignity that was in keeping with his refined culture…Wajid Ali Shah walked over to Outram, removed his crown and handed it over to him.”

Mitra’s book depicts the pathos of a deposed king, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who had to leave behind his beloved Lucknow and recreate his dream abode on the banks of the Hooghly in Calcutta (now, Kolkata). The book opens with a detailed account of the intrigue hatched by the Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie and his trusted ally and resident, General Outram, in which the King’s prime minister, Ali Naqi Khan was allegedly a willing accomplice. The kingdom of Awadh, founded by Burhan-ul-Mulk Saadat Ali Khan in 1722, had long sworn its allegiance to the British through the Treaties of 1801 and 1831. As the last ‘cherry’ Dalhousie wanted to gulp before he became incapacitated and left for England, a concerted effort was made to annex the lucrative kingdom. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was accused of debauchery and sensual excesses and deposed in 1856 after just nine years of rule. Mitra’s book describes in graphic detail the deposed King’s arduous journey on a steamer that cruised down the Ganga, even as his faithful subjects followed him, wailing, to Calcutta, which would become the exiled King’s abode for next thirty-one years.

In Calcutta, the King petitioned against the injustice and thought of undertaking a journey to England to seek an appointment with Queen Victoria. However, it was the Queen Mother, Malka Kishwar, who crossed the seas instead at the age of fifty-two, along with the King’s eldest son and brother. Since the East India House, headquarters of the East India Company, ignored the delegation, which came to be known as the Oudh Commission, and a meeting with the Queen of England was yet to materialize, the delegation set about the task of generating public opinion in favour of the deposed King. The British Press, notably, peddled the same stereotype of a debauched King unable to rule his own people, even as public opinion seemed to favour the delegation’s demand for the reinstatement of the King. As fate would have it, the day (4 July 1857) the Queen Mother managed to secure a hearing from the Queen of England is the same day when the mutineers set about sacking Lucknow. The rumblings of the Sepoy Mutiny unnerved the British in Calcutta and they arrested the King as a pre-emptive measure. The hope of the delegation in England was dashed:

The unexpected news of Wajid Ali’s arrest in Calcutta bewildered the emissaries and soon the Oudh Commission melted into obscurity. Queen Victoria could not warrant an audience to the emissaries of an ex-king who had reportedly instigated his people against the British Crown. The British were shocked by the mutiny of the sepoys and the arrest of Wajid Ali Shah. They lost their sympathy for the Oudh Commission and started to disbelieve them.

Wajid Ali Shah was arrested on 15 June, 1857 and kept under detention in Fort William, Calcutta; the despondent Queen Mother died in France on her way back; and the King’s brother died in England soon after.

For me, the most compelling part of the book is the nawab’s attempt to recreate the cultural grandeur of Lucknow in Calcutta, in the midst of an alien landscape and language. Did the nawab manage to interact with the local gentry, who had already turned Calcutta into a centre of Hindustani culture? Was there a cultural osmosis between the nawab and the bhadrolok gentry of Calcutta once the King landed in the city in 1856? The latter part of the book delves deep into these questions in an effort to unearth the memory of the king who is almost forgotten in Calcutta, barring the occasional reference to the introduction of potato (aloo) in biriyani, which became a Calcutta speciality.

Wajid Ali Shah came out of his cell at Fort William on 9 July, 1859, after twenty-five months of imprisonment in the wake of the Mutiny. He conveyed his thanks to the government and denounced his wife, Hazrat Mahal, for joining the rebels during the Mutiny. In exchange, the nawab was allowed to retain his title of ‘King of Oudh’ and was given financial allowance. However, Mitra writes,

The arrest of Wajid Ali Shah had not evoked much sympathy amongst the elite of Calcutta. The influential Bengali babus, supposedly closer to the British power, paid no heed to the banished king’s controversy. No entry is found in the contemporary Bengali literature to testify the Bengali babus’ concern over the British rapacity and debauchery. The banished king had to fight a lonely battle to survive in the city of Calcutta.

The Bengali gentry were highly Europeanized and well conversant with the Western culture. They didn’t identify with the mutineers and it’s not surprising that the nawab’s complete immersion into oriental art and culture would, of course, be an anathema to the Bengali elite.

Wajid Ali Shah purchased a large riverside estate in Metiyaburj in the south-eastern fringe of Calcutta and set to work to set up a ‘Chota Lucknow’ (mini Lucknow). The British provided the nawab with a palatial building in Metiyaburj, which he named Sultan Khana. With his taste for architecture, the King set about constructing numerous apartments surrounded by beautiful gardens and lawns. A contemporary court historian, Sharar, identified some of them as Qasr ul Baiza, Gosha-e-Sultani, Shahinsa Manzil, Shah Manzil, Nur Manzil, Tafrih Baksh, Badami, Asmani, Tahaniyat Manzil, Had-e-Sultani, Sad-e-Sultani, and Adalat Manzil. “The Sibtainabad Imambara was built in 1864 and had an impressive gateway, which was sculpted with double mermaids. This was the emblem of the royal family.” The imperial splendour of Metiyaburj filled both Indians and Europeans with wonder. The nawab was already adapting himself to Calcutta and to the Hooghly River, as is evident in his poem:

“Ab nishane isk
Kalkatta me garwa chahiye
Husn-e-sharhre Lucknow
Hurdam ujane chahiye”

(The love that I have for my country should be poured in Calcutta. The place should be filled with all the splendours of Lucknow.)

As Metiyaburj started resembling Lucknow in its splendour, the nawab celebrated Muharram with great pomp in which he played the tasha and dhol himself. The king’s extravagance and its impact upon native Bengalis didn’t go unnoticed by the British, as Charles Wentworth Dilke writes, “In his extravagance and immorality the King of Oude does not stand alone in Calcutta. His mode of life is imitated by the wealthy natives; his vices are mimicked by every young Bengali babu.” The deposed nawab’s abode became the undisputed cultural hub of Calcutta and gave him critical recognition.

The last few chapters of the book present the artistic bent of a king, who was destined to be dethroned because of his obsession with art and cultural productions. As Mitra writes, the nawab drew on the local syncretic cultural traditions of Radha-Krishna story and turned them into theatrical productions – Rahas, “a perfect blend of dance from the Braj region depicting the mystic life of Krishna, and his own composition of kathak.” In many of these performances, he himself played the part of Krishna, wearing the costume of a Hindu god. Wajid Ali Shah’s tryst with poetry, music, and dance started with his Parikhana (abode of fairies), a sort of music school, where he had started recruiting women with talent in music and dance. In 1843, the first Rahas was performed, making many claim that the nawab was the first playwright of Hindustani theatre. Once the nawab relocated to Metiyaburj, such performances continued with a renewed vigor as he could devote most of his time, despite living on a meagre allowance of one lakh rupees from the British. However, the nawab’s Urdu theatre didn’t generate much interest in the Bengali gentry of Kolkata. In addition, the nawab was a great connoisseur of classical drama. When he came to settle in Calcutta, he brought with him a “classical dance gharana, hitherto unfamiliar to Calcuttans…The dance form of Kathak had provided the quintessential vigour to the Lucknowi gharana and now whetted the appetite of Bengali intelligentsia.” The kathak school of dance also brought with it the musical traditions of khayal and thumri. Even though the Bengali gentry had cultivated North Indian dance forms in Calcutta from the beginning of the nineteenth century, it never reached the status of performing arts. As Mitra writes:

In reality, before the King’s arrival, dancing in Calcutta was confined to the abodes of women dancers of lower orders called khemtawaalis whose voluptuous movements of hips and flashing of limbs were in complete contrast to the classical dance of Lucknow. The Bengali elite were fond of either khemtas from lower orders or baijees from upper classes, or sometimes even ordinary prostitutes from Calcutta’s bordellos. Classical music and dance were among the least of their priorities.

Once the king settled in Calcutta, he brought with him an advanced performing arts culture which had been bred in Lucknow with patronage and leisure. The oldest gharana of kathak was practiced in Rajasthan and came to the Mughal court through Akbar’s Rajput allies. One of the earliest exponents, Pandit Ishwari Prasad Misra’s grandsons moved to Lucknow during Asaf-ud-Daulla’s time and thrived there. His descendant, Maharaj Thakur Prasad, was Wajid Alis Shah’s kathak guru. The nawab added his distinct mark to the dance genre by blending kathak with thumri. The nawab’s book, Musammi Ba Benne, written in Calcutta and lithographed at Metiyabruj, “testifies that kathak was no longer a Hindu form of art in Lucknow but was adopted and improved by Muslim exponents under Wajid Ali Shah.” However, the true spirit of kathak as an art form was preserved by tawaifs in the dark alleyways of Lucknow.

Along with kathak, the nawab’s exile to Calcutta brought the musical genre of thumri – given mostly to themes of separation – a lighter version of classical kheyal tradition. Among many prominent musicians who followed the nawab to Calcutta was Murad Ali Khan, a renowned dhrupad exponent of the Tilwandi gharana. After the decline of Delhi in the middle of the eighteenth century, Lucknow emerged as the main centre of culture in North India. However, the musical traditions were adapting more to popular demand in Lucknow, shedding purity: “the demanding dhrupads and kheyal for the lighter and more adaptable thumri and ghazal.” Kathak to the accompaniment of thumri was first introduced in the court of Wajid Ali Shah and his courtier, Sadiq Ali Khan, became the most prominent figure in the development of the Lucknow gharana of thumri. The nawab also composed thumris to celebrate Holi, which crossed narrow religious boundaries. The nawab was particularly influenced by the Krishna-cult and his lyrics comprised of several names of Hindu avatars such as Hari, Radha, and Jugal Kishore. North Indian classical music had already found patrons in Calcutta before the nawab’s arrival and a particular Bengali classical gharana was born in Bishnupur under the patronage of Malla King, Raghunath Singha II, who brought in Ustad Bahadur Khan Senia from Delhi on high remuneration. Bahadur Khan, a descendant of Tansen’s lineage, developed the only classical genre in Bengal, the Bishnupur gharana. Pandit Jadunath Bhattacharya and Aghore Nath Chakravarty of Bishnupur gharana often performed in the Metiyaburj court. Toward the end of his life, the nawab gave refuge to Malka Jaan (original name, Victoria Hemmings), a 26-year-old Jewish Armenian lady, who came from Benaras to seek fortune in Calcutta. Impressed by her rendition of the nawab’s own thumris, she was appointed as a court musician at Metiyaburj. Malka Jaan settled in Calcutta in 1883 with her 10-year-old daughter, Angelina Yeoward, who later became famous as Gauhar Jaan, the first Indian artist to cut a gramophone in 1902.

In Metiyaburj, the nawab built a huge oval-shaped building on the banks of the Hooghly River for his performers. Musical instruments such as bin, rabab, sursingar, and the pukhwaj had started undergoing change in the late eighteenth century with the decline of dhrupad. They were replaced with other popular instruments such as sitar, sarod, sarangi, and tabla. Tabla replaced pukhwaj and became an important accompaniment for kathak and thumri. Some talented musicians followed the nawab to Calcutta: “Ustad Basat Khan (1787-1887) of Senia lineage came and settled in Metiyaburj in 1858. He introduced rabab in Metiyaburj. Basat Khan and his brothers were the last prodigies of dhrupadi rabab that had been developed by their ancestor Mian Tansen (1506-89) and had descended through his son’s lineage.” There was some amount of cultural exchange between the nawab and the Calcutta elites, most notably with the Tagores of Pathuriaghata, where Wajid Ali Shah’s court musicians, including Basat Khan played. Kaliprasanna Bandopadhay (1842-1900), a leading performer of sitar at the Tagores, received an invitation from the nawab and played in Metiyaburj. The descendant of Mian Bakshu Khan, the founder of the Lucknowi tabla gharana, came to settle in Metiyaburj. Bakshu Khan’s daughter-in-law, Chote Bibi became the repository of the Lucknow tabla gharana in Calcutta and was known as the first female tabla player in Metiyaburj.

The nawab was known to be a talented poet and had started writing poetry from a young age. In Metiyaburj, he patronized a court of seven poets in his durbar and called them Saba Saiyara (Seven Stars). The nawab was a prolific writer and most of his days in Metiyaburj were spent composing literary work. While many Europeans and Calcutta Bengalis visited the nawab’s court in Metiyaburj, the nawab hardly socialized with the local elites. The New York Times Calcutta correspondent wrote in 1874: “…Calcutta meanwhile as ignorant of his pleasures and he of its as if he were still in Oude.” Despite the nawab’s impetus to music, dance, and poetry in Metiyaburj, he was often blamed for cheapening the classical genres and making them open for the general populace. Ustad Asadullah Kaukab, a renowned Sarodia and musicologist, known for his purism, expressed this anxiety:

Wajid Ali was a master at the art and possessed the knowledge of an expert but cannot escape the criticism that it was his conventional and cheap tastes that made the music of Lucknow frivolous and easily understood by all. In accordance with popular tastes, even the most discriminating singers omitted difficult techniques and based their music on light, simple and attractive tunes which could be appreciated by everyone…

For thirty-one years, the nawab lived with the pride of not having yielded to the Company’s demand of signing an unfair treaty of accession. Wajid Ali Shah was perhaps one of the most unlikely kings to have ever ruled in India, more given to art and aesthetics and less to the art of administration. The nawab had finally reconciled with his exile and made Calcutta his home. It’s only fitting that his end came in ‘Chota Lucknow’ built after the image of his beloved Lucknow. Most Bengalis, who take immense pride in their poetry and music, have now forgotten the forlorn nawab, an outsider, who injected Calcutta with a new artistic fervor. In supple prose, Mitra describes the end of an era on 21 September, 1887:

It was a brilliant dawn on the river and hues of ochre flickered on the water as the morning advanced. Subtle rays of the rising sun emblazoned the minarets of the Shahi Imambara. The Hooghly was reminiscent of melting ore. The Botanical Garden could be seen from the portico of the Sultan Khana if one’s eyes were not bedazzled by the sunlight. Yet there was something eerie about the dawn, something dissonantly quiet. The naubat did not sound the time. A ghostlike silence prevailed over the mimic kingdom of Metiyaburj. Only a bemoaning sound of the ladies fell upon the ears of the onlookers. The wailing was reverberating from the Sultan Khana, where the banished king of Awadh was lying in his eternal sleep. The last crown of Burhan-ul-Mulk Saadat Ali Khan’s dynasty had breathed his last in the fringes of Calcutta, the night before. There was nothing in his wretched death that could even remotely illustrate the past grandeur of the King. It was, indeed, an ordinary death for a king.

Mitra tries to painstakingly reconstruct the years between 1856 and 1887, the year the king passed away in ‘Chota Lucknow’. However, the paucity of original archival source works is a drawback. One wonders if the author’s purpose would have been better served if Mitra had drawn more from the nawab’s own masnavis, prolifically composed during his years of captivity in Fort William and thereafter at Metiyaburj. The fact that Dr. Meerza Kaukab, Wajid Ali Shah and Hazrat Mahal’s grandson, wrote the Prologue to the book in 2013 and the book is published in 2017 is a testament that it has been a difficult book to write. The delay is perhaps the reason why the editing appears rushed in some places. Nevertheless, Sudipta Mitra’s book is a brave effort in recovering the traces of times lost to Calcutta’s memory forever.

Pearl by the River is available on Amazon India and Flipkart.

Mosarrap H Khan 
is a founder-editor at Cafe Dissensus. Twitter: @aberration007


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