IN one of the opening scenes of Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece, Shatranj kay Khilari, the camera pans out to depict the throne of Awadh. The throne is symbolically unoccupied. It’s claimant, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, is introduced by the narrator as the ‘sartaj’ of the ‘shauqeen riaya’ of Lucknow, ‘jinhain raj kaaj kay ilawa, har tarha ka shauq hay’. The next scene shows Wajid Ali Shah, playing the role of Krishna, surrounded by a group of dancing girls acting as gopinis.
Both scenes powerfully symbolise the dominant way in which Nawab Wajid Ali Shah has been memorialised: a ‘king’ who is better known as a symbol of a degenerate and decadent culture. In nationalist memory, represented most evocatively in Premchand’s short story ‘Shatranj kay Khilari’ (which Ray later converted into a screenplay), Lucknow’s alleged decadence paved the way for the British annexation of Awadh. As a metaphor then, Awadh symbolised an Indian civilisation that had lost its way and capitulated in the face of an organised, resourceful and conniving foreign power.
And yet, there were other ways in which Lucknow was remembered. In this nostalgic reading, Lucknow and its Nawabs were portrayed as the inheritors of a glorious Indo-Islamic civilisation. Decadence was read as grandeur, while decline was interpreted as an era of cultural sophistication. Similarly, far from being remembered merely as a debauched ‘king,’ Wajid Ali Shah was portrayed as a generous patron of the arts, and a gifted poet and composer whose songs are still sung today (‘Babul Mora Naihar Chutoo hi Jaye’ being the most obvious example).
Between these two representations lies an enigmatic and misunderstood individual. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones’ book, The Last King in India, is an attempt to recover Wajid Ali Shah as a historical figure instead of the symbol that he has become. Llewellyn-Jones, it has to be said, is well-placed to write this account. Celebrated as “the greatest living authority on Nawabi Lucknow,” she has authored a number of works on the city including A Fatal Friendship: The Nawabs, the British and the City of Lucknow and Engaging Scoundrels: True Tales of Old Lucknow, amongst others.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this book lies in its detailed treatment of Wajid Ali Shah’s time in Calcutta. Virtually written out of historical accounts after Awadh was annexed by the East India Company in 1856, very little is known about the last 30 years of Wajid Ali Shah’s life. He spent those long years in Calcutta at a riverside estate known as Garden Reach, “recreating the lost paradise that was Lucknow.” With him were thousands of followers and retainers, musicians and entertainers, his innumerable wives and children, and vast numbers of exotic animals.
Nothing, however, could restore the glory of what had been lost. Awadh was one of the three major kingdoms to emerge in the early 18th century in the wake of a declining Mughal empire. The other two were Bengal and Hyderabad. Over the course of a century and more — by the time that imperial authority in Delhi had declined in all but name — Lucknow gradually became a byword for high culture. Its political autonomy, however, had been compromised early on. From the mid 19th century onwards, the East India Company gradually assumed a greater role in governing Awadh. Its nawabs were subservient to a figure known as the ‘Resident,’ who represented the Company’s interests in Awadh, as in other princely states. Reduced to titular figures, the nawabs of Awadh redirected their energies towards patronising the arts. As the character of Wajid Ali Shah in Ray’s film memorably remarks, “if a king stops bothering about his realm, what is left for him to do?”
To his credit, Wajid Ali Shah was a worthy patron and connoisseur of the arts. But his extravagance provided the British a convenient justification for annexing Awadh, even though their reasons for doing so had little to do with Wajid Ali Shah’s alleged debauchery and misrule. Not content with exercising indirect rule, the Company had long been searching for an opportunity to take control of Awadh. Wajid Ali Shah’s (mis)rule provided them with a perfect excuse. After all, a king “who spent all his time with singers, eunuchs and women,” could hardly be entrusted to govern an important state like Awadh.
It’s largely through these tropes that we have come to know Wajid Ali Shah. And it is here that Llewellyn-Jones does an admirable job of deconstructing colonial sources. The figure of Wajid Ali Shah that emerges in her account is a man who is indulgent and extravagant in his tastes, but far removed from the debauched misfit portrayed by colonial accounts.
Other characters that come to life in this account are the women surrounding Wajid Ali Shah. The first chapter, for instance, follows the movements of Janab-i-Aliyyah, Wajid Ali Shah’s mother, after she arrived in England to plead for her son’s restoration to the throne of Awadh. Other women who emerge prominently in this narrative are the wives of Wajid Ali Shah. The most famous of those, Begum Hazrat Mahal, led the rebellion in Lucknow in 1857.
Taken together then, Llewellyn-Jones presents a vivid portrait of Awadh and its last Nawab. If there is a shortcoming, it’s her dependence on colonial accounts. We only hear Wajid Ali Shah and other characters through these narratives, which in turn places serious limitations on what can be said about them. That said, Llewellyn-Jones can hardly be faulted for relying heavily on official sources. Following the death of Wajid Ali Shah in 1887, the colonial state quickly disposed of the archives at Garden Reach in an ultimately failed attempt to erase all traces of the King. There are, therefore, very few unofficial sources through which Wajid Ali Shah and his world can be recovered.
Despite these limitations, though, Llewellyn-Jones does a deft job in sympathetically portraying a much maligned and misunderstood individual. For that reason alone, The Last King in India is well worth a read.
The reviewer teaches history at LUMS.
The Last King in India: Wajid Ali Shah
By Rosie Llewellyn-Jones
Hurst Publishers, London