A king's dual nature

A king's dual nature

Satyajit Ray’s 1977 classic, Shatranj ke Khilari (chess players), sensitively deals with annexation of the rich state of Awadh (Oudh) by the East India Company in 1856 through devious ways.

King Wajid Ali Shah, who had been under a friendship treaty with the British, surrenders without a fight. The setting is Lucknow with its high culture, and the king emerges as a poet, composer, singer, dancer and choreographer who has little interest in governance.

After his dethronement, a key trigger for the 1857 uprising, Wajid Ali Shah spent the rest of 30 years in self-exile in suburban Calcutta, the colonial capital. Opinions are sharply divided on his legacy.

British historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones strives to present a dispassionate account of the controversial ruler in The Last King in India, demystifying the persona. In India, the Nawab is known for his musical, theatrical and literary accomplishments, financial profligacy, Muslim piety and his nearly 400 wives.

The British, who allowed him to rule just for nine years, considered him a ‘wretch’. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones argues, he was “certainly not the debauched character painted by the British, but neither the great romantic hero of Indian memory.”

The picture that emerges is that of a vainglorious, complex, enigmatic figure with eccentricities. In Calcutta, he recreated a mini Lucknow with all the trappings of loyalty, including a menagerie of wild animals. He was a loyal but disgruntled subject dependent on government pension. The British kept a close watch on his huge establishment of over 7,000.

The book depicts Lucknow of mid-19th century as culturally rich but with a licentious environment. As the British did not allow him to rule, he devoted his time on those things he could still control: “the grand theatrical extravaganzas, the fairy palaces, the endless supply of women and the melancholy delight of poetry.” Lord Krishna’s life delighted him.

He must have been the only Muslim monarch who directed a play on Lord Krishna. He yearned to be known as a great romantic figure, a lover irresistible to women.

He had no hesitation in accepting wives from any class. African women were his bodyguards. For women, a marriage with him was the surest way to ensure a comfortable lifestyle.

But maintaining hundreds of wives in three categories was never an easy task. Rivalry, intrigue, talebearing and backbiting among different wives were perennial irritants. Extravagant ways of some added to the headache.

Wajid Ali’s treatment of his wives was often insensitive, forcing the British to intervene on their behalf. His mass divorce of wives due to financial constraints annoyed the British. Once, he remarked to an official that his wives “are old and ugly, and can bear no more children; they are no use to me.” His relations with his many sons and daughters were no better.

The colonial government apparently overestimated Wajid Ali Shah’s potential to create trouble. He was never allowed to return to Lucknow. During the uprising, he was kept in detention for two years on trumped-up charges. But he never showed any bitterness towards the British.

He always behaved like a king he once had been, a successor to the great Mughals. He used to write flowery letters to Queen Victoria, considering her on equal terms.

Though a king without a kingdom, Wajid Ali Shah refused to change his ways till the end. But his diminished status and the humiliation of being financially dependent on the British certainly rankled him.

His extravagant ways might have been an act of defiance, as the British wanted to rein in his spending. His hangers-on exploited his overtrusting nature to feather their own nests, landing him in debt.

It was the policy of the British to move deposed rulers and their heirs far away from their power base to avert any future trouble. Their exile near the seat of imperial power served the purpose of monitoring them constantly. Wajid Ali Shah frequently grumbled to the British that the dependents of Tipu Sultan, who were also in exile in Calcutta, enjoyed a better treatment.

The book ferrets out fascinating details on the milieu through extensive research, using original documents from British and Indian archives, and interactions with some of Wajid Ali Shah’s direct descendants. It is a poignant portrait of the Nawab, the symbol of Lucknow culture, valiantly striving to recreate his lost world in exile and becoming a thorn in the British flesh.

There is a glowing account of the queen mother’s futile mission to London, accompanied by a 100-plus team, to plead with Queen Victoria to restore Awadh to her son.

Examples abound on the crafty ways of imperial officials who wanted to undermine Wajid Ali Shah even before he ascended the throne. Some rare paintings and photographs add to the attraction of the book.

The Last King In India
Rosie Llewellyn-Jones
Random House
2014, pp 314
RS: 599

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