Ishqnama, or Why I Love Wajid Ali Shah

I’ve spent the last 7 years researching and learning about 19th century Lucknow and one person in particular, its last artist-King— Abul Mansoor Meerza Muhammed Wajid Ali Shah. It’s longer than any romantic relationship I’ve been in, my friends joke. And that too with a dead person from a dying culture. But it is what it is. This happens to be his bicentenary year. Even though a quick Google search will inaccurately tell you his birth date to be the 30th of July, 1822, the date is debatable, to say the least. According to British records it is the 30th of July, 1822. More accurately, according to the descendants of the King, the scholar Dr. Kaukab Quder Meerza (and corresponding documents), it is the 19th of July, 1823 (not 1822). Wajid Ali Shah had developed his own calendar called Wajadi, with months he had named himself, and its third month is named Akhtari, which, one can conjecture, would be around his birth date (Akhtar was Wajid Ali Shah’s takhallus/pen name).

But during his lifetime it is more likely that Wajid Ali Shah’s saalgirah (birth anniversary) would be celebrated following the Islamic calendar, according to which, his birthday is on the 10th day of the month of Dhul Qadah—which happens to be tomorrow!

I’ve been researching and making artworks based on the history of Calcutta, and all my humble findings have led to one conclusion — that there is not a single family in the city that can claim to be its original resident. Every family and community has settled in the city at different points — whether it be the Seths and Bysacks in the 17th/18th centuries, the Armenians, Jews, Europeans through the 18th/19th centuries, the Gujaratis, the Sikhs in Bhawanipur and around Girish Park. Or the refugee communities from Bangladesh through areas like Jadavpur and Dum Dum in the 20th century. You will always find a Dhakai Mishtanna Bhandar and a Barisal Sari Shop in these different refugee colonies. Or the many Bhujia shops around the various Rajasthani settlements around Burrabazar. The different tides of Bengalis from the various parts of interior Bengal brought into the city its rural culture, just like the different communities from other parts of the world brought in theirs, like in most major metropolises. The cosmopolitan potpourri of the city doesn’t belong to any one community. Each community has rebuilt the city into a mini version of the world they have left behind. The city is like a bubble made up of these different worlds, inaccurately recreated by its migrants. But perhaps nowhere is this more true than it is in the Metiabruz part of Kolkata, where Wajid Ali Shah and his followers eventually settled through the mid and late 19th century and rebuilt it into a make-believe, miniature Lucknow. Unlike the other settlements, however, this recreation was a conscious one. Even while in Lucknow, Wajid had rebuilt a city within a city in one of his many theatrical productions. But in Kolkata, things were different. Fact and fiction had merged here, just like it had in his life.

Portrait of Wajid Ali Shah by the author (2023)

He was now one of the wronged princes, like a character from one of his plays who had lost his all. While the initial plan, after his kingdom was wrongfully annexed, was to reclaim it from the British Queen herself, the plan didn’t quite take off. In 1856, the King, his mother, and a small entourage left Lucknow for London to meet Queen Victoria. On the way, they stopped in Calcutta (incidentally in the Calcutta summer heat in May), and just like one of the many common Calcutta problems, the King, too, is conjectured to have had a bout of pet kharap (dysentery) because of the long journey on the river from Benaras. So he decided to temporarily halt here while his mother, Queen Malika Kishwar, left for London.

The Court of Oude at York Hotel Southampton in 1856. P.C. Daily Echo, UK

In the meanwhile, in another few months, the revolt of 1857 broke out across the subcontinent, and Lucknow initially became the center of it all, being led by Wajid Ali Shah’s Begum— the fierce Queen Hazrat Mahal, with Birjis Qadr, her son, being anointed the titular ruler. The British, meanwhile, grew uncomfortable with the presence of a powerful and popular figure like Wajid in their neat, beloved European city of Calcutta. They now started looking for excuses to arrest him, and an unsuspecting impostor/infiltrator, Abdul Subhan, was now used as a flimsy excuse for putting the King under house arrest at Fort William for almost two years. In the meanwhile, the King’s mother and his other relatives passed away in Paris after bearing several hardships. Begum Hazrat Mahal moved to Nepal before the British violently besieged Lucknow and massacred the entire city. The British were now the absolute victors of the subcontinent.

Illustration from The History of the Indian Mutiny, by Charles Ball, Volume II, The London Printing & Publishing Company, (c 1860). Polychrome engraving on paper.

After being under house arrest for more than two years, Wajid was finally released, but with many clauses to his disadvantage—he could live, but in exile. And in a corner of Calcutta. He could never return to his Kingdom again, to his beloved Lucknow, and he would no longer be called King (at least officially) by the British. He would have to sign away his rich kingdom in exchange for a puny pension of one lakh rupees a month (the budget for the Holi festival alone in Asaf ud Daulah’s court, the King’s predecessor about a hundred years ago, would be around five to six lakh rupees). But he had no choice, and he settled down in Metiabruz, building a kingdom again from scratch, bit by bit. For about the next thirty years, there came an influx of artists, musicians, poets, craftsmen, cooks, tailors— the best of Lucknow to Metiabruz. Like flies to a flame, they had come to aid their King in rebuilding their beloved Lucknow again. Wajid lived, in all his glory, for him and for his subjects who saw and marvelled at how their King had magically transported their city back into this foreign land. Abdul Halim Sharar, a contemporary resident (at that point a child), writes about how one couldn’t tell if this was really Bengal or if it was Lucknow on a festive evening stroll in Metiabruz. While most of Calcutta was yet to enjoy the benefits of street lighting (except for European elite areas like Chowringhee) the King, with his love for theatre, was making arrangements to light up his mini kingdom with gas lamps. Soirees would be held, and the great pioneering rahas/plays that the King had staged back in Lucknow would now be held here with more complex plots and a larger cast and crew. There would be innuendos and jokes in the plays, satirising and hinting at the illiberal, philistine, authoritarian British Government sitting right outside the gates of their dream world. Even Wajid’s menagerie would be rebuilt, almost from scratch, and Europeans and Americans would write pleading letters, just to get a glimpse of this zoo— unique and pioneering in several ways. Wajid would host Bengali guests, the nouveau riche zamindars, and many of the artists who would come to perform at his court would also perform in the palaces of these little landlords. Raja Sourindra Mohan Tagore of Pathuriaghata, a contemporary connoisseur of music, would often visit the court to listen to the Lucknavi thumri. Jadu Bhatta (Jadunath Bhattacharya), a dhrupad exponent, later to become Rabindranath Tagore’s music teacher, would visit to listen to the many performances and would even later perform at the Durbar in front of the King. There are many such examples of individuals who would not only be a bridge between these cultures, but would eventually become a link with the future stars and artists to come, like Gauhar Jaan (whose mother was also a regular performer at the Metiabruz court). Wajid, in turn, would soak in this culture, now naming himself Akhtar Gosai, in the fashion of Bengali Kirtaniyas who shared his love for Radha Krishna. He would sit by the river, watching immersions during Dashami on Durga Puja.

The King with his wife Akhtar Mahal Sahiba and daughter (c. 1855). Photograph by Ahmad Ali Khan/Chhote Miyan (active c. 1850-1862)

But all of this was also to end. The King died in 1887, leaving behind his legacy and a chaos that was to unravel. The colonial Government in power made sure to wipe off his legacy as much as they could, whether it was through dilapidation or vandalism. But what he left behind was much more intangible than the beautiful structures he had built. His art continued to live through the people who got a glimpse of it, and through the next generations who heard about its grandness from their parents and grandparents.

It is through this that my journey had started, trying to trace families that had migrated in the 19th century and who continue to live in Metiabruz/Kolkata in the present day. One of the wonderful people I met was Dr. Ramesh Kumar Saini. I got an art grant from (ironically) an European consulate to make a project on the city, and I decided to make it on this. I interviewed and shot Dr. Saini’s paan shop for 12 hours from day to night, and I shot a paan shop in Lucknow for 12 hours from night to day. In the meanwhile I traced the people who had come with the King from Lucknow in the 19th century. Dr. Saini (who recently passed away) was the descendant of the paanwala who had shifted during Wajid Ali Shah’s reign— Motilal, the Shahi paanwala, who exclusively made paan for the royal family. It was this legacy that Dr. Saini attempted to bear on despite his own profession of being a homoeopathic doctor.

The late Dr. Ramesh Kumar Saini, 2018 (video snippet from Gilauri; 24-hour film in 2-point video channel)

He would often have patients coming to his paan shop asking for medical advice. In his tight schedule, he would run the paan shop from 8 am to 8 pm and then his medical chamber from 8.30 pm to 12 am. He would keep his old mobile phone at home during work hours and would only use it for an hour in the morning when he woke up at 5 am. This meant, if one had to call, they would have to do it within that 1 hour window of 5am–6am. His birthday was on the 5th of March and it soon became a ritual for me to wake up on that day to wish him at 5am every year. Another person who incidentally shares Dr. Saini’s birthday was the direct descendant of Wajid Ali Shah — the ever so gracious Manzilat Fatima.

How I met her almost has the ingredients of a short story. Around 2017-18, when I had started my work on this history, a close friend of mine, Madhuri Katti, was on her visit to Paris. She had generously asked, as an artist, what art material I might want from the city of Impressionists. Instead, I asked her for a video from the land of Lumiere. The Queen mother, Malika Kishwar, who was stranded in Europe, was eventually buried in Paris at the Pere Lachaise cemetery (close to Jim Morrisson’s grave!). It was unmarked at the time, and it ended up becoming an adventure for Anuran, Madhuri’s son and her, to find the grave in that large necropolis. But find the grave they did— a fitting ending of a mother and son finding the traces of an estranged mother and son from centuries ago. The video reached Manzilat, who was a celebrated chef in the culinary scene of India by this time, and we all met up one day. What followed was a series of events we organised for the next few years on several topics—the Queen mother, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and Lucknow itself. In the meanwhile, my story on Dr. Saini got published, and I was only happy to meet him with a copy of the book, to his welcoming smile. 

All this while, at the back of my head, I was waiting for it to be 2023—the King’s bicentenary birth year. I realised that even though my primary project was on the migrant families and individuals who had shifted along with the King, I had independently made a corpus of work on Wajid Ali Shah himself. He was inescapable, and almost everything that he did resonated with me. I had vague plans to exhibit some of it in this special year (which in 2017 had seemed so far away!). Manzilat Fatima, Kamran Meerza, and Dr. Talat Fatima (the great great descendants of the King) then came to the rescue. At this point, no one else seemed to have organized any events about the bicentenary.

For the first time ever, we were able to organise an exhibition and a series of events at the Sibtainabad Imambara in Metiabruz. Shaikh Sohail (a dear friend and a renowned heritage walk leader) and I led a heritage walk in the area with a group of 72 people. Dr. Talat Fatima spoke of her father’s dedicated lifelong research on the King, and how Satyajit Ray would come to him for consultation and advice during the making of Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) while Madhuri and Anuran shared their Paris experience of finding the tomb, and sharing their readings of contemporary French writings on the subject. The two great-great-grandchildren of the King, Kamran Meerza and Manzilat Fatima, inaugurated the exhibition with a shower of rose petals, as a nod to the King of Benaras strewing rose petals on the King’s path as he got on the boat to Calcutta from Benaras.

An overwhelmingly large crowd turned up at the exhibition, despite the terrible weather, the distance, and the general xenophobia about the area. I met wonderful individuals, many of them for the first time in person, like— Ustad Irfan Muhammad Khan—a direct descendant of Ustad Niyamatullah Khan, the court sarod player of Metiabruz during the King’s reign, who is credited to have introduced the metal plate on the instrument in the 19th century.

I painted an 18-foot portrait of the King in front of his tomb.  It is believed in Islam that the soul of the person rests where he is buried until the day of Judgement. I painted his portrait in an empty Imambara, with only a cat for company. Just like how performances in a court would be primarily for the King,  and everyone else was an eavesdropper, my exhibition tribute was a birthday gift for him and him alone.

Painting a 18 feet portrait of Wajid Ali Shah in front of his tomb at the Imambara. P.C.: Sudhin Roy

Other than the portrait, I made two other installations.
One was on his life: Dastaan e Maahi—A tale told by two fish— one which tells the story of his life in Calcutta and another fish which tells of his life in Lucknow. His life was somehow symmetrically divided into the number of years he lived in the two cities.
My other installation was on the menagerie he had rebuilt in Calcutta. I researched contemporary documents from visitors and examined the archival photographs by a German photographer named Fritz Kapp, taken in the 19th century. I wanted to steer away from the Tiger/tigress attack story that was blown out of proportion and used as a part of the propaganda machinery by the contemporary colonial historians and which is still referred to by artists and scholars who only superficially engage with this history.
So I named it Digress from the Tigress. While one section of the menagerie was based on the archives, I made another section on the imaginary creatures that might have lived in this world of fantasy that Wajid was always trying to create. It then became a world of Buraqs, Djinns and fish that could fly.

I was lucky enough to visit Lucknow this year itself at the Mahindra SanatKada Lucknow Festival 2024, where, thanks to the organisers, especially Madhavi Kuckreja, I was able to be a part of a session on the King and his legendary text— the Ishqnama, at the very premises of Qaiserbagh that Wajid had built himself. I wondered if it was the same room that he mentions (he mentions the house behind Baradari) where he came to cry alone after his father’s death and before his succession. Still struggling with my horrible Hindi and terrible Urdu, I had the fortune of sharing the stage with the brilliant Dr. Roshan Taqui—  one of the most eminent scholars on Lucknow and the King and a model Lucknowite. At the end of the session (which was prolonged with several intelligent questions from the audience), he hugged me, saying how Lucknow and Kolkata had become one thanks to Wajid.

The session with Dr. Roshan Taqui at the Salempur House within the Qaiserbagh complex built by Wajid Ali Shah in Lucknow. It matches the description of being the house behind the Baradari where Wajid would come to cry after losing his father, before ascending the throne. P.C.: Ayan Bose; SanatKada Foundation;  2024.

And really, it is this, the power of this individual King and artist that has brought so much together— the past with the present, the East with the West, a city with a city, Hindus with Muslims, Ganga with Yamuna, and the world of fantasy with the world of reality. Even when we do not realise, his influences continue to live in our everyday tastes in the subcontinent, through our likes and dislikes, through our songs, films, and food. And 200 years after his birth, he continues to live.

Soumyadeep Roy is a nonbinary visual artist, writer, and an independent researcher. Formally trained in Literature, Film Studies, and Indian classical music, Soumyadeep’s works combine research, stories and histories, trying to find links between different forms of art, past and present.

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