The Last King In India – Wajid Ali Shah reviewed by Jayant Krishna

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‘The Last King in India – Wajid Ali Shah’ by Dr Rosie Llewellyn Jones presents quite an honest and balanced portrayal of this legendary emperor who was often misunderstood and has remained an enigma extraordinaire in the history of our country even today.

Despite several sterling qualities associated with good governance which Wajid Ali Shah possessed in abundance, the British had vested interests and therefore painted him as a debauched ruler who was pre-occupied with his extravagant number of queens and involved with matters more glorious at the cost of running his kingdom.

The people of Awadh and many Indians cherish Wajid Ali Shah as the beloved emperor who was highly creative and a magnanimous patron of poetry, fine arts, music, dance and almost all elements of the cultural landscape.

Awadh’s ganga jamuni tehzeeb was indeed the richest and most composite in the entire country and this culture was perhaps best epitomized by Wajid Ali Shah.

A great deal of research has gone into the book using extensive documentation from British and Indian archives and interactions with some of the nawab’s direct descendants. The book has some rare paintings and photographs, a detailed bibliography and presents a well-documented mid-nineteenth century history of Lucknow.

The book also talks about an interesting rivalry between Lucknow and Hyderabad in showcasing as to which city was the true heir of the old Delhi Sultanate. After the decline of Delhi, Lucknow indeed became the epicenter of high culture in India and the city still evokes passion in the Indian imagination.

Rosie’s writings also present the super talented king’s extravagant poetic, theatrical, musical and dance events that he used to direct and micro manage like a master craftsman. In addition, the book does justice to the portrayal of British Resident and other officers who were squarely unfair to Wajid Ali Shah and always painted a distorted and partisan picture to the British authorities that eventually lead to the annexation of his kingdom masterminded by Lord Dalhousie and executed by James Outram.

The agony associated with the annexation of Awadh also comes out very well in the book. The book also captures the Queen Mother Janab-i ’Aliyyah’s pursuit to get justice for her son’s lost kingdom during her failed overseas mission in 1856. Begum Hazrat Mahal’s revolt in 1857 also finds a special mention. Rosie describes Wajid Ali Shah as a heroic king who refused to bow to changing times and remained a thorn in Britain’s flesh.

The British dethroned Wajid Ali Shah in 1856 and deposed him to Calcutta where he spent the last 30 years of his life in Matiya Burj. Several of his wives, children and thousands of people fled Lucknow to join Wajid Ali Shah in Calcutta. Wajid Ali Shah had actually created a miniature Lucknow in Matiya Burj and transported its multi-faceted culture there. The book also has vivid descriptions of the last three decades of the king’s life in Calcutta including the menagerie or the zoo for wild animals that he had created much to the annoyance of the British.

All his palaces and other structures along the banks of Hooghly were either destroyed or auctioned after his death in 1887 to eliminate any chances of a rebellion. His last riots were joined by thousands of people in deep mourning. Sibtainabad Imambara is the final resting place of Wajid Ali Shah where his mortal remains lie buried.

Wajid Ali Shah is also known to have been very generous, kind and compassionate towards his subjects. The magnificent Qaiserbagh in Lucknow that he built was a structure that fairy tales are made of and was surely one of the most elaborate palace complexes ever created.

Without being judgemental about Wajid Ali Shah, Rosie has painted both sides of his somewhat complex personality and leaves it to the readers as to how would they like to cherish his memory. William Dalrymple describes Rosie’s book as a cause for celebration since Wajid Ali Shah remains the most under-appreciated of Nawabs of Awadh.

I sincerely believe that if the British did not have their sinister designs vis-à-vis Awadh, history would have remembered Wajid Ali Shah not only as the greatest-ever patron of culture in Indian history but also for initiating land revenue reforms, administering expeditious justice, bringing rigour in policing, reorganising military and establishing deep roots of secularism in his kingdom.

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You could pre-order your copy here: http://bit.ly/1qcbtZJ

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Credits: Jayant Krishna

About Jayant Krishna

He is the President, Lucknow Expressions, a body that promotes literary, cultural, musical and intellectual activities related to the cultural heritage of Lucknow, Awadh region.  His resolve is to get Lucknow declared as UNESCO’s World Heritage City — famous for its architectural marvels, soulful music, refined literature, culinary delights, intricate chikankari and the famed kathak dance. Jayant is also the Chairman Lucknow Literature Carnival. He is passionate about rejuvenation of cultural heritage and leads the outreach initiative to create awareness about heritage in schools and colleges.

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