To an outsider, Matiya Burj looks like any other bustling Mohalla (locality) in an old Indian city. One needs to negotiate the serpentine lanes and by-lanes while passing through the area, where nondescript shops and ramshackle residential buildings stand cheek-by-jowl. All kinds of vehicles – from buses teeming with passengers to goods-carrying, hand-drawn carts to even Jaguars – ply the dingy lanes.
The locality is part of Garden Reach, a suburban neighbourhood on the southwestern fringes of Calcutta (now Kolkata), which was the capital of British India from 1772 to 1911.
The present-day squalor of Matiya Burj loosely translated, as a tower of unbaked bricks) is a far cry from its opulent past. About 160 years ago, this Mohalla was an upscale part of the city where Europeans sojourned in bungalows along the bank of river Hooghly. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1822-1887), the last king of Awadh, rented one of these bungalows when he was exiled to Calcutta in 1856, following the annexation of his kingdom by the British. A victim, in all likelihood, of the machinations of the East India Company, the nawab soon created a mini Lucknow in this part of Calcutta. Awadh was a region carved out of a dwindling Mughal empire and its capital, Lucknow (now the capital of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh), was a seat of high culture in those days. Indeed, it was a city of poets, musicians and famous courtesans.
Wajid Ali Shah made Matiya Burj his home till he breathed his last in 1887. In fact, he is buried in one corner of the Sibtainabad Imambara in Matiya Burj It is said that the nawab brought artisans from Iran to build prayer halls or imambaras in the neighbourhood. Of these, the Sibtainabad Imambara is an iconic structure – a veritable tourist destination that is home to a host of invaluable Awadh memorabilia.
2022 marks the 200th birth anniversary of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Often described as a tragic monarch in the history of Indian kings under British rule, the Nawab continues to hold sway over the popular imagination even in this day and age. Especially, his connection with Kolkata has survived the test of time. While his descendants in Kolkata leave no stone unturned to keep his memory alive, cultural aficionados in the city continue to sing paeans to the Nawab as an artistic visionary. The nawab has been immortalised in legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s film, Shatranj ke Khiladi.
The Nawab was a celebrated poet, playwright and musician in his own right. His music and dance soirees, held during his exile in Calcutta, were attended by the who’s who of the city’s art world. He was feted in both Lucknow and Calcutta for his patronage of the arts, including culinary arts. Ask any connoisseur of food in Kolkata, and that person will tell you how the nawab of Awadh introduced potatoes in biryani, a traditional meat-and-rice dish; the nawab’s version of Awadhi biryani continues to be a top draw at countless restaurants in the city, big or small.
But it was this passion for the arts that was apparently used by the British to besmirch his reputation. He was often portrayed as a pleasure-seeking, debauched nawab who was in no mood to fight for his people and resist the expansion of the British rule. To be fair, when the Nawab ascended the throne in 1847, Awadh was already being controlled by the British. As some historians point out, it was as if he was condemned before he even took over the reins from his predecessor. He ruled Awadh for about nine years before he was deposed.
Despite his efforts to ensure good governance, the yoke of British rule proved to be too heavy for the ruler of Awadh. He wanted to be in Calcutta to petition the then Governor General Lord Dalhousie against the illegal annexation of his kingdom. By a quirk of fate, it was his mother, Malika Kishwar, who sailed to Britain to petition Queen Victoria, but to no avail. Another powerful woman in his life, the redoubtable Begum Hazrat Mahal, his former wife, led a mutiny against the British in Lucknow while the Nawab was rotting in jail in Calcutta (Wajid Ali Shah was incarcerated at Calcutta’s Fort William for about 26 months when the Sepoy Mutiny, regarded as India’s first battle for Independence, broke out in 1857).
Could Wajid Ali Shah have been more proactive about resisting the empire? For students of history, the debate on this is likely to continue interminably.
Nevertheless, on the occasion of his 200th birth anniversary, what we should remember is the Nawab’s remarkable syncretism. In a way, he was able to dissolve religious boundaries among his subjects. We must revisit this commendable aspect of his reign, especially at a time when religious polarisation has become an inextricable part of regular public discourse in India.
Of primary importance in this context are his ensemble performances (often termed operatic), called Rahas, inspired by Lord Krishna’s raas leela or raas dance, a part of Hindu scriptures. Sometimes, the nawab himself played the role of Lord Krishna. Scholars say that such performances - a Muslim ruler staging plays about Lord Krishna - bear testimony not only to his extraordinary talent as a theatrical director but also to his syncretic practices.
Then there was the annual Jogia Jashan, a spectacular event in Lucknow in those days, during which the nawab would dress up as a yogi in saffron robes. His subjects too, cutting across social and religious lines, would take part in the celebrations as yogis. What’s more, he fine-tuned kathak, originally a Hindu temple dance form, to its modern version. "Both communities – Hindus and Muslims – were equal in his eyes" says Shahanshah Mirza, Nawab's great, great grandson, who lives in Kolkata.
Needless to say, a monarch, who united religions through the arts or otherwise, had to be an exemplary ruler. A few years ago, during an email interaction following the launch of her book, The Last King in India: Wajid Ali Shah, in Kolkata, British scholar Rosie Llewellyn Jones wrote to me, “If he had been given the chance, and if he had been supported by the British, I think he would have been a good ruler. Probably not a great innovative reformer, but was certainly a great patron of the arts, like Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert.”
All in all, the Nawab continues to fascinate generations. “He represents the best of old India, the courtesy or the tehzeeb, the learning and poetry, the literature, the music and drama,” wrote Jones in her email. “In spite of his sad life, he continued to represent the last vestiges of the Mughal emperors, and I think for this alone he should be celebrated.”