Wajid Ali Shah (Born 30 July 1822 Died.1 September 1887) was the fifth King of Oudh, holding the position from 13 February 1847 to 7 February 1856. He was the tenth and last nawab of the princely kingdom of Oudh in present day Uttar Pradesh in India. He ascended the throne of Awadh in 1847 and ruled for nine years. His kingdom, long protected by the British under treaty, was eventually annexed peacefully on February 7, 1856 – days before the ninth anniversary of his coronation. The Nawab was exiled to Garden Reach in Metiabruz, then a suburb of Kolkata, where he lived out the rest of his life off a generous pension. He was a poet, playwright, dancer and great patron of the arts. He is widely credited with the revival of Kathak as a major form of classical Indian dance.As a Nawab Vajid Ali Shah as Nawab Wajid Ali Shah succeeded to the throne of Oudh when its glory days were at its peak and passing. The British had annexed much of the kingdom under the treaty of 1801, and had impoverished Oudh by imposing a hugely expensive, British-run army and repeated demands for loans. The independence of Oudh in name was tolerated by the British only because they still needed a buffer state between their presence in the East and South, and the remnants of the Mughal Empire to the North. Wajid Ali Shah was most unfortunate to have ascended the throne of Oudh at a time when the British East India Company was determined to grab the coveted throne of prosperous Oudh, which was “the garden, granary, and queen-province of India”, though before Britain came into full control, his predecessors and successors were one of the major threats to the Mughal Empire. In different circumstances perhaps, he might have succeeded as a ruler because he had many qualities that make a good administrator. He was generous, kind and compassionate towards his subjects, besides being one of the most magnanimous and passionate patrons of the Fine Arts. When he ascended the throne, he took keen interest in the administration of justice, introduced reforms, and reorganised the military department, but gradually sank into a life of pleasures surrounded by courtesans, singers, dancers, and eunuchs.
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Wajid Ali Shah was widely regarded as a debauched and detached ruler, but some of his notoriety seems to have been misplaced. The main case for condemnation comes from the British Resident of Lucknow, General Sleeman who submitted a report highlighting maladministration and lawlessness supposed to be prevailing there.This proved to be the trigger the British were looking for, and formed the official basis for their annexation. Recent studies have, however, suggested that Oudh was neither as bankrupt nor as lawless as the British had claimed. In fact, Oudh was for all practical purposes under British rule well before the annexation, with the Nawab playing little more than a titular role. The army was composed mostly of British officers, while the purse strings were firmly under the control of the East India Company. In his book “Awadh Under Wajid Ali Shah”, Dr. G.D. Bhatnagar gives the following assessment of this ill-starred prince: “Cast by providence for the role of an accomplished dilettante, he found himself a misfit for the high office to which he was elevated by chance. Wajid Ali Shah’s character was complex. Though he was a man of pleasure, he was neither an unscrupulous knave nor a brainless libertine. He was a lovable and generous gentleman. He was a voluptuary, still he never touched wine, and though sunk in pleasure, he never missed his five daily prayers. It was the literary and artistic attainments of Wajid Ali Shah which distinguished him from his contem poraries.”Patron of the arts Contribution to music A large number of composers who thrived under the lavish patronage of the Nawab rulers of Lucknow enriched the light classical form of thumri; most prominent among these was Wajid Ali Shah. He was not only a munificent patron of music, dance, drama, and poetry, but was himself a gifted composer. He had received vocal training under great Ustads like Basit Khan, Pyar Khan and Jaffar Khan. Although his pen-name was Qaisar, he used the pseudonym “Akhtarpiya” for his numerous compositions. Under this pen name, he wrote over forty works – poems, prose and Thumris. “Diwani-Akhtar”, “Husn-i-Akhtar” contain his Ghazals. He is said to have composed many new ragas and named them Jogi, Juhi, Shah-Pasand, etc. Revival of Kathak,Kathak dance attained new heights of popularity and glory under his expert guidance and lavish patronage. Thakur Prasadji was his Kathak guru, and the unforgettable Kalka-Binda brothers performed in his court. What with the grand pageantry of the Rahas, Jogiya Jashan, Dance dramas, and Kathak performances, Lucknow became the magnetic cultural centre where the most reputed musicians, dancers and poets of the time flourished. The greatest musicians, dancers and instrumentalists of the time enjoyed his munificent patronage and hospitality.Hindustani Theatre When Wajid Ali Shah was a young boy, some astrologers warned his parents that he would become a Yogi, and advised them that the boy should be dressed up as a Yogi on each birthday of his so as to counteract the effect of the evil stars. He established his famous Parikhaana (abode of fairies) in which hundreds of beautiful and talented girls were taught music and dancing by expert-teachers engaged by the royal patron. These girls were known as Paris (fairies) with names such as Sultan pari, Mahrukh pari and so on. On each birthday, the Nawab would dress up as a Yogi with saffron robes, ash of pearls smeared on his face and body, necklaces of pearls around his neck, and a rosary in his hand, and walk pompously into the court with two of his ‘paris dressed up as Jogans. Gradually he made it into a spectacular pageant or Mela known as Jogia Jashan, in which all citizens of Lucknow could participate, dressed as Yogis, irrespective of caste and creed. Later on, when his favourite venue, the Qaisarbagh Baradari was built, he began to stage his magnificent Rahas (obviously a Persianised name for Rasleela) full of sensuous poetry, his own lyrical compositions and glamorous Kathak dances. Qaisarbagh Ranbir Singh gives details of Wajid Ali Shah’s book entitled Bani in which the author mentions 36 types of Rahas all set in Kathak style (with colourful names like Mor-Chchatr, Ghunghat, Salami, Mor Pankhi and Mujra), and gives exhaustive notes about the costumes, jewellery, and stage- craft. Rahas, prepared at a fabulous cost of several lakhs (hundred thousands) of rupees, became very popular, and was performed at the Kaisarbagh-Rahas Manzil, (most probably the first Hindustani Theatre Hall). Many have regarded Wajid Ali Shah as “the first playwright of the Hindustani theatre”, because his “Radha Kanhaiyya Ka Qissa” staged in the Rahas Manzil was the first play of its kind. It featured Radha, Krishna, several sakhis, and a vidushaka-like character called “Ramchera”. Songs, dances, mime, and drama were all delightfully synthesised in these Rahas performances. He dramatised many other poems such as Darya-i-Tashsq, Afsane-i-Isbaq, and Bhahar-i-Ulfat. It is said that Amanat’s Inder Sabha was inspired by these dance-dramas, written, produced and staged by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah His exile years An illustration from the title page of Musammi Ba Banni written by Wajid Ali Shah, a book on Kathak dance lithographed at Matiabruz, Calcutta. in the manuscripts collection at the Portrait Gallery of Victoria memorial, Calcutta.In his exile in Metiabruz, he tried to keep the sweet memories of his Lucknow era alive by recreating the musical environments of his Kaisarbagh Baradari. The banished king had been given a number of fine houses with vast grounds stretching along the banks of the River Hooghly 3 or 4 miles south of Kolkata. Because of an Earthen Dome (raised platform), people called it “Matiya Burj”. The king spent lavishly out of his income of 12 lakh (1.2 million) rupees per annum and before long a Second Lucknow arose in this area. “There was the same bustle and activity, same language, art, poetry, style of conversation – the same pomp and splendour, the same opulent style of living. Taking advantage of the Shia Law of Mut’ah, he contracted temporary legal marriages with as many good-looking and talented girls as he fancied. Troupes of artistes congregated in his court, the best singers were enlisted into his service and there was a larger concourse of musicians in Matiyaburj than could be found anywhere else in India”.His legacy: “Babul Mora” Thumri His Bhairavi thumri “Babul Mora Naihar Chhooto Jaay has been sung by several prominent singers, but the version most remembered is by Kundan Lal Saigal for the 1930s movie Street Singer.In a strange manner this sad song epitomises the pain and agony of the poet king himself when he was exiled from his beloved Lucknow.