Friday, 16 January 2015

LITTLE “AWADH” IN KOLKATA

Metiabruz is an epitaph to Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh. Yet this hinterland of Kolkata has today obliterated all memories of the deposed ruler who created a beautiful and bustling township their after he was released from house arrest by the British at Fort William. The echoes of the poetic names this colorful ruler gave to places of worship, palaces and bungalows he constructed there in the latter half of the 19th Century have died down. Only the large Sibtainabad Imambara on Garden Reach Road (Now Nawab Wajid Ali Shah Road) and Shahi Masjid, the Nawab’s personal chapel has survived.



Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was the tenth and last Nawab of the state of  Awadh in present day Uttar Pradesh in India. He ascended the thorne of Awadh in 1847 and ruled for nine years. His Kingdom, long protected by the British under treaty, was eventually annexed bloodlessly on 11th February 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 poiet, playwrite, dancer and great patron of the arts. He was widely credited with the revival of Katthak as a major form of classical Indian dance.


Wajid Ali Shah succeeded to the throne of Awadh 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 Awadh by imposing a hugely expensive, British –run army and repeated demands for loans. The independence of Awadh 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 Awadh at a time when the British East India Company has determined to grab the coveted throne of prosperous Awadh, which was “the garden, granary and Queen-province of India”, though before Britain come 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 generous and passionate patrons of the Fine Arts. When he ascended the throne, he took keen interest in the administration of justice, introduced reforms, and reorganized the military department. Wajid Ali Shah was widely regarded as a depraved and detached ruler, but some of his disrepute 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 Awadh was neither as bankrupt nor as lawless as the British had claimed. In fact, Awadh was for all practical purposes under British rule well before the annexation, with the Nawab playing little more than a ostensible role.



The army was composed mostly of British officers, while the purse strings are firmly under the control of the East India Company. In his book “ Awadh under Wajid Ali Shah”, G. D. Bhatnagar gives the following assessment of this unfortunate 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. Wajjid Ali Shah’s character was complex. Though he was a man of pleasure, he was a 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 contemporaries.”



Metiabruz of today would have been an unknown place if Nawab Wajid Ali Shah wasn’t exiled here. Metiabruz at present in Garden Reach, once used to be an isolated piece of land adjacent to the Hoogly River. It was mainly used by the traders of East India Company as their relaxation spot between their trade ventures by sea route. It was only after 1856, when Nawab Wajid Ali Shah the then Nawab of Awadh, Lucknow was exiled in Metiabruz by the British Government, this place transformed dramatically. Metiabruz ment fort made from mud ( In Urdu matia mean mud and bruz mean fort). Soon his royal house in Metiabruz started to bustle with activity, Awadhi language, art, music, dance, singing, poetry, smell of atar (fragrance made from flowers) are populist style of living.



If Kolkata, a colonial city established by the profit seeking British has earned fame as the countries cultural capital, it owes much to Wajid Ali Shah, who physically brought “Thumri” from Awadh and firmly planted it in the soil of Kolkata. Thus began Kolkat’s romance with classical music. His court had musicians like Ali Baksh Khan and Badal Khan who imparted training to many classical music exponents from the city, finding patrons among the Zamidars and princes.


Songs and stories often lie tucked away between the pages of old books. You need to retrieve them at regular intervals, brushing away the dust that so often coats bookshelves in India. A book Titled “Naajo” by Wajid Ali Shah, translated from the original Farsi (Persian) into Devanagari by Yogesh Praveen, and published by the Uttar Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi more than two decades ago. Both a poet and composer, he wrote prolifically and said to have authored a hundred books, of which 40 from part of valuable collections and holdings. For his ghazals he reserved the pen name “Akhtar”, but when composing thumri, he became “Jaan-e-Aalam Piya” or “Akhtar Piya”. Some of the nawab’s thumri compositions find place in the pages of “Naajo” along with khayal, dadra, compositions, as well as folk repertoire. While the preface as well as information about the compilation has been authored in Persi, the song texts are in Urdu, Braj Bhasha, Avadhi, Bangla, Punjabi, Khadi and even the Marwari dialect. The author includes compositions by great masters like Tansen, Baiju Bawra and Gopal Nayak with due acknowledgement.




An illustration from the title page of “Musammi Ba Banni” written by Wajid Ali Shah, a book on Kathak dance lithographed at Matiabruz, Kolkata, in the manuscripts collection at the Portrait Gallery at Victoria Memorial, Kolkata. The city also got a taste of Awadhi cuisine, rich, spicy yet light on the stomach. The signature Awadhi Biriyani, Nargisi Kofta, Tunde and Gelawati Kebabs are some of the delights prepared by the chiefs and cooks of the erstwhile Nawabi kitchens.



His another major contribution of today’s Metiabruz is the introduction of Hindustani Darjees or tailors. At that period of time there were very few tailors in Bengal who had the artistic skill and concept to match the talent of these Hindustani darjees from Lucknow. Gradually, these darjees became so famous in Bengal that they started getting orders from Bengali Zamindars, Babus and even British Officers. As time passed on holding the hands of these skilful  darrjees, Metiabruz became one of the prominent centers of fashionable garment making in Eastern India. Now around 56% of the total youth in Metiabruz is into the business of garment manufacturing. Bulk shipment of garment produced from Metiabruz is now sent to neighboring countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka every month.



With an intention to create a similar Lucknow in Metiabruz where his people would live happily along with him he went ahead to create a zoo in Metiabruz, the first of its kind in Eastern India. The zoo spread across acres of land had different species of animals besides expensive and exotic birds brought from various parts of India, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, England etc. With the passage of time this vast area of Zoo has been totally engulfed by the Hoogly River.




All that remains of the 31 years that the Nawab spent at Metiabruz since his exile in 1856 is a sprawling Imambra (Sibtainabad Imambara) and a private mosque (Shahi Masjid) that he built 10 years after arriving here. Shahi Masjid on Iron Gate Road once part of the Kings Palace complex. Its narrow entrance is squeezed between high factory walls. The cockscomb-like stucco ornament on the mosque roof is in perfect harmony with its elegant proportions. The Imambara is like a miniature, though less ornate, model of the grand Bara Imambara at Lucknow that was built by Wajid Ali’s great grandfather Asaf-ud-Daulah in 1784. However this Imambara also has its rich slice of history, including tazias that date back to Wajid Ali Shah’s times. The Nawabs grave, as that of his son and many of his descendants, are located inside the Imambara.


The Imambara’s restoration plan was drawn up by the Archaeological Survey of India, which submitted a copy to the State Government with a request for funds for this heritage structure. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation, which got to know of this, promptly offered to fund the restoration project. “The heritage and culture of Awadh was one of the richest and most cosmopolitan in the world. A slice of that remains in Kolkata and we are duty bound to preserve it.” Said Municipal Commissioner Mr. Alapan Bandhopadhya.




It would not be an exaggeration to say that BNR House in Garden Reach is the prettiest of all the bungalows on the bank of Hoogly. It belongs to the South Eastern Railway (once known as BNR) and is close to its Red headquarters building, but unlike the later it is exquisite and small. It was constructed in 1846 and its design was apparently inspired by the Temple of Winds of Athens. The later was also the inspiration behind Metcalfe Hall on Strand Road. The agents of BNR used to live here once, but served as home for many eminent personages, the most famous of them being Wajid Ali Shah, The nawab of Awadh. The nawab arrived in Kolkata on May 6, 1856, and after his release from Fort William, he was allotted this building as his residence. In those days, it is said, it was called Parikhana, the Garden Reach area was called Muchikhola then.



The other important person who called this house his home was Sir Lawrence Peel, the chief justice of India in the 1850s. Sir T.R Wynne , the first agent of BNR, lived in the house from1897 to 1902 along with Lady Wynne, his children and grand children. Earlier these premises also housed the Central Hospital. The building is raised on a solid but ornamental basement and columns that are 36 feet in height and 28 in number. Originally the rear of the building had six more pillars, which have been demolished.



The piece of information is hard to believe, but that is what is written on the plaque at the historic Imambara. The plaque reads: “National Flag (replacing the British flag, Union Jack) was unfurled on this monument 27 years after Independence on 26th January 1975 by Mr. S. M. Abdullah, chairman, Garden Reach Municipality, organized by Prince Nayyer Quder, the newly appointed first nationalist trustee of King of Awadh’s Trust.” 

Sources :
      1.  " Awadh under Wajid Ali Shah" by G. D. Bhatnagar.
      2.  " The literary & cultural contribution of W.A.Shah" by Kaukub-Quder
                   Sajjad Ali Meerza.
      3.  " The Naturalistic King" by Shakunt Pundey. 
      4.  " The last King in India" by Rosie Llywellyn Jones.
      5.  " Kolkata's tie with Wajid Ali Shah" by Ajanta Chakraborty.
                   Business standard Suppliment, 12th Oct,2014.
      6. " Lost splendor" by Soumitra Das. The Telegraph, 12th Jan.2015. 22nd Mar.
                  2009, 15th Dec.2005. The Times of India ,25th March,1990.
      7. "Swansong of a poet-king" by Soumitra Das. The Statesman, 5th July,1982.
      8. http://www.Kolkataonwheels.com/articles-details/nabab-wasjid-ali-shah.html.                9. http://livemint.com/Leisure/fkiqMWKNpq3YtWozVk7C2N/
          theLucknow-lament.html?utm source=copy.
    10. BNR House Photo Coursey www.panoramio.com/photo/78945447.  
    11. "Kolkata off the beaten Path" by Goutam Mitra.
    12. "The King of Hearts" by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, 26th July,2014 
            Business Standard supplement.
    13. "Annexation of Oudh" by Mirza Ali Azhar.
    14. "Nawabs of Oudh & Their Secularity". By B.S. Saxena.
    15.  BNR building Photo Coursey www;//skyscrapercity.com/showthread
           .php?t=436029&page=118.


  Research  -Santanu Roy.
   Picture Courtesy - Sudip Ghosh.