The king who never forgot he was a king

Sudhirendar Sharma

The King
The King

Had he been born a century later, he would undoubtedly have found his career in the film world.
For different reasons, the lives of the Indian Kings and Princes have been intriguing both for the historians as well as for ordinary folks. Though he was known for his tasteful eccentricities, it remains a mystery till date why Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last King, had his left breast and nipple artistically exposed between the gold borders of his royal dress all the time. Shah’s portrait in the picture gallery near the Husainabad Clock Towers in Lucknow is reportedly kept behind a curtain, because it is said that a British lady had fainted after seeing the exposed nipple.It remains anybody’s guess whether the king was making an exaggerated point about his religious affliation or was it only to make a fashion statement. Should the latter be true, the King was surely ahead of his time? It is hard to believe if he simply wanted to be portrayed as a sensual man because according to one of his numerous descendants living in Kolkatta, the King was such a pious man that he could not allow any females to serve him unless he had contracted a temporary marriage with them, ended up marrying some 375 women by the end of his life in 1887.
A teetotaler all his life, Wajid Ali Shah had a fascination for Krishna, and was sometimes referred to as Kanhaiya, which was reflected through his passions for grand theatrical events. Had he been born a century later, he would undoubtedly have found his career in the film world, with the chance to realize, on an epic scale, the theatrical presentations he had directed in Lucknow – some of which lasted for over a month. History has seemingly been unkind to him, not crediting him as one of the most important cultural catalysts of his day and for the ebullient creativity he represented.
British historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones reconstructs Wajid Ali Shah’s life through his numerous wives, his menagerie, the trauma of annexation, his uncurbed extravagance, the frustration of his sons and the dismantling of his household after his death. The actual reign of the poet-ruler had lasted only nine years but Wajid Ali Shah spent the last 30 years of his life as a deposed ruler (on pension by the British East India Company) at Garden Reach near Calcutta, ruling a mock-kingdom with 6,000 subjects. Even in exile, he had continued the customs of the royal court, neither forgetting that he was the King nor allowing others to forget it either.
It is a brilliantly told historical account of an eccentric King who remained woefully misunderstood during his time, but one who comes out as a man of character who lived his life on his own terms.
The Last King in India: Wajid Ali Shah
by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones
Random House, New Delhi
Extent: 314, Price: Rs. 599
(Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is the Director of Ecological Foundation, New Delhi)