A study of dying culture

by: Rudrangshu Mukherjee

The independent principality of Awadh was established in 1722 by an Iranian adventurer called Saadat Khan who refused the imperial order transferring him to Malwa and made Lucknow the seat of his power. Awadh remained an independent entity till 7 February 1856 when Lord Dalhousie annexed it to the British Empire in India. Earlier, in 1801, Lord Wellesley had truncated the province. Despite the truncation, Awadh when it was annexed held an area of 23,923 square miles with a population of 5,000,000 and yielded to the British government revenue of £1,300,000. But what was more important than these dry-as-dust figures of area, demography and revenue was the fact that from the second half of the 18th century to the time Awadh was annexed, Lucknow, the capital city, had emerged as a great centre of cultural refinement and sophistication. Lucknow set the standards of adab and taste in matters of music, food, dress and so on.

Culture in Lucknow flourished because of the patronage it received from successive nawabs and kings and from their courts. Big landholders, known in Awadh as taluqdars, replicated the styles of the royal court in their own palaces and forts, albeit on a lower scale than the court. Life in Lucknow became famous for its luxury and its pleasures. It also became synonymous with decadence and debauchery. But critics of this pursuit of pleasure and conspicuous consumption overlooked the historical context that induced this lifestyle.

One of the conditions of the independence of Awadh in an era when the British were expanding their dominions all over India was the acceptance of British indirect control by the rulers of Awadh. Through what the British came to call subsidiary alliance, the British stationed a Resident and troops in Lucknow, and made the nawabs pay for them. The troops were supposed to protect Awadh and the Resident controlled the government, though the responsibility of running the administration remained with the nawab. At frequent intervals, the British escalated the amount needed to maintain the troops, the price for independence. Two important consequences followed. One was the fact that Awadh was drained of resources. The other reason was that the arrangement placed the rulers of Awadh in a bizarre situation: they had responsibility without power. The real power vested with the Resident who curbed any initiative that the nawab showed for governance.

The historian T.R. Metcalf has provided an opposite description of the plight of the Awadh nawabs:
‘With the subsidiary allowance drawn tightly around him, he could not ignore the British and act as before. But he had neither the training nor the military force to act upon the injunction of his European advisers. So the nawabs who succeeded Sadaat Ali Khan, one after the other, increasingly abandoned the attempt to govern and retired into the zenana, where they amused themselves with wine, women and poetry. The sensuous life did not reflect sheer perversity or weakness of character on the part of the nawabs. Indolence was rather the only appropriate response to the situation in which the princes of Awadh were placed.’

This situation was only one aspect of the misgovernment in Awadh. The other point mentioned above was equally important. The British presence in Awadh directly and indirectly drained the region of its resources. The British kept hiking their demands on the Awadh rulers for the upkeep of the troops in Lucknow. There was also the fact of British trade which caused economic drain and dislocation. Since 1765 trade controlled by the English East India Company and by European private merchants had channeled economic resources away from Awadh. This had eroded the very viability of the Awadh administration, leading to misgovernment, which in turn had become the reason first for its truncation in 1801 and then its eventual annexation in 1856.

The historian Peter Reeves has noted that Awadh was important to the British, not for what it could do but for what it had to offer. No wonder that British administrators often saw Awadh as something that could be eaten. Lord Wellesley had promised London, ‘a supper of Oudh’; and Lord Dalhousie had described Awadh as ‘a cherry which will drop into our mouths some day. It has long been ripening.’

The culture and refinement of Lucknow in the late 18th and early 19th centuries should be viewed against this backdrop. One of the greatest achievements of Indo-Islamic culture occurred with the threat of a British takeover looming over it. The great and the good of Lucknow – the raees of the city – went about their business with the full knowledge that the British Resident was peering over their shoulders with suspicious and disapproving eyes.

We are fortunate that there exists a vivid depiction of the culture of Lucknow in its best, and alas its last years. This is available in Abdul Halim Sharar, Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, a collection of vignettes of Lucknow that were published originally in Urdu from 1913 onwards in the Lucknow journal Dil Gudaz. The series when it first appeared was called Hindustan Men Mashriqi Tamaddun ka Akhri Namuna (literally, the last example of an oriental culture in India).

The life that Sharar described was that of the affluent. It was a life of leisure, gracious and luxurious, enjoyed by a group of people who did not care about their source of wealth. It was a world of patronage that spread downwards from the nawab to the nobility to the landholders. The lifestyle supported an enormous body of retainers: servants, artisans, singers, musicians and so on. A network of dependence held it together.

Sharar’s book provides details of the kind of activities that engaged the upper classes of Lucknow. One of the principal concerns was refinement of etiquette that spread from how one dressed, to how one greeted a peer or an elder or someone higher in status, to how one ate, to how one chewed paan. All aspects of behaviour were guided by a code of rituals. The lack of knowledge of the code or a transgression of the code was enough to make one an outcast. Lucknow was famous for its adab and its graciousness. Leisure centred around activities like kite flying, cock fighting, eating and, of course, poetry and music.

The spirit of this culture can perhaps be illustrated through two incidents. In 1784, there was a severe famine in Awadh. The then nawab, Asaf ud Daula did not want to inflict the indignity of charity on his subjects. So he undertook the project of building the Imam Bara to alleviate the sufferings of the population. The people who worked to build it were given food in return. It was said that the famine was so severe that even the rich were starving. To feed them, the nawab arranged for the construction work to be carried on at night. The gentry came under cover of darkness, worked by torchlight and got their food.

The other incident comes from the reign of Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Awadh. He was very fond of music and even wrote his own operas. He was so impressed by the rahas relating to the life of Krishna that he composed one himself and then played the role of Krishna in it. Wajid Ali Shah made an attempt to rule. He formed cavalry regiments to which he gave poetic names like Banka, Dandy, Tircha, Fop, Ghangaur, Dark. His infantry regiments bore the names Akhtari, Lucky, Nadiri and Rare. But the Resident stopped his activities and so he retreated completely into his music and a life of leisure.

The people of Lucknow loved the songs he wrote and sang them all the time. When the British asked him to sign a treaty handing over the administration to the English East India Company, he refused to sign. Wajid Ali ordered his subjects not to oppose the British annexation of Awadh when he came to know that many of them were ready to resist. Wajid Ali was exiled to Metia Burz in Calcutta. When he left his beloved Lucknow, the people recited nanha (dirges) and followed him all the way to Kanpur. A song of the period said, ‘Noble and peasant all wept together/ and all the world wept and wailed/Alas! The chief has bidden adieu to/ his country and gone abroad.’

A contemporary noted: ‘The condition of this town [Lucknow] without any exaggeration was such that it appeared that on the departure of Jan-I Alam [as Wajid Ali was fondly known], the life has gone out of the body, and the body of this town had been left lifeless… there was no street or market and house which did not wail out the cry of agony in separation of Jan-I Alam.’

There was no doubt in the minds of the people about who was responsible for the plight of their beloved king. A folk song of the time lamented, ‘Angrez Bahadur ain: mulk lain linho’ – the honourable English came and took the country.

But the annexation was not the end of Lucknow’s ancien regime. The end came through an even more tumultuous event, the revolt of 1857. The revolt in Awadh began with the mutiny of the Lucknow garrison on the evening of 30 May. The mutiny spread swiftly to the cantonments in the districts. In Lucknow, faced with the destruction, plunder and killings that the sepoys perpetrated, the British under Henry Lawrence took refuge in the Residency. Once British authority in the districts of Awadh had collapsed, sepoys from there began to pour into Lucknow. Taluqdars and their retainers joined them. The attitude of the taluqdars is best illustrated by what Hanwant Singh, the Raja of Kalakankar, told Captain Barrow who he had saved from the wrath of the sepoys. He said:

‘Sahib, your countryman came into this country and drove out our king. You sent your officers round the districts to examine the titles to the estates. At one blow you took from me lands which from time immemorial had been in my family. I submitted. Suddenly misfortune fell upon you. The people of the land rose against you. You came to me whom you had despoiled. I have saved you. But now, I march at the head of my retainers to Lakhnao to try and drive you from the country.’

With the arrival of men from the districts, the battle to completely oust the British from Lucknow began. On the one hand, there was fierce fighting around the Residency. On the other hand, there were scenes of great rejoicing in the city. The rebels went around in groups crying Bom Mahadeo and distributed sweets. They declared Birjis Qadr, the young prince, to be the King of Awadh with his mother Begum Hazrat Mahal as the regent. They called Birjis Qadr, embraced him and said, ‘You are Kanhaiya’, harking back perhaps to Wajid Ali playing Krishna in a raha.

British troops under Outram and Havelock entered the Residency on 25 September 1857 but this offered no relief since their supply lines were cut off as rebels surrounded them. Every overture made to the rebel leadership for negotiations were spurned. Around the time when Colin Campbell’s relief force was trying to enter Lucknow, there were more than 50,000 men defending the city. This number increased when Campbell’s forces evacuated the British from Lucknow. The frenzy of the rebels was enhanced by the arrival of Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah who claimed to have received divine orders to throw the British out of India. It was only when Campbell re-entered the city in March 1858 that the revolt in Lucknow was finally quelled and the rebels dispersed into the countryside to carry on their resistance there.

The aftermath of Campbell’s conquest of Lucknow brought the curtain down on the culture and the ambience of the city. The British troops were given a free rein to sack the city and they went berserk. For a few days, the British army had ceased to be an army at all. William Howard Russell, the correspondent of The Times witnessed the loot and the plunder:

‘The scene of plunder was indescribable. The soldiers had broken up several of the store-rooms, and pitched the contents into the court, which was lumbered with cases, with embroidered clothes, gold and silver brocade, silver vessels, arms, banners, drums, shawls, scarfs, musical instruments, mirrors, pictures, books, accounts, medicine bottles, gorgeous standards, shields, spears, and a heap of things… Through these moved the men, wild with excitement, “drunk with plunder”. I had often hard the phrase, but never saw the thing itself before. They smashed to pieces the fowling-pieces and pistols to get at the gold mountings and the stones set in the stocks. They burned in a fire, which they made in the centre of the court, brocades and embroidered shawls for the sake of the gold and silver. China, glass, and jade they dashed to pieces in pure wantonness; pictures they ripped up, or tossed on the flames; furniture shared the same fate.’

One estimate said that the loot from Lucknow amounted to a million and a quarter sterling. To quote Russell again:

‘There are companies which can boast of privates with thousands of pounds worth in their ranks. One man I heard of who complacently offered to lend an officer “whatever sum he wanted if he wished to buy over the Captain”. Others have remitted large sums to their friends. Ere this letter reaches England, many a diamond, emerald and delicate pearl will have told its tale in a very quiet pleasant way, of the storm and the sack of Kaiserbagh.’

Amidst such scenes, the graciousness of Lucknow passed into history to make way for colonial modernity.

Credits : Rudrangshu Mukherjee. Rudrangshu Mukherjee was educated at the Presidency College, Kolkata, Jawarharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and St. Edmund Hall, Oxford. He was awarded a D.Phil. in Modern History by the University of Oxford in 1981. He is the author of Awadh in Revolt 1857-58: A Study of Popular Resistance and Spectre of Violence: The 1857 Kanpur Massacres.