Volume: 17, No: 04 ; April-2023
Janmashtami is celebrated in Lucknow on Lord Krishna’s birth anniversary, and it is not uncommon to think of Wajid Ali Shah on this day. After all, Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of the city, loved the concept of Krishna as the supreme lover, and his love affair with Radha symbolizes the ultimate union of the lover with the beloved and the creature with the creator.
Lyrical songs with a strong sense of intimacy and praise for Krishna were Wajid Ali shah’s favorite. Today, these songs are an integral part of Kathak, the dance form that was performed and patronized by the last ruler of Lucknow.
Wajid Ali Shah was first captivated by the tales told by professional Kathaks about Krishna’s adventures in Mathura where it is said the Hindu god grew up with a family of cattle-breeders.
Wajid Ali Shah was dethroned by the British in 1856, an event that led to a mutiny against colonial power a year later.
The King was not born with the capacity to rule. He did not ascend to the throne until he was fifteen years old. Prior to his accession to the throne, he spent his time indulging in his hobbies of music, dancing, and reading. When tutors returned home to instruct the young prince in Persian and Arabic, they would find him tapping his foot to the tune of an unseen orchestra rather than focusing on the lessons.
During his years as the heiress, he continued to write poetry and direct plays. His first play was performed in 1843 at a private function, which was about Radha and Krishna’s love story. A troupe of Brahmin artists from Mathura were cast as the main characters, with his favorite wives playing the roles of milkmaids.
“This was an important moment in the history of Indian theatre. For the first time a Muslim monarch was directing a play about Lord Krishna and his amorous affairs, an event which could only please his many Hindu subjects,” writes Rosie Llewellyn-Jones in The Last King in India.
According to the historian, this king was entranced by the tale of Krishna. The great lover was in love with the romantic hero who loved women. Hence, the king is also called Kanhaiya. One of Krishna’s many names is Kanhaiya.
Wajid Ali Shah’s love for Krishna adds to his reputation as the syncretic monarch who celebrates Hindu festivals and traditions with pride. It also explains Wajid Ali Shah’s affection for most of his subjects.
According to John Shakespeare, a British Resident at the time, “the heir apparent temper is fickle and capricious. This makes him an unsuitable successor to the throne in the eyes of the British, even before he assumed the throne.”
The British hated him mainly because he was loved by the people of the city, which made it even more difficult for them to conquer this rich region of South Asia, home to 92 palaces; countless gardens; hundreds of temples; mosques; hundreds of markets filled with silk, satin, and grains; and above all, a culture where ‘you’ always came before ‘me’
Despite his popularity with the population, there were still other grievances against him, such as his spending of his days and nights in apartments only accessible to women, and his apparent acceptance of debauchery, extravagant expenditure, and immoral activities.
When he assumed the throne in the year 1847, he wrote two lengthy and highly romantic poetry collections, entitled River of Love and the Ocean of Love, which he adapted into a musical theater performance, a highly popular folk theater tradition in the region that also tells and recreates the story of Krishna.
Kenize Mourad wrote an imaginative account of one of the performances in his book The City of Gold and Silver: “At the end of the show, Wajid Ali Shah arrived amid hoots and hollers. Waving a white muslin handkerchief in front of him, her long white hair cascades past her shoulders, and her whole body is streaked with blue powder of fine-ground turquoise, pearls, and emeralds. All around him, dressed as gopis were his beautiful fairies decked out in their finest jewels”.
At the same show, he wrote an Urdu poem in which Krishna falls in love with Radha, only to be rejected by Radha’s family, who sees Krishna as nothing but a cattle-herd. They resist their love, and Krishna is arrested. Desperately, Krishna turns away all the milkmaids, and dances the dance of despair.
An invigorating Kathak dance performance is the gift of the King to the people in the city today. He places a long silk scarf on the floor and the dancers dance along with him. His speed is incredible. He is fat, but he looks as if he is flying. He sketches figures with his feet. When the music ends, the audience is surprised to see that the cloth crumpled on the floor has the initials of the ruler.
Then, the fireworks and the celebrations follow where people from all over the city come to the Qaiserbagh Palace or the gardens of Caesar’s Palace in their finest attire. There is a long-standing relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Again they hear the king say that all evil comes from the ignorance of the people and that only by understanding each other’s culture will the people value and respect one another. This was a practice he nearly mastered in Lucknow over a century ago, but there are still those who insist on trying to define what patriotism means to us.
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