History & Culture

‘Debauchery, dissipation and low pursuits’

130 years after his death, the short and plump Wajid Ali Shah’s coital and marital history continues to fascinate

In his candid autobiography Ishqnama, the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, writes about a particular afternoon. The Nawab writes, in Persian, that when he was sitting in his garden reading his poetry, he was so overwhelmed by it that he ripped his robes apart in a trance. With a mere loincloth around his waist, he smeared himself and his female companions with ash, pretending to be a yogi. As the evening approached, they reclined by a river, watching fireworks in the sky.

There is no doubt that the erstwhile king was a hedonist, who enjoyed being surrounded by women and beauty. Known to be short and plump, he is depicted in most paintings at the State Museum in Lucknow sitting with the women of his zenana, hair curling down to his shoulders, wearing a rich brocade angrakha and sneakily exposing, in his signature style, the left nipple. In what must be one of history’s frankest memoirs, the eccentric Nawab describes sparkling vignettes from his early romances, painting a picture of himself as a dreamy figure irresistible to women.

In the early chapters of his autobiography he recounts being molested by his female servant Rahiman when he was all of eight. Ameeran, another middle-aged maid, replaced her and exposed the young prince to ‘affairs of love’ and broken hearts. Soon after, the young prince found and lost love in his father’s palace, indulging in adultery every now and then, using his royal authority to whisk women away to deliver his babies in secret. At times, he chased beauty and at others, he found bright, talented women from the lower classes and no one dared to deny him.

Shah’s marital and coital history lends an interesting facet to the man who was dismissed by the East India Company even before he ascended the throne in 1847. “The heir-apparent’s character holds out no promise of good,” complained John Shakespear, an East India Company bureaucrat. “By all accounts his temper is capricious and fickle, his days and nights are passed in the female apartments and he appears to have resigned himself to debauchery, dissipation and low pursuits.”

Looming large in the account are Shah’s wives, rumoured to be more than 300 in number. In his late teens, the prince’s first marriage was arranged to Begum Khas Mahal, who was a poet. In the better moments of their relationship, the king writes, they read poetry to each other. She became, in time, something of the head of the harem: enabling his polygamous arrangements, producing heirs to the throne, and gifting his courtesans clothes and jewellery.

Betrothed to slaves

The prince had a remarkable fondness for women of dark skin at a time when pale skin was considered a sign of nobility. He married many women from the families of African slaves brought in by Arab traders. One of the brides was named Ajaib Khanum, which roughly translates to ‘bizarre woman’, perhaps for her alien features. And then there was Fizzah, the king’s African bodyguard.

Shah was a Shi’a Muslim, which allowed him two types of marriages: nikah (permanent) and mutah (temporary) and both kinds of wives were to be taken into purdah soon after they conceived. The morganatic mutah wives could be Muslim, Christian or Jewish, but Sarfaraz Mahal, a Hindu by birth, was an exception. An illustration in Ishqnama depicts the king holding her hand, and in the other a sword with which he is about to tease her dupatta. A favourite wife for almost a decade, Sarfaraz Mahal converted to Islam after her marriage to Shah but divorced soon after.

“Shah certainly married and divorced a huge number of women,” Rosie Llewellyn Jones, author of The Last King in India, on the king’s life and times, tells me. “His attitude seemed to be that they were disposable once they had served their purpose. I’m not sure about the word ‘chauvinist’. But he liked women and seemed quite enchanted by them—just not the same woman though—he was very much a butterfly, flitting from one to the other. And I think this is how he liked to see himself.”

The queens of the zenana waited with bated breath for the privileged company of the king, enticing him with aromatic pastes and perfumes on their bodies, hand-crafted gifts, and sometimes, as a desperate measure, scarring themselves to gain his sympathy. Eunuchs were employed to entertain them and sometimes the queens distracted each other with physical play behind the veiled quarters. Often, a wife, tired of the husband’s infidelities, would pick a fight, sometimes serious enough for the king to end the marriage.

The Nawab was unfortunate to have ascended the throne at a time when the East India Company was bent on seizing Awadh, “the garden, granary, and queen-province of India.” Under different circumstances perhaps, he might have succeeded as a ruler. He was considerate towards his subjects, besides being a patron of the arts, spending most of his annual income on music, dance and drama.

Culture club

In the nine years of his reign, soon after he built his own palace at Qaiserbagh, Wajid Ali Shah made Lucknow a cultural centre. He staged the magnificent rahas (musicals) in a state-of art-theatre called Baradari. His dramas on Krishna’s love life were full of intense poetry. His own compositions were written under the pen-name ‘Akhtarpiya’. In dazzling Kathak performances, two of his favourite wives, Yasmin Pari and Hur Pari, often played the leading roles of milkmaids.

One of his biggest contributions was the development of Pari Khana, a school for music and dance. In his book Musammi Ba Banni, Shah recorded that 180 female artists were employed in Pari Khana and were taught by instructors in a space heavily fortified by female sentinels skilled in martial arts and weapons. The central hall of the school, decorated with chandeliers, hosted famous musicians and dance masters such as Thakur Prasad and the Kalka-Binda brothers. If the king desired intimacy with any of the paris, he solemnised a mutah wedding. No less than 112 such marriages took place.

Satyromania aside, the Nawab faithfully followed Islamic principles, for instance avoiding physical encounters during Ramadan, but it is no surprise that he contracted gonorrhoea and was impotent by 60.

In February 1854, Shah was deposed by the British Resident for “dilettantism and neglect of official duties” and exiled to Matiaburj near Calcutta. After tearfully handing over his turban to Colonel Outram, he left with his many wives, including Khas Mahal. Begum Hazrat Mahal, of half-African descent, and undoubtedly his favourite wife, held fort in Lucknow. The Begum is famous for having spearheaded the 1857 mutiny against the British, holding fort for 10 months.

Marriages, menageries

Twenty eight years later, impotent and embittered by his treatment by the British, but still full of joie de vivre, Shah continued spending his lavish income of ₹12 lakh on his many passions. Within a few years, a second Lucknow rose in Matiaburj—complete with durbar halls that hosted world-class performances and brought Kathak to its present-day glory. His backyard had a menagerie of giraffes, zebras, tigers and exotic birds. Marriages continued with as many good-looking and talented girls as he fancied, but he also divorced his older wives if their children, his sons, asked for an increase in their meagre allowances. The king divorced his first mutah wife, Mashuq Mahal, after 30 years of marriage. When this happened, she wrote “I ought not to be sacrificed at the shrine of my husband’s whims” and through the intervention of the British agent, Mowbray Thomson, managed to get a small pension for his divorced wives.

The king’s descendants in Kolkata narrate stories they heard from their ancestors. I meet Shahenshah Mirza and his wife, Fatima, who belongs to the family of Khas Mahal and is a regular contributor of the royal family’s recipes in local newspapers. “The Nawab was a connoisseur of food. Once his chefs experimented with potatoes in his Luckowi biryani and he loved it. Aloo, since then, became a constant in the Kolkata biryani,” Fatima says with a chuckle.

“Wajid Ali Shah’s character was complex,” says Mirza. “Though he was a man of pleasure, he was not a brute. Did you know he was teetotaller all his life? The paanwallahs in Matiaburj refuse to part with the photos of their revered Nawab. So it is unfortunate that he would finally find more pleasure in his zoo than in his massive harem of wives.”

The writer, author of The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions, digs coffee shop talks and pens them into stories for a living.

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2020 8:07:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/debauchery-dissipation-and-low-pursuits/article18712603.ece

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