Wajid Ali Shah (1822-1887) was one of the most colourful and
confusing characters in nineteenth-century India. His personality has
seeped into popular memory and culture, surfacing in the most
imaginative of places: from anecdotes about Lucknow's delicious
kebabs to the celebrated films of Satyajit Ray. He is variously
remembered as a hedonist, a political failure who failed to resist the
machinations of the British, and a musical genius. Yet the real monarch
behind the stories has remained elusive. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones'
biographical study offers an unprecedented insight into the life of the
king and his courts in Lucknow and, crucially, Calcutta, where he spent
the last thirty years of his life in exile. While most portrayals end with
the annexation of his kingdom in 1856, either lamenting the injustice of
the East India Company or his own weaknesses, Llewellyn-Jones offers
a nuanced tour of the local politics in Awadh, and then details the fate
of the 'Caesar of the Age' following the loss of his throne. Her account
does justice to the complexities of his personality: while Wajid Ali
Shah was not always especially agreeable (especially, in his later life,
towards his wives and children), he was not the debauched villain that
his critics imagined either. Llewellyn-Jones draws crucial connections
between his personal and political misadventures, and presents a
balanced perspective on his own failings and strengths.
This revisionist biography has been meticulously researched, drawing
on a trove of new sources relating to Nawabi Lucknow and colonial
Calcutta, including forgotten newspaper stories, the family memories of
Wajid Ali Shah's descendants, and contemporary chronicles in Urdu .
However, the real strength of the work lies in Llewellyn-Jones'
unmatched ability to read through the bureaucratic archive of the
Company and the British Government, and to resuscitate the emotions,
confusions, and strategies of the Europeans around Wajid Ali Shah and
his family. In its own right, her depiction of these different characters
makes an enormous contribution to our understanding of the conduct of
the British in nineteenth -century India, and how personal misgivings
and misunderstandings could have profound effects on the political
landscape of the subcontinent.
Rather than following a strictly chronological narrative, the work is
structured around significant episodes in the life of Wajid Ali Shah that
speak to wider, diachronic themes in his reign. Llewellyn-Jones
introduces her readers to the complexities of his family life (with some
375 wives), his theatrical innovations and investments in musical
culture, his financial woes, and even his love of pigeons. These enrich
our sense of the man, and to a large extent help to make sense of Wajid
Ali Shah's political career. By reconstructing the unique and changing
circumstances in which he found himself, this work presents a
compelling portrait of the king and his times.