The British Empire Library

The Last King in India: Wajid Ali Shah

by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
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.

British Empire Book
Rosie Llewellyn-Jones
First Published
‎ C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2014 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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