[Reader-list] A study of a dying culture

Kabir Khan kabirkhan1989 at gmail.com
Tue Jul 10 21:07:12 IST 2012


A study of a dying culture

  [image: back to issue] <http://www.india-seminar.com/2007/575.htm>

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

The historian T.R. Metcalf has provided an apposite 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.’

* *

*T*his 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

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).

* *

*T*he 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.

* *

*T*he 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

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

* *

*B*ut 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*.

* *

*B*ritish 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.’

* *

*O*ne 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.

* Author of Awadh in Revolt 1857-58: A Study of Popular Resistance.

With deep regards


Phone: 00-91-85-68-084-079

email: kabi <kabir_khan1989 at hotmail.com>rkhan1989 at gmail.com

email: kabirmasiha at facebook.com <kabir at iycn.in>




More information about the reader-list mailing list