Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (r. 1847-1856) was a very unlucky King. He had inherited a princely state that had been greatly weakened by the British, and was more a titular head than an actual administrator. But Wajid Ali Shah was also a man of incredible talent. If he couldn’t flourish as a sovereign, he became a patron of the arts and culture, and promoted far-reaching social and cultural reforms in Awadh, whose heart was the present-day Lucknow.
The tenth and last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah was himself a gifted poet, a playwright, a writer and even a Kathak dancer, and he presided over a state that was considered the cultural capital of North India during the Nawabi era. But like most other artistes, Wajid Ali Shah was given to flights of whimsy, and he revelled in the company of ‘fairies’. Wander the halls of the Bhatkhande Music Institute in Lucknow today and you might still hear the lingering thumris of his favourite ‘paris’.
Mind you, these ‘fairies’ were no imaginary beings. The Nawab’s paris were pre-teens and teens, who were rigorously groomed as singers and dancers and went on to become courtesans. Their legacy today is the Bhatkhande Music Institute, a deemed university noted all over the world for its contribution to Indian classical music. The institute is housed in the Parikhana, or the palatial quarters of the Nawab’s paris, and the halls and courtyards where they used to rehearse and perform for their royal audience.
Qaiser Bagh: The Nawab’s Beloved City
The Parikhana was only one of the many grand structures and institutions that constituted Qaiser Bagh, a ‘city within a city’ built by Wajid Ali Shah as soon as he ascended the throne in 1847. Qaisarbagh or the Emperor’s Garden was developed at a cost of 80 lakh rupees, including furniture and decoration. The massive complex comprised a magnificent palace, manicured gardens, large pavilions, spacious courtyards, buzzing markets, elaborate entrance gates, a mosque, stately tombs and, of course, the beautiful and celebrated Parikhana.
Qaiser Bagh was ruthlessly demolished by the British following the Revolt of 1857 and only a few of its structures are still standing. The urban sprawl has long since filled every inch of space between these buildings, creating islands of nostalgia, where isolated Nawabi-era monuments now fight apathy, neglect and encroachment. However, due to its conversion into a school of music, the Parikhana was spared.
Nawab Wajid Ali Khan’s Parikhana was designed with the most exquisite architecture. Glittering chandeliers hung from the ceiling of the central hall, and a marble courtyard with beautiful ceramic flower pots created the right ambience for open-air performances, where the Nawab would be entertained by his paris.
Outside the Parikhana is the Sangmarur Pul, a bridge that straddles a canal, whose waters were used to tend to the massive lawns in the Qaiser Bagh Complex. The beautiful lush gardens were filled with seasonal flowers and trees with paved footpaths for pedestrians. Life-size marble statues and tall lamp posts lined the canal and set a regal tone for evenings when the Nawab came a-calling.
The functioning of the Parikhana was personally supervised by Wajid Ali Shah, and his young and beautiful paris were usually drawn from the families of courtesans. These paris hailed from one of three communities in Lucknow. The first group was the Kanchan tribe from Punjab and Delhi. The courtesans in this group were sex workers. The second group comprised Chunawalis, whose occupation was to sell chunam or lime mortar. Chunawali Haider, who was gifted with an especially melodious voice, was the most famous courtesan in this category. The third group was known as Nagarnt, a tribe from Gujarat.
The paris were primarily performers and their music and dance masters too lived in quarters here. But the Parikhana also served as a finishing school, where budding courtesans learnt sophisticated etiquette so that they could impress the Nawabs, not only with their singing and dance performances but also with their carefully honed social skills and personality.
These courtesans-in-the-making and their mentors lived along with eunuchs and women sentries, who were trained in martial arts and the use of firearms as it was their job to guard the Parikhana. In his book Bani, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah lists 192 female artists in different categories, employed in the Parikhana. If the Nawab wanted an intimate relationship with any of these women, he solemnised a mutah or temporary marriage, which was later converted into a nikah if the woman conceived a child with him.
Parikhana As Marris College
When the British took a wrecking ball after the revolt of 1857 to Qaiser Bagh and other magnificent monuments in Awadh, the Parikhana fortunately survived. Interestingly the prestigious Lucknow University which was initially known as canning college was started here in the year 1878.
Parikhana revived its tradition of music and dance in 1926, when Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande established a music school in its premises, with the help of Rai Umanath Bali, Rai Rajeshwar Bali and other music patrons from Lucknow. The college was inaugurated by the then Governor of Awadh, Sir William Marris, and was named the ‘Marris College of Music’.
Pandit Bhatkhande was an Indian musicologist who wrote the first modern treatise on Hindustani Classical Music, the North Indian version of Indian Classical Music, an art which had been developed over the centuries largely through oral traditions. In 1966, the government of Uttar Pradesh brought this college under its purview and renamed it ‘Bhatkhande College of Hindustani Music’ after its founder. It further renamed it the ‘Bhatkhande Music Institute’ when the academy became a deemed university in the year 2000.
Today, the institute draws students from all over the world and offers a Diploma in Music, a Bachelor of Performing Arts degree, a Master of Performing Arts degree, and a Doctorate in music. Boasting virtuosos and celebrated musicians in its faculty, the institute has transformed the way Indian classical music is taught and its illustrious alumni are scattered all over the world.
But the musical traditions followed by the institute are built on a foundation laid by a Nawab who has left an indelible mark on the performing arts in North India. Wajid Ali Shah was himself a gifted music composer and a poet, and is widely regarded as the founder and promoter of the Lucknowi Gharana of Kathak. He also composed his own thumris, which are popular in Kathak even today.
Wajid Ali Shah was exiled to Calcutta by the British in 1856, and in a doomed attempt to cling to the glory of his beloved Awadh, he attempted to recreate a miniature version of it in the estate he had been assigned in Calcutta.
Over the next 20 years, his life went to pieces but hundreds of miles away, in the land he once called home, his cultural legacy continued to thrive. The work being done by the Bhatkhande Music Institute would have made the deposed poet-king proud.