OLD Lucknow was a place of pleasure, of beautiful gardens, extraordinary buildings, menageries maintained by the nawabs, music and dancing exquisite food, fireworks and lavish parties, and a good share of rogues and villains. The wealthy nawabs were only part of the glittering scene that simultaneously enchanted and shocked visitors, not to mention the inhabitants. This book attempts to explore the more curious byways that lead off the main streets, to undiscovered corners of the city’s past.
Using records not used before and information provided by the descendants of those who lives in Nawabi Lucknow, Rosie Llewellyn-Jones examines Nawabi entertainments, the true story of the Notorious ‘Barber of Lucknow’, the sad history of the European graveyards, and the adventures of Indian men and women in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England.
Containing a number of previously unpublished illustrations, these curious stories of people who inhabited this exotic and vanished world will appeal to readers interested in human stories and history, besides scholars who will find new insights into the life of Nawabi Lucknow.
ROSIE LLEWELLYN-JONES is Archives and Records Officer at South Bank University, London. A Ph.D. from the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), London, her specialization is architectural ideas and urban history. She is the author of A Fatal Friendship: The Nawabs, the British and the City of Lucknow (OUP, 1985) and A Very Ingenious Man: Claude Martin in Early Colonial India (OUP, 1992).
‘Another book on Lucknow?’ said my friends, ‘You’ve already written one!’ Well, yes I had, I Explained, but that one was about building and this one is about people. ‘You mean the Nawabs?’ they asked. Certainly the Nawabs must feature heavily in any book about Lucknow, for they created many of its spectacular buildings, and influenced most of its culture during the eighty-odd years of rule in the capital. But the Nawabs, who later became the Kings of Awadh, were not the only people in Lucknow, and sometimes not even the most interesting, despite their fabulous wealth. There were others too, British among them, who were keen to extract money from the Nawabs. These were mostly officials of the East India Company, working for the Company, but sometimes on their own account too, with lucrative little businesses. There were also freelancers, men who risked everything to gain employment at Court, and just a few who succeeded and became wealthy themselves. There were people who lost everything too, including the last King, Wajid Ali Shah, who lost his crown, and his mother Janab Alia Begam, who lost her life in trying to win it back. There were rogues and villains, British as well as Indian, and many tragic tales unfolded in the city.
But there is a danger of becoming too serious about Lucknow and its culture. It was, after all, a place of pleasure, of beautiful gardens, extraordinary building, music and dancing, exquisite food, theatrically staged events, and above all, parties. There is something rather endearing about Nasir-ud-din Haider, the most dissolute of all the Kings, who when rebuked by the British Resident for some new folly, replied, ‘Come what may, he would drink Hip! Hip! Hoora!’ And he did.
This book then is not about the political history of Awadh, or its uneasy relationship with the East India Company, but an attempt to explore some of the previously unknown aspects of Nawabi Lucknow. It is the byways of the past that are often the most interesting, those winding alleys that lead off the main streets, away from the crowd, to undiscovered corners of a city’s history. What happened in the year before the uprising of 1857 seems to me much more interesting than the often repeated story of the siege of the British Residency. Similarly, the journeys of a few Indian travelers from Lucknow to England are often more intriguing than the familiar tales of the memsahibs going to India.
Such an approach is not without its rewards, both for the writer, and it is to be hoped, for the reader. Who would have though Queen Victoria would have written a description in her journal of Janab Alia Begam which remained unpublished in the archives of Windsor Castle all these years? And how did the Barber of Lucknow, George Derusett, rise from cutting hair to fitting out a luxury sailing ship for his master? His unpublished ash Book tells the story for the first time, and incidentally presents Derusett in a more sympathetic light than before. Fifty year after Independence stories still surface about how the British left India, in a hurry, as the date of their departure was brought forward. In Lucknow the military in particular were so anxious to make a decent exit, with their Union flag, that they forgot a British soldier imprisoned in Lucknow jail for some misdemeanour, and the poor man was only found and released some months later by a conscientious Indian Army officer.
Though the people of Nawabi Lucknow may seem distant to us, at the end of the twentieth century, they are not mythological characters, as their children frequently prove. Among the correspondents who have kindly provided material for this book are descendants of the Nawabs themselves, the Quieros family, the family of Mariam Begam, the English wife of Gazi-ud-din Haider, the Derusett family, Dr G.D.S. Beechey on George Beechey (Portrait painter to the last four Kings of Awadh), and others. Here are many chains that link us to the past, and the exotic world of old Lucknow is no exception.
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