The Nawab’s Kolkata
When Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, was exiled to Bengal by the British, he had created a mini-Lucknow in the City of Joy. His great great-grandson Shahenshah Mirza recalls the glory of the bygone days
Four decades ago, when Oscar award winning director Satyajit Ray homed in on the imambara at Metiabruz on the outskirts of Kolkata, to shoot extensively for his iconic film Shatranj Ke Khiladi (which was released in 1977), it was probably not a random choice. The imambara at Metiabruz in southwest Kolkata was where Wajid Ali Shah, Awadh’s 10th and last Nawab, deposed by the British, lived in exile. It was a perfect location for the film, which subtly depicted the decline of the rule of this nawab and his kingdom. Today, all that remains to show of the 31 years that Wajid Ali Shah spent here in 1856, is the sprawling imambara, the Shah Masjid, a splendid mosque that he built almost a decade after his exile began, and memories of his great great-grandson Shahenshah Mirza. While banishing the nawab from Lucknow the British had taken away not only his comfort but also confiscated his land and treasury. But the resilient king was not to be defeated. He built a replica of his favourite city in Metiabruz — he brought Lucknow to erstwhile Calcutta. He built a zoo, introduced kite flying, Lucknowi cuisine, Lucknowi gharana of music and dance, and Lucknow’s embroidery chikankari. Elite Bengalis were impressed by the king’s cultural splendour and thus began Bengal’s association with Lucknow’s royal heritage.
In Kolkata, he made Bungalow 11 at Metiaburz his residence. It was once the residence of the then Supreme Court chief justice, Sir Lawrence Peel. When the nawab moved into the house, he renamed it Sultan Khana and the transformation of the locality began into a “duniyabi jannat” or heaven on earth. Today, the bungalow is called BNR House and is the residence of the general manager of the South Eastern Railway. Entry to the building is restricted, but tours can be organised with permission from the South Eastern Railway.
During the nawab’s time, members of his household and court who had accompanied the royal entourage and settled down in Metiaburz spread the use of chaste Urdu, ensembles like sherwanis, churidar, salwar kameez, sharara-gharara, sports like cock-fighting, kite flying, wrestling, and organised mushairas (poetry symposiums) just like they would in their hometown. The rulers of Awadh were great connoisseurs of food and the same passion was reflected in Metiabruz. “The royal tradition of kabootarbaazi (pigeon fighting) came into existence during this time, with the Nawab himself owning around 24,000 pigeons. Such mouthwatering and exotic dishes as murg mussalam, biryani, bater (partridge), nargisi koftas, mutanjan, sheermal and zarda were prepared in the royal kitchen by the chefs of Awadh, who had followed the nawab to Bengal. Elite guests from Kolkata were treated to lavish feasts,” says Shahenshah Mirza. However, with the death of the nawab, the glorious phase too faded. At the time of his death, Wajid Ali Shah’s estate included 257 bighas (an old method of measuring land) with around 20 buildings. Today, only the mosques remain.
Shahi Masjid – Iron Gate Road
As the name suggests, the gate at Iron Gate Road is made of iron. It marked the entrance to the king’s estate. On this road stands the Shahi Masjid or Royal Mosque, which was built around 1856-57. It was probably the first structure the nawab constructed for his personal use. The story goes that he invited anyone who had not missed even one of the five daily prayers to come forward and lay the foundation stone. When no one came forward, he did it himself. The structure has no domes or minarets and has a fountain that doesn’t work. It is now used for wazu (cleansing before the prayer).
Bait-un-Nijat Imambara (house of relief) is on Garden Reach Road, near Kamal Talkies. It is also called Hussainia, Ashurkhana or Imambara, and is a congregation hall for religious ceremonies. In fact, the nawab had built it in 1863 to commemorate Muharram with his family. This single-storey building has scalloped arches, green-shuttered doors and cast iron railings.
Traces of the nawab’s love for opulence can be seen at Sibtainabad Imambara that houses his tomb. A replica of Lucknow’s Bada Imambara, though on a much smaller scale, it was built in 1864. Its opulence is visible in its polished marble floors, Belgian glass lamps and ornate textiles brought all the way from Lucknow by the nawab. Over the main entrance is the Awadh coat of arms and over it an open palm, called “hamsa hand”, a symbol referring to the five most sacred people in Islam. The walls are adorned with verses from the nawab’s poetry and images from Islamic lore. A display case contains a variety of memorabilia including a Quran said to have been copied by the nawab himself.
Begum Umda Mahal Imambara
The Imambara of Begum Umda Mahal was built for one of the nawab’s wives from Bengal. Located to the west of the Sibtainabad Imambara, the exterior of this imambara is in disrepair. The interiors, though deteriorated, are surprisingly beautiful. Though, barely anything of the nawab’s Lucknow remains, most pieces of royalty were either destroyed, stolen or is showcased in some museum. “After his death the famous estate of the nawab was dismantled and things started taking a different shape,” Mirza says. However, hope survives. “Kolkata has come a long way. A lot of restoration work is happening in most heritage buildings in the city and maybe the nawab’s glory will also be brought to life,” he adds.