From a distance they appeared just like a few jugnoos – firebugs – moving here and there in the moonless dark night on the River Hooghly. Then the Bengalis waiting for hours at the Bichali Ghat near Metiabruz in Calcutta suddenly turned hyperactive.

Yes! He is coming.

And come he did. General McLeod, the steamer sailing from Benaras, docked at Bichali Ghat creating a great flutter among the people who thronged there braving the June summer’s heat in 1856.

They wanted a glimpse of the Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah. Soldiers of the East India Company emerged from nowhere to escort him to a horse drawn cart. He was taken to House Number 11 in Metiaburuz.

The people could not see the Nawab. But with his arrival, the social and cultural life of the capital of Kampani Bahadur – the East India Company – changed totally, as a Chhota or Little Lucknow was born in Calcutta.

And Calcutta would never be the same again. The town had metamorphosed culturally by 1858 and Metiabruz practically became the hub of the Bengali Bhadralok, including Raja Sourindra Mohan Tagore of the Pathuriaghata Tagore family.

Practically speaking, the musical and theatrical renaissance of Bengal began only after the arrival of Wajid Ali Shah.

He introduced the Laknavi gharana (house, style) in everything from thumri to kathak to dresses and food.

He set up a naubat khana (music house) in the style of Lucknow and introduced kabootar baazi and patang baazi or pigeon flying and kite flying.

All three activities fascinated the cashrich Bengali zamindars. They took to them with aplomb.

(The Nawab)

Birth of Chhota Lucknow

When Wajid Ali Shah came to Metiabruz, the nearly 6000 people who followed him resettled in Metiabruz and Garden Reach. They were shopkeepers, gardeners, vistiwallahs or water carriers, tailors, goldsmiths, moneylenders, khansamas or chefs, and paanwallas.

Their culture, language, habit, dress and food-habit were all Lacknavi.

Naturally, Metiabruz became a Little Lucknow. It also influenced the local Bengalis, however, and many Bengali Baboos started coming to the palace of the nawab of an evening, donning Lucknavi dress such as kurta-pyjama with zari and chikan work. Way back in 1860, Lucknow chikankari had become quite popular in Calcutta.

The shifting of Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta was somewhat similar to the transfer of the capital of Awadh from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775, under Nawab Asif-ud-Doullah.

Since 1775, Lucknow had followed its own unique style of architecture, blending different patterns like the Hindu style (mainly Rajasthani), Indo-Saracenic style, European style and Islamic style.

Wajid Ali Shah introduced these Lucknavi architectural styles into his own buildings in Metiabruz. Others followed. As a result, even today while moving from one area to the other in Metiabruz, you feel like you’re in Lucknow.

The best stop for someone who wants to enjoy traditional Laqnavi food, outside of Lucknow, is Metiabruz. Wajid Ali Shah was a food lover, and thousands of others who resettled in the Metiabruz area after 1856 also were lovers of food.

And so were the Bengali Baboos. And in fact, the firangi officers of East India Company too would trek miles to come to Metiabruz in those days to taste the food.

Even today, foreign tourists throng Metiabruz and Garden Reach for a taste of kababs, kormas, kaliya, nihari-kulchas, zarda, sheermaal, rumali rotis and warki paranthas.

The arrival of Wajid Ali Shah in Calcutta first helped foodies like the Bengali Bhodrolok taste nawabi cuisine. They also came across words like khansama, bawarchi and rakabdar: chef or cook. Many Bengali zamindars and rajas became so fond of Lucknowi food that they started keeping a special bawarchi for their own cuisine.

It so happened that as Wajid Ali Shah had come to Calcutta on pension after being exiled, he hadn’t enough money to offer his numerous followers mutton biryani. So his khansamas mixed in potatoes to get by with less mutton. Thanks to their innovativeness, this type of biryani, now called the Calcutta biryani, is usually softer than Lucknavi biryani.

That was a time when the potato had just come to Calcutta. In those days it would be brought to the city all the way from Dehradun. For the people, it was a new vegetable.

Beginning of the Era of Sham-e-Mehfil in Calcutta

If you remove thumri and kathak from Kolkata’s culture, you are hacking at the most substantial chunk of it. Wajid Ali Shah should be given the credit of creating the cultural capital of India in 1856.

Within just years of the arrival of the Nawab in Metiabruz, the town virtually shaped its own culture based on thumri and kathak in the line of Lucknow.

Because most of the accomplished singers, instrument players, lyricists and dancers came to Calcutta from Lucknow, Benaras, Allahabad and Kanpur within just one year of Wajid Ali Shah’s arrival, these cities lost their old cultural glory. The Nawab was their biggest patron.

Interestingly, the rich Bengali Baboos also started providing them patronage. As a result, hundreds of kothas of many Baijis sprang up not only in Metiaburz and Garden Reach, but all across Calcutta.

The Nawab had special liking for thumri and ghazal. He found dhrupad a bit boring. But in Calcutta in those days, it was dhrupad that was most popular.

The Nawab held regular kathak dance programmes in his parikhana or the abode of his young dancers. The Baboos of Bengal saw this for the first time and they also constructed their own baganbari or jalsaghar mansions where programmes of thumri or kathak would regularly be held.

Anybody who has seen the vintage Bengali movie Jalsaghar by Satyajit Ray will remember Roshan Kumari presenting a dance with a thumri in pure Lucknavi style.

Jalsaghar, in fact, depicts the metamorphosed cultural life of Calcutta soon after the death of Wajid Ali Shah. When it was released in Paris in 1981 it was a massive hit. This shows the success of the Nawab in the field of thumri and kathak, as even the Parisians liked it though they could hardly understand it.

(A still from the film)

The Nawab became extremely popular in Calcutta immediately on his arrival. He would hold soirées or shaams-e-mehfil most frequently. Almost all the rajas, maharajas, nawabs, sultans and zamindars not only attended those mehfils, but also organised similar evening programmes in their own princely states.

Raja Sourinder Mohan Tagore, a great connoisseur of music, came to Metiabruz from distant Pathuriaghata to enjoy such programmes of the Nawab.

The legendary singers Jadunath Bhattacharya, popularly known as Jadu Bhatta, and Aghore Nath Chakravarty were regular visitors to the Nawab’s mehfils. Jadu Bhatta taught music to Rabindranath Tagore.

The transformation of the earlier traditional culture of Bengal, based on folk songs, kobigan, kirtan and khemta naach, into thumri and kathak, was very fast.

Murad Ali Khan, court musician of the Nawab, mesmerised contemporary VVIPs with his renditions. It was he who taught Aghor Nath Chakravorty.

The versatility of the Bengalis of those days can be gauged from the fact that although all thumris are composed in Brijbhasha, Khariboli or Urdu, they were very adept in adopting them. These languages were totally alien to them. But by 1860-61, the old Bengali culture had almost succumbed.

Incidentally, the song ‘Babul Mora Naihar Chuto Hi Jai’ attributed to Wajid Ali Shah continues to remain the most popular bhairavi in Kolkata even today, with hardly any musical maestro not singing it.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah lived in Calcutta for 31 years. This is the 132nd year since his death or intekaal.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

(Grave of Wajid Ali Shah)