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MEHRU JAFFER | 25 AUGUST, 2016

When Lucknow's Wajid Ali Shah Directed a Play on Krishna and Radha in 1843


In Lucknow it is not unusual to recall Wajid Ali Shah on Janmashtami, the birth anniversary of Lord Krishna. After all Wajid Ali Shah the last ruler of Lucknow had adored the idea of Krishna as supreme lover and his amorous relationship with Radha so symbolic of the ultimate union of lover with beloved and creature with creator.

Wajid Ali Shah had loved the lyrical songs soaked in feelings of intense intimacy and in praise of Krishna that are even today an essential accompaniment to Kathak, a dance form both performed, and patronised by the last ruler of Lucknow.

Wajid Ali Shah was first mesmerised by stories told by professional kathaks about the delightful exploits of Krishna in Mathura, the region where the Hindu god is believed to have spent his childhood with a family of cattle keepers.

He was de- throned by the British in 1856, an incident that a year later led to the first war of independence against the colonial power.

This king was not born to rule. It was only when Wajid Ali Shah was about 15 years old that he was brought into line for the throne. Before that he had spent his time indulging in his love for music dance and literature. Tutors who came home to teach the young prince some Persian and Arabic found him invariably tapping his feet to an invisible orchestra instead of concentrating on his lessons.

During his years as heir apparent, he continued to spend time writing poetry and directing plays. In 1843 he staged his first play at a private event about the love between Radha and Krishna. A group of Brahman actors from Mathura were hired and his favourite wives played leading roles as milk maids.

“This was an important moment in the history of Indian theatre. For the first time a Muslim monarch was directing a play about Lord Krishna and his amorous affairs, an event which could only please his many Hindu subjects,” writes Rosie Llewellyn-Jones in The Last King in India.

The historian finds this monarch fascinated by the story of Krishna, the great lover no doubt identifying himself with the romantic hero and a magnet for women. That is why the king was also called Kanhaiya, one of many names of Krishna. This boosted his reputation as a syncretic ruler who had celebrated popular Hindu festivals and customs with such joy. It also explains the affection in which Wajid Ali Shah was held by the majority of his subjects, making the British officials quite furious.

British Resident of the time, John Shakespeare had complained that the heir apparent's temper is capricious and fickle... This way Wajid Ali Shah was already singled out in British eyes as an unsuitable heir to the throne even before he took to the throne. He was hated by the British primarily because he was so loved by the city, making it that much more difficult for the British to swallow up this wealthy part of South Asia with its 92 palaces, countless gardens, hundreds of temples and mosques and scores of markets overflowing with silk and satin perfumes and grains and above all a culture where the 'you' always came before the 'me'.

Despite his popularity amongst the populace, there were further complaints against Wajid Ali Shah that his days and nights are passed in female apartments and he appears to have resigned himself to debauchery, dissipation and low pursuits.

When he became king in 1847 he was already the author of two long and very romantic poems called The River of Love and The Ocean of Affection. He adapted The River of Love as a rahas or musical stage performance in the tradition of the very vibrant folk theatre of the region that also told and re -told the story of Krishna.

In an imaginary description of one of Wajid Ali Shah's performances, novelist Kenize Mourad writes in The City of Gold and Silver:

Wajid Ali Shah finally makes his entrance to admiring murmurs. Enveloped in white muslin, his wavy hair flowing over his shoulders, and his whole body is covered in blue powder made of finely ground turquoise and pearls. Around him, disguised as gopis are his ravishing fairies adorned with their most sumptuous jewels.

For the same performance Wajid Ali Shah has composed poetry in Urdu about Krishna's love for Radha whose family sees him only as a cow herd. There is opposition to the relationship and Radha is locked up. Desperate over the separation, Krishna turns his back on all the milk maids to perform his dance of despair by himself.

A passionate performance of the kathak dance is the king's gift this evening to the people of the city. A long silk cloth is placed on the ground along which the dancer moves. His agility is astounding. Despite his corpulence, he seems to fly, his bare feet drawing skillful figures, and when the music stops the bewitched audience realises that the crumpled fabric on the ground has formed into the shape of the sovereign's initials!

This is followed by fireworks and feasts laid out for citizens of the entire city who have dressed in their best clothes to be welcomed on the grounds of the Qaiserbagh palace or garden of the Caesar's palace where the gates are wide open for one and all for yet another union between the ruler and the ruled.

Once again they hear their king repeat that all ills come from ignorance, that knowledge of one another's culture only teaches people to appreciate and respect each other.

This was a practice almost perfected in Lucknow more than a hundred years ago and yet there are those who insist today on defining for us what nationalism is?

Janmashtami Mubarak!

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