Author Rosie Llewellyn-Jones is keen to know what readers in India think of her book based on the King of Oudh as her views are not of wholehearted admiration Image Credit: Supplied

The “Last King in India” is a new book by British author Rosie Llewellyn-Jones about the life of eccentric 19th-century ruler Wajid Ali Shah. This is a man who had over 350 wives, kept a menagerie of animals like tigers and elephants and is remembered today more for his patronage of arts then for his handling of matters of the state.

“Wajid Ali Shah was the last king because his ancestors had been offered the title of king by the East India Company,” Jones tells “Weekend Review”. “And they took it. So they had a huge elaborate coronation, they had crowns designed by the British Court artist and the whole paraphernalia. And this was the only example of the British East India Company actually making a king out of an Indian ruler.”

I went to interview Jones at the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, near Victoria Station in London. Jones is a scholar who graduated from SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) in Urdu and has written many books on India where she travels frequently. Her particular expertise is in Lucknow. In fact the city’s architecture is partly the reason she first became interested in the story of Shah, who built a palace complex there called Qaisar Bagh. “It was a huge, absolutely splendid palace,” she says. “And I thought well the man who built this must be quite interesting himself.”

In popular imagination the story of Shah is often associated with a 1977 Indian film by the name of “Shatranj Ki Khilari” (The Chess Players), narrated by actor Amitabh Bachchan, which was based around the story of the King of Oudh. “I saw that film fairly recently when I was flying to India.” says Jones. “It was a sort of classic movie. That is such a good film. It is based on a short story by Premchand. It is really good because it captures the sort of decadent atmosphere. I think whenever people mention Wajid Ali Shah they mention that film.”

Was he accurately portrayed in the film? “I think pretty accurate,” she says. “Sort of [living in] luxury, not really caring very much about affairs of the state — relaxed, people playing chess while the British are taking over the country. But you have got to realise he was always hounded by the British even before he became king. The British were saying awful things about him, they were saying he was degenerate. He didn’t really stand a chance.”

It was the decline of the Mughal Empire, following on from the death of the Emperor Aurangzeb, which let smaller kingdoms in Oudh, Hyderabad and Bengal come to the fore. “There was a kind of power vacuum,” says Jones, “Once the Mughul Empire started to decline it left a gap. And then you had people coming in to fill it. And this is where the Oudh royal family came in. They had come from Persia originally and they were enterprising people. They simply took advantage of the vacuum to build their own power base in Oudh.”

Where Shah’s role in history becomes significant is in relation to the 1857 revolt in India. “People think Wajid Ali Shah was this great romantic figure,” says Jones. “He wrote poetry and music and he had dancing girls and that kind of thing. But the British said he was an absolute dissolute character and they really had to depose him for the good of the country. What they didn’t anticipate was that people in India, in Oudh, would rather have been ruled by Wajid Ali Shah even if he wasn’t a very good ruler than by foreigners. And this led to the mutiny the following year in 1857. It was not the only cause of the mutiny, but it was a really serious cause. It led almost inevitably to that.”

But the king himself had different ideas. “Interestingly enough Wajid Ali Shah said that he supported the British and he even offered to get together an army to fight the rebels, the mutineers,” says Jones. “Well that is what he said to the British anyway, what he thought in private we don’t know.”

After the British deposed Shah he moved to Calcutta where he settled down in Garden Reach, which is about 5-6 miles to the south of Calcutta. There he tried to recreate his own little kingdom. “What the British had taken away when they annexed Oudh he tried to recreate,” says Jones, “and I think that is fascinating.”

Researching for the book Jones managed to trace and spend time with some of Shah’s descendants. “Shahanshah Mirza and his father are direct descendants,” she says. “I just phoned them up and asked if I could stay with them. They were very hospitable. But disappointingly they didn’t really have any stories about their ancestor. I think the only thing they had was a ring that belonged to him. I was hoping that there would be lots of family stories. But there weren’t.”

She met other descendants and they really did not know much about him either. He seemed a very distant figure. One of the reasons might have been Shah’s enormous number of wives. Shah had about 370 wives, and Jones estimates about 48 descendants. “He said he didn’t really care for his family,” she says. “He was always a fairly distant father figure and in fact some of his sons had complained that he was spending all his money on his menagerie. He was extremely fond of animals.”

She did learn from the descendants that Shah was a religious man. “They said he always prayed five times a day as a Muslim should. And I think this is absolutely correct.”

The King also had a huge collection of animals. However when he moved to Calcutta the British sold his menagerie. “There were very emotive pictures of the men who looked after the elephants for years, standing there crying. They were all auctioned off.”

After he established himself in Calcutta, Shah tried to recreate it all, buying lots of animals from a British animal-dealer. He kept giraffes, zebras, rhinoceroses, thousands of pigeons and tigers. “He had them in cages actually within the palace buildings and there were huge complaints particularly when a Bengal tiger escaped and it swam across the Ganges,” she says. “Swam across into the Great British Botanical Garden and actually mauled one of the curators.”

There was a huge fuss. “People said, look, Wajid Ali Shah shouldn’t be given wild animals in the middle of a populated city but he didn’t care,” says Jones. “The British tried to restrict the number of his animals, but he just went on buying more. He was obsessed with them. He actually said I care for my animals more than my family. That meant his family was not very pleased.”

One interesting discovery Jones made in her research was a manuscript in Windsor Castle called the “Ishq-Nama” (Chronicle of Love) “I don’t think people had really looked at that but it is Wajid Ali Shah talking about his early love life,” she says. “I think he finished it in about 1848. So he was still a young bloke. And he is talking about all the women he met, and he fell in love with them. He wrote them poems. There are about a 113 folios, and we can see that he was actually pretty fond of African women.”

There were a number of Africans in Lucknow who had been brought in as slaves, both male and female. “He had quite a passionate affair with Yasmin Mahal who was an African woman,” she says. “There is no doubt. You can see from the picture, she is African. And also Begum Hazrat Mahal was the daughter of a black African slave. Now people claim she was a great Indian heroine. In fact she was only half Indian. It is quite possible her mother was sort of Indo-African.”

Her book has already received some favourable reviews, including historian William Dalrymple who has described Jones as the “greatest living authority on Nawabi Lucknow.” She is now looking forward to what readers say. “I should be interested in the opinion of Indian readers, probably more so than readers here,” she says. “I want to know what people in India will think. And I am told that I might be criticised because my picture of the king is not wholehearted admiration. In some ways he was really quite nasty. He was very nasty to his wives. Even women he had been married to for 30 years he treated them abominably.”

She feels Shah was the victim of bad timing. “In the end he was trying to live the life of a medieval king in the late 19th century,” she says. “This is why I am saying in a way he was a victim of bad timing. If he had been born a 100 years earlier he would have been fine, people wouldn’t have criticised him. He could have spent what he wanted, married whoever he wanted to. And if he had been born a 100 years later he could have been a film director. But just when he was born he tried to keep up the old style, and I think he succeeded.”

Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.