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Second Lucknow ‘fixed’ in sepia

A portfolio of fast-fading photographs that provides possibly the only pictorial document of the second Lucknow that Wajid Ali Shah had created in Metiabruz, after he was exiled there, is urgently in need of preservation. The photographs are, moreover, some of the earliest examples of the art as practised the world over.

Amjad Ali Mirza of Garden Reach Road, in his 60s, who is a great-great-grandson of the ruler of Oudh, possesses the photographs. But he doesn’t know how to preserve these friable prints whose sepia has, in some cases, turned a ghostly shadow of its former self. Says Mirza: “I have no doubt about the authenticity of the photographs. The portfolio is ancestral property. It was handed down to me by my uncle, Yaqub Ali Mirza, who died in 1973.” Some of the photographs are captioned in Urdu. But the identity of the photographer shall always remain a mystery. Oscar Mallitte, a French commercial photographer, we know, had captured a view of the village at Garden Reach, circa 1864, but there is no evidence he did this assignment.

Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926) tells the story of Oudh in his book Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture. In it, he has also documented the last days of Wajid Ali Shah in Metiabruz, where he set up a city whose splendour surpassed Lucknow’s glory in the pre-Mutiny days. The palaces, pleasure gardens and zoo that the Nawab had created on the banks of the Hooghly come alive in these photographs, not much larger than postcards. It is as if chemicals and light had “fixed” the scenes that Sharar’s readers conjure up in their mind’s eye.

Soon after the Mutiny had fizzled out, the Nawab was released from confinement in Fort William and he returned to Metiabruz. There, while turning abstemious, he developed a passion for animals and for building beautiful houses. Before the Zoological Gardens was established in Alipore in 1876, the Nawab had already acquired a large menagerie that included rare birds, deer, horses and an open-air snake-pit that left visitors awestruck. But after Wajid Ali Shah’s death in 1887, Metiabruz became a hell-hole almost overnight.

The photographs prove that Sharar, when he described Metiabruz, never deviated from reality. Unlike the Lucknow architecture, with its embarrassment of stucco ornaments, the buildings of Metiabruz are constructed on the lines of European bungalows. The lines are simple but no less grand than the palaces of Lucknow.

Overlooking the river or surrounded by expanses of water, they are connected by bridges. Flags flutter on their tiled roofs. There is hardly any Islamic influence in their architecture, save a low-rise with triple minarets. Ostriches, deer, sheep and horses were the showpieces of the Metiabruz parkland. The snake-pit resembles a giant termite hill. One can almost hear the harsh calls of the clumsy pelicans and cranes strutting around the aviary. The liveried servants wait outside the palace gate with a palanquin. The piscine insignia of the royal family of Oudh is stitched on to the back of one man’s coat. There are two significant photographs. In one, the gang of smiling labourers carry construction material on their heads as they create the new Metiabruz. Another shows the buildings of Metiabruz being demolished. An exquisite way of life being wiped away forever.

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