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Whose legacy is it anyway?

A battle royal seems to lie on the horizon for Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s descendants in India and abroad. The members of the erstwhile royal family say they have been given short shrift by the organisers of an international exhibition on Lucknow, which will be held in Los Angeles from December 12 to February 27 and will then move to Paris.

“None of our family members has been invited to the event, which will revolve around our ancestors. We were not informed about it in any way. We consider it an affront to our dignity,” says Shahabzada Wasif Mirza, president, Oudh (Awadh) Royal Family Association, which comprises about 100 families scattered around the world.

The exhibition is being organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), one of the most venerated cultural institutes in the art world. Titled India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow, the event is being hailed as the first major international event of its kind that is completely devoted to bringing to a global audience the artistic traditions of Lucknow, which was the capital of Awadh (modern-day Uttar Pradesh).

Around 200 art objects — some of them reportedly sourced from Victoria & Albert museum in London — including paintings, vintage photographs, textiles and jewellery, will be on display at the exhibition. Through the art works, the sovereign as well as the colonial history of the region will be explored. What’s more, Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi, set in the time of Wajid Ali Shah’s dwindling hold on power in Awadh, will be screened at the beginning of the exhibition.

“The information pertaining to the exhibition came from years of serious scholarship by the curators of the south and southeast Asian department of the museum,” says Barbara Pflaumer, associate vice-president of communications, LACMA.

But the descendants of Wajid Ali Shah are not impressed. As Wasif Mirza points out, “We do appreciate the fact an exhibition on our forefathers is being organised on such a grand scale. But shouldn’t the family be a part of it? Perhaps, the organisers haven’t done their homework properly.” He adds that LACMA could have easily traced the family in Calcutta. “After his kingdom was annexed by the British in1856, Wajid Ali Shah moved to Calcutta and he was buried in the city,” says the septuagenarian.

His sentiments are echoed by S.A. Sadiq and Sahro Nawab, descendants of Wajid Ali Shah based in Lucknow and Louiseville, Kentucky, respectively.

“We could have taken care of our own travel expenses. But for courtesy’s sake, LACMA should have extended an invitation to the family,” says Sadiq, former principal of the Jawahar Lal Nehru Medical College and Hospital (under Aligarh Muslim University).

“This is the first time that Lucknow is being put on the world map. So the family members in the US at least could have been informed,” says Sahro, who moved to the US several decades ago.

The LA exhibition is, of course, significant as it is the first time that Lucknow has reached the international stage. According to sources, a large and expensive catalogue has been produced and grants have been provided for the exhibition by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Southern Asian Art Council.

Incidentally, some Indian artistes will be performing during the exhibition in Los Angeles. There will be a kathak (a dance form patronised by Wajid Ali Shah) recital in January by Bhairavi Kumar, and a performance by tabla maestro Swapan Chaudhuri in February. There will also be a lecture titled “Listening to the Courtesan — The Soundscapes of Pakeezah”, examining the acclaimed soundtrack of the Hindi film depicting a Muslim courtesan, Sahibjaan. The lecture will be delivered by Aparna Sharma, a filmmaker, film theorist and assistant professor in the department of world arts and cultures at UCLA.

Wajid Ali Shah’s descendants say that often the Awadh Nawabs are painted in a negative light by scholars and historians. “We as family members try to ensure that our ancestors are never misrepresented or vilified. For instance, it’s often thought that Nawab Wajid Ali was more interested in pursuing leisurely activities than in defending his kingdom against the British,” says Wasif Mirza. “Hence it would make sense if any real member of the family is present during an international event such as this one.”

Scholars say that historical opinion on Wajid Ali Shah is indeed sharply divided. “None of the British Government officials, or later British writers, could say anything good about him. They all thought he was a degenerate, not fit to rule Awadh, and that he wasted his money on building palaces and holding extravagant theatrical events,” says Rosie Llewellyn Jones, author of a number of books on Lucknow like Portraits in Princely India: 1700-1900 (2008) and A Fatal Friendship – The Nawabs, The British and The City of Lucknow (1999). “Indian writers, on the other hand, see him as a king who was badly treated by the British, a sensitive poet who promoted the first Indian theatrical performances in his Qaisarbagh Palace in Lucknow, and who treated both his Hindu and Muslim subjects fairly.”

Meanwhile, LACMA says that it is in the process of drawing up a list of five to six senior members of the Awadh royal family to whom it would extend an invitation. “Sadly, the museum cannot provide funding to cover their airfare or expenses,” says a LACMA spokesperson.

The Oudh Royal Family Association says that they haven’t received any confirmation of this. And they wouldn’t like to be included in a ragtag list of invitees as an afterthought. “We heard that they had been planning this event for two years. And now they are compiling names at the eleventh hour. No, thanks,” says Shahanshah Mirza, Wasif Mirza’s son and great great grandson of Wajid Ali Shah.

After all, the family wouldn’t submit to anything that goes against the proverbial Lucknawi tehzeeb.

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