Fake or real? A royal riddle
|REGAL ROOTS: Shahebzade Wasif Mirza and his family pose before the portrait of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah; (below) Fay Ary|
A king-size portrait of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah will catch your eye the moment you step into the grand, old living room of Wasif Manzil on Talbagan Lane in Calcutta. “That’s my ancestor,” says Shahebzade Wasif Mirza, a dignified septuagenarian, pointing at the portrait — the pièce de resistance in a room bristling with Awadhi heirlooms.
“Satyajit Ray once asked me, ‘Why did the Nawab choose to move to Bengal after his kingdom was annexed?’ At that time, he had just made a film called Shatranj Ke Khiladi,” recalls the patriarch, a registered descendant of Wajid Ali Shah (1822-1887). “I told Ray that perhaps the Nawab felt he would get the respect he deserved only in Bengal.”
For Shahebzade Mirza, it’s a matter of family honour that he takes on what he calls “pretenders” to the Awadh legacy. In recent months, he has been fighting a fierce battle against Fay Ary, an Iranian woman who divides her time between Monaco, Paris and Dubai, and claims to have married a direct descendant of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and his second wife Ronakara Begum.
But she refuses to disclose her late husband’s name for “fear of being drawn into family feuds.” Ary also wishes to do something for the underprivileged in India through her charity organisation, Royal Awadh Cultural and Heritage Foundation (RACH).
“All this sounds very nice. But she calls herself Her Royal Highness Princess Jehan Ara Fay Ary. I have the complete family tree and she figures nowhere. I’d like to know where her imaginary kingdom is located,” says Mirza. In a recent letter to the French ambassador to India, Jerome Bonnafont, he complained against Ary and RACH. “Our objection is to the use of our family’s name …for large monetary gains,” wrote Mirza.
Fay held a charity auction in Paris this May where her “personal collection of jewellery” went under the hammer. “We don’t know what she auctioned as her Awadhi legacy. And we don’t know where the proceeds are going,” says Ibrahim Ali Khan, a descendant of a 19th century Awadhi vizier, who heads the Royal Family of Awadh Foundation in Lucknow.
It all began a couple of years ago when Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah — who reportedly claimed to be the Awadh rulers’ “direct descendant” — came under media glare. Abdullah, who’s on the RACH advisory committee, was accused of faking his nawabi heritage and arranging Awadhi banquets for foreign tourists in collusion with “unscrupulous” travel operators in Lucknow. It was also alleged that he charged tourists hundreds of dollars for banquets and mujras (dances) at his Lucknow home. His partner in this enterprise is said to be Prateek Hira, who heads a tour operating agency called Tornos India and is also associated with RACH.
Hira maintains that Khan and others have launched a malicious campaign to defame Ary, Abdullah and his agency. “Abdullah is well respected in Lucknow,” says Hira.
■ Fay Ary, an Iranian who claims to have married a direct descendant of Wajid Ali Shah and his second wife Ronakara Begum. Ary runs a charity, Royal Awadh Cultural and Heritage Foundation (RACH).
■ Ibrahim Ali Khan, a descendant of a 19th century Awadhi vizier, who heads the Awadh Royal Family Foundation in Lucknow. Does not support Ary.
■ Jafar Mir Abdullah, who is described as Wajid Ali Shah’s direct descendant and is on the RACH advisory committee.
■ Prateek Hira, who heads a tour operating agency called Tornos India and is associated with RACH.
Fay Ary gained some publicity in Lucknow around this time after announcing her charity projects. “She wants to do something for the poor — like arranging cleanliness drives in various Indian cities and providing slum dwellers with clean drinking water. She sought my help to implement the projects,” says Hira.
Ibrahim Ali Khan and others tried to blow the lid off what they called a “nexus” between Abdullah, Hira and Ary last year. “The issue was almost dying down when a freelance journalist from Delhi wrote to Hira and threatened action against his activities. He wrote to me as well,” says Khan.
Fay didn’t take it lying down. In an email dated June 29 this year, she wrote to her friends in Lucknow, Dubai and Paris, “A very nasty activity is being undertaken ...(by a journalist)... for want of some money to sustain himself ...ignore this man who keeps changing his name to fool people.”
Speaking from Paris, Ary expresses her “anguish and disappointment” over the “concerted efforts to pull down RACH.” “I claim nothing from the Indian government or from the Awadh families. I auctioned my own jewellery in Paris. I am hankering after no title. All I wanted to say to these people was that I had the resources to do some good work in India,” says Ary.
She wants to start her “slum cleanliness drive projects” in early October. She will also host a gala event in Dubai this November to seek support for her charity work. “People who claim to be true nawabs in India should stop bickering and do something for their country.”
There seems to be another point of clash between Ary and Shahebzade Mirza. Ary told the media last year that she would renovate Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s mother’s grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The Nawab’s mother, Aliya Begum, went to England to plead with Queen Victoria for returning Awadh to her son. On her way back, she fell ill and died in Paris in 1856 and was buried in Père Lachaise. Ary wants to project her grave as a site of historical significance.
The Shahebzade Mirza family, on the other hand, wants to rectify an inscription near the grave which says that her son Wajid Ali Shah was killed by British forces in 1856. “The Nawab died of natural causes in 1887. We have written to the French consulate in Calcutta to do something about it,” says Mirza. A spokesperson from the French consulate, who prefers not to be identified, confirmed receiving the letter.
“I accompanied Fay to the Paris cemetery this year. She is planning a renovation,” says Abdullah, the controversial ‘nawab’ who refutes all allegations against himself. “She doesn’t lay any claim to the Awadh royalty. She is herself related to Farah Diba Pahalvi, the queen of the last Shah of Iran who ruled till 1979.”
Abdullah also goes on to say that he will go on hosting banquets for tourists in order to interact with people and entertain them. “I tour the world and get invited by top officials. I will also continue to be part of RACH and the commendable work it does,” says Abdullah. “I never claimed to be a descendant of Wajid Ali.”
Agrees Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, a British scholar who’s writing a biography of Wajid Ali Shah. “Abdullah does not really claim descent from Wajid Ali Shah, but from Nawab Mohammed Ali Shah, who ruled Awadh from 1837 to 1842,” she says. She adds that it’s important to remember that “Wajid Ali Shah’s descendants are not the only descendants of the royal family of Awadh.”
“Each Nawab, from the time of Asaf-ud-daula (1775 to 1797), had a number of wives, and inevitably, a large number of children and grandchildren. These people are also descendants of the Awadh royal family. On Wajid Ali Shah’s death he left about 45 sons, and a larger number of daughters, and the descendants of these sons and daughters can obviously claim direct descent from him.” On Ary, she says that unless she is prepared to reveal her husband’s name “we can’t really check out her claim.”
Indian historian Ravi Bhatt, who penned a book called The Life and Times of the Nawabs of Lucknow, begs to differ. “Just as Nagpur is famous for oranges and Benaras for silk, Lucknow is known for its nawabs,” says Bhatt. “Every Tom, Dick or Harry calls himself a nawab these days. But let me tell you there is no descendant of the Awadh royal family in Lucknow now,” says Bhatt.
Meanwhile, Shahebzade Mirza is gearing up for the next round of battle. “We hope the French government will act on our complaint against Ary. The war is far from over.”