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My Wajid Ali is Not 'Effete And Effeminate' !
Satyajit Ray

Reproduced from with acknowledgement due to :
VOL XCIX DECEMBER 31, 1978 - JANUARY 6, 1979 ESTD 1880

Satyajit Ray replies point by point, to Rajbans Khanna.

In "Ray's Wajid Ali Shah" (October 22), Rajbans Khanna accused Satyajit Ray of depicting the Nawab as an ineffectual sybarite. Here Ray, in his reply, details the sources he consulted for "Shatranj Ke Khilari" and asks where was the effeminacy.

Rajbans Khanna deplores the fact that I have chosen to depict Wajid Ali Shah as "effete and effeminate", thus more or less upholding the British view, instead of redressing the balance in his favour which he says I might have done had I "read the right documents".

This is so far from the truth that it almost leads me to believe that Rajbans is incapable of reading a film, let alone reading between the lines.

When Rajbans met me in Delhi three years ago, the shooting of Shatraj Ke Khilari was well under way; which means that the research and sifting of evidence were already over and the screenplay prepared. I did mention to Rajbans that I had read a great deal of relevant documents. Rajbans mentions four in his article: Sleeman's A Journey Through the Kingdom of Oudh, Malleson's The Mutiny of the Bengal Army, Metcalfe's Native Narratives of the Mutiny and Major Bird's, Dacoitee in Excelsis. Of these four, Sleeman's account was written at the behest of Dalhouise and was deliberately slanted to provide a pretext for the take-over. Both Malleson's and Metcalfe's accounts deal with the Annexation insofar as it contributed to the 1857 revolt, and both condemn the British action. Only Bird's book deals directly with the Annexation. Wholly sympathetic to Wajid, it launches a sustained and thorough-going attack on British policy, backing it up with copious documentary evidence. The tract gains from the fact that Bird was Assistant Resident of Lucknow during Sleeman's tenure. For Rajban's information, Bird's book provided the principal source for my treatment of the historical part of the film.

The Principal Sources

       The research for the film took nearly a year. While I personally consulted most of the English and Bengali material in the National and Asiatic libraries, my able collaborators culled evidence from Urdu sources… To give Rajbans some idea of the extent of research, here is a list of the principal sources consulted:


Blue Book on Oude. This is the official British dossier on the Annexation. It contains, among other things, a verbatim account of Outram's last interview with Wajid, and describes Wajid's taking off his turban and handing it to Outram as a parting gesture.


Abdul Halim Sharar's Guzeshta Lucknow (translated into English by E.S. Harcourt and Fakir Hussain as Lucknow: The Last Phase of an  Oriental Culture). Sharar was born three years after Wajid's deposition. His father had worked in the Secretariat of Wajid's Court and joined Wajid in Matiabruz in 1852. Sharar went and joined his father seven years later. Introducing the book the translators say: "The work has long been recognized by Indo-Islamic scholars as a primary source of great value, a unique document both alive and authentic in every detail." Sharar provided most of the socio-cultural details, as well as a fairly extended portrait of Wajid both in his Lucknow and his Matiabruz periods.


The Indian histories of Mill and Beveridge, both critical of the Annexation.


Two histories of the Mutiny ( by Ball and by Kaye).


The letters of Lord Dalhousie. One of these letters provided the information that Outram grumbled about the new treaty and apprehended that Wajid would refuse to sign it. Dalhousie ascribes this attitude to indigestion.


Two biographies of Outram ( by Trotter and by Goldschmid ).


The dairies and letters of Emily Eden, Fanny Eden, Bishop Heber and Fanny Parkes.


The Reminiscences of Sir Alexander Fayrer. Fayrer was the Resident Surgeon, Honorary Assistant Resident and Postmaster of Lucknow at the time of the take-over.

A Magnificent People

       Heber visited Lucknow in 1824 when Ghazi-ud-Deen was on the throne. He says: "We had heard much of the misgoverned and desolate state of the Kingdom of Oudh; its peasants, being a martial race, were all armed, but we found them placable and courteous." Then he goes on to praise Ghazi-ud-Deen in these words: "…no violence and oppression has ever been assigned to him or supposed to have been perpetrated with his knowledge…. He urges that all his difficulties have arisen in his entire confidence in the friendship of the Company; that they induced him and his ancestors to disband an excellent army till they scarce left any sentries for the Palace."

       Emily and Fanny were sisters of Lord Auckland. They both visited Lucknow in 1837 during the reign of Muhammad Ali Shah. Fanny records her impression thus: "These people must have been so very magnificent before we Europeans came here with our money-making ways. We have made it impossible of them to do more, and have let all they accomplished go to ruin."


The Indian Mutiny Diary by Howard Russell. Russell came to India as the correspondent of the Times. He was on the spot when the British troops ransacked the Kaiserbagh Palace. He gives the only detailed description of the interior of the palace that I have come across.


The young Wajid's personal diary Mahal Khana Shahi. This turned out to be an unending account of his amours.


The text of Wajid Ali Shah's Rahas.


Mrs Meer Hasan Ali's On the Mussulmans of India (1832). This was found useful for its details of life in the zanana.


Umrao Jan Ada (translated into English as A Courtesan of Lucknow). This gives a fascinating and authentic picture of Lucknow in Wajid's time.


All English and Bengali newspapers and journals of the period preserved in the National Library.

A Voluptuary And A Puppet

It was interesting to discover that not all Indian commentators on the Annexation truckled to the British, as Rajbans seems to think, in their estimation of Wajid and the conditions then prevailing in Oudh. One of the most famous Indian journalists of the period, Girish Chunder Ghose, wrote in his weekly, Hindu Patriot, a few days before the Annexation: "If Oude is misgoverned, if the King of Oude is a voluptuary and a puppet, if the Minister is a harpy, if the zamindars of Oude are graceless malcontents, we ask, where are the proofs of this lamentable state of things? If a tithe of what is written and said about Oude and its government were true of that country and its governors, then society should not have existed there for a day… and a revolution more terrible than the French Revolution would have, despite the presence of the British troops, marked the progress of events in that country."

         In addition to all the above, thorough research was done in the Lucknow Museum, the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta and later, in the India Office Library in London. Besides, I was in close touch throughout with Professor Kaukab of Aligarh University. Prof Kaukab happens to be a great grandson of Wajid Ali Shah and is considered to be one of the best authorities in India on Wajid. He has long been working on a book which sets out to be a portrait of Wajid as he really was and not as the British painted him.

         What emerged from all this research is there in the film, which is not a full-fledged biography of Wajid, as Rajbans seems to assume, but an attempt at juxtaposing a story ( based on Premchand) about two chess playing jagirdars in Wajid's Lucknow, with the historical event of the Annexation where the protagonists are Wajid and Outram.

         The film begins with a seven-minute prologue which attempts to telescope 100 years of Oudh-British relationship. According to all available evidence, this was marked throughout, right from Shuja down to Wajid, by an anxiety on the part of the Nawabs to maintain friendly relations with the Company, in spite of the fact that treaty after treaty progressively stripped them of their territory and their autonomy. (This can be construed as magnanimity or servility or a mixture of both, depending on one's viewpoint.) After the prologue, so try and history unfold by turns over a period of one week, ending on the day of the Annexation. It is necessary to consider whether in the process of juxtaposition Wajid has been shown as "effete and effeminate", and no light has been thrown on "the conflicts and contradictions of his many-faceted personality".

         In the prologue, Wajid appears in four successive shots. In the first he plays Lord Krishna in his raas; in the second he leads a Mohurrum procession; in the third he is shown in his harem with half-a-dozen concubines. The fourth shot shows Wajid at a durbar. The commentary here says that although Wajid did not much like to rule, he was proud enough of his crown to send it to be displayed in the Crystal Palace exhibition ( this is borne out by Dalhousie's letter quoted in the film). About Wajid's dis-inclination to rule, this is what Sharar has to say:

"The first part of Wajid's reign was characterized by the dashing young King paying more than usual attention to the dispensation of justice and army reform… in less than a year he had become tired of this and the old tastes which he had had as heir-apparent returned. He started to consort more frequently with beautiful and dissolute women, and soon dancers and singers became pillars of the state and favourites of the realm."

         In the second scene in which Wajid appears, he is shown at a kathak recital, at the end of which he learns from Prime Minister Ali Naqi of the fate that awaits him. He upbraids Ali Naqi for his unmanly display of emotion, saying that only poetry and music should bring tears to a man's eyes.

A Contradictory Character

        In the third long scene, Wajid is fully aware of the sword of Damocles that hangs over him. This is virtually a scene of monologue where Wajid passes through a wide range of moods. He is remorseful one moment, resigned the next, and seething with righteous indignation as the scene ends. Here is a summary of the scene:


Wajid blames his friends who held key positions in the administration for neglecting the affairs of state and reprimands. Ali Naqi for accepting a document which he feels should have been thrown in the face of the Resident.


Wajid admits that he was unprepared for kingship, as he was not directly in the line of accession. Nevertheless he took his duties seriously in the beginning, reforming the army, holding daily parades, etc. But, bound as he was by the Treaty of 1837, he had to forgo them upon orders from the Resident.


Frustrated, Wajid turned to poetry and music for solace.


"The common people sing my songs," says Wajid, "and they love my poetry because of its candour." (About Wajid's poetry of this period, Sharar says: "Wajid versified his love affairs and hundreds of the amorous escapades of his early youth. He made them public throughout the country and became to a conventional moral world a self-confessed sinner.")


"My people," says Wajid, "Who are supposedly ill-governed and underfed, are the bravest in battle. The British are aware of this, and that is why they are sending troops."


If the people are unhappy under his rule, Wajid argues, why don't they cross over to the British territory ?


Convinced by now that he was being wronged, Wajid strides over to the throne, mounts it and declares that if the British wanted his throne, they would have to fight for it.

         The scene that follows shows that Wajid has undergone a change of heart. The implication is that he has realized that the Company has the upper hand, and all he can hope for now is moral victory. In spite of being told by the Dewan that the zamindars have offered to help with men and ammunition should the need for resistance arise, Wajid instructs Ali Naqi to disarm the soldiers, dismantle the guns and issue a proclamation to the effect that the people are not to offer any resistance to the British when they march into Lucknow. Premchand calls this an act of cowardice and a symptom of decadence.

         On the other hand, Major Bird says: "The resolution was all the more laudable since it was well known to him that all Hindus and Moslems in his service had bound themselves by the most solemn oaths to die sword in hand in defense of the Sovereign and their country, and the British Sepoys who for the most part came from the Oude Frontier would have refused to fire a single shot upon their fathers, brothers and other relatives."

         In the last scene, where Outram presents his ultimatum to the King, Wajid's behaviour departs from the account in the Blue Book, as well as from Sharar. Sharar says: "The King, weeping and wailing, made every effort to exonerate himself." I leave it to Rajbans to decide what the omission of this detail has done to my portrait of Wajid Ali Shah.

A Man of Many Moods

         Apart from these five scenes, there are references to Wajid strewn throughout the film. In the first scene following the prologue, Outram, saddled with the task of deposing the King and uneasy at the thought of having to force an illegal treaty on him, is anxious to convince himself that the King is indeed as bad as Sleeman had portrayed him. He questions Weston, his ADC, and is rattled to discover that Weston has succeeded in crossing the cultural barrier and is sympathetic to Wajid's music and poetry. He snubs Weston and hints at a promotion if he would stop prevaricating.

         The second scene introduces a Hindu character, Munshi Nandlal, who is not in Premchand's story. One of the purposes of this was to establish the important historical fact that friendly relations existed between the two religious groups in Oudh in Wajid's time. Nandlal feels for Wajid and is genuinely concerned about the possibility of drastic action by the Company. Meer and Mirza do not take him seriously.

          In the scene between Outram and Fayrer, Outram admits the contradictions in Wajid's character (devout man, doesn't drink, sings, dances, versifies, etc), which is why he cannot predict the outcome of the proposed interview.

         In the scene of Outram's interview with the Queen Mother, Aulea Begum refuses to intercede for Outram to get her son to sign the treaty. "My son has never acted against the Company's interests," she says.

         Where, in all this, is the effeminacy? And is this Wajid not complex enough, not contradictory enough? Characterwise, what more could one have done in a full-fledged biography?

         Rajbans seems to be hung up on the Mutiny, which could have had no place in Shatranj Ke Khilari. The Mutiny was not sparked off by the Annexation, but by the Enfield rifle rubbing both Hindus and Moslems up the wrong way. The stored up discontent resulting from the Annexation provided fuel at a later stage. No; Shatranj Ke Khilari is not about Wajid, nor is it aimed to build up a case for the Mutiny - although it does invest the peasant boy Kalloo with a streak of patriotism when he sadly reports that no guns will go off when the British march into Lucknow. The crux of the theme is to be found at the end of the film, in Meer and Mirza's continuing to play chess in the British way after they have cleared their conscience by admitting that they have been cowardly in their behavior.

         To spell it out for Rajbans, what it says in effect is a) that Nawabi did not end with the take over; b) that upper class values were only superficially affected by British rule, and c) that feudal decadence was a contributing factor in the consolidation of British rule in India.


Rajbans Khanna

Reproduced from with acknowledgement due to :
THE ILLUSTRATED WEEKLY OF INDIA, December 31, 1978 Page 53
VOL XCIX DECEMBER 31, 1978 - JANUARY 6, 1979 ESTD 1880

While Satyajit Ray contends that Wajid Ali Shah's removal from the throne had nothing to do with the Mutiny, the author quotes historian Malleson to say that the dethronement was the prime cause of the conflagration.

Abul Halim Sharar's testimony, which Satyajit quotes approvingly in his reply, I am reluctant to take as uncritically as Ray does, for two reasons: First, that, after the large-scale terror which the British unleashed in the wake of the suppression of the Mutiny, there were few Indians left who would dare to give an independent account of persons or events so closely connected with the Mutiny or of any other unsavoury aspect of British rule. Not unless they were prepared to have their books proscribed as indeed the works of Savarkar and Pandit Sunder Lal were proscribed promptly. Secondly, Major Bird, whom Satyajit, along with me, acknowledges as a reliable witness, gives the lie direct to the very paragraphs Ray quotes.

         Wajid Ali ascended the throne in early 1847. If Sharar were to be believed, his alleged profligacy and loss of interest in the affairs of state would begin in "less than a year" - i.e. in 1847 itself. But to mention only a few instances which Major Bird gives: As late as 1853, Wajid Ali instituted a high-level inquiry into Sleeman's accusation that Wasi Ali, the King's former Minister, had conspired to assassinate Sleeman. In 1854, the King banished Kurun Ahmad, a person suspected of being Sleeman's spy, on which Sleeman wrote that the King had "assumed that attitude of a rebel". In 1855, Wajid Ali puts down a communal riot in Lucknow with a stern hand, "setting aside all presumed feelings of sympathy with his co-religionists" (Dacoitee in Excelsis, P 113). In 1856, Wajid Ali was deposed.

Sweeping Declaration

       Satyajit makes a sweeping declaration that Wajid Ali's removal from the throne had nothing to do with the outbreak of the Mutiny, that it was triggered off solely by Enfield rifles, popularly known as the greased cartridges. It was the official British propagandists who trotted out this "theory", interested as they were in painting Indians as a backward and superstition-ridden people who could be roused to action only on the question of the holy cow or the unclean pig.

       Malleson, who is the most distinguished historian of this period, is at pains to demolish this official theory. In the very first para of the preface to his book, "The Indian Mutiny", he points out: "The greased cartridge was never issued to the great body of the troops, if indeed to any….The greased cartridge, too, did not concern those landowners and cultivators of Oudh…who rose almost to a man."

       In the very next para, Malleson again insists that it was Wajid Ali's removal from the throne which was the prima cause of the conflagration:

       "My belief in this respect is founded on personal knowledge and personal observation... when Sir James Outram crossed the Ganges to depose the King of Oudh, I had witnessed the indignation which the very rumour of his purpose caused among the Sipahis of my own guard. I reported their excited state to my superiors and was laughed at for my pains. But impressed with the accuracy of my forecast, vis, that the annexation of Oudh would rouse indignation and anger in the Sipahi army. I continued… to keep a careful record of the several occurrences…when the efforts of the annexation of Oudh had been thoroughly realized by the Sipahis."

       Now if Satyajit chooses to dismiss Malleson's eyewitness account in such cavalier fashion, without assigning any reasons, what can I do? And would Satyajit also dismiss Charles Ball's testimony, in his Indian Mutiny, that years before the actual outbreak Nana Saheb had warned his British acquaintances in Kanpur that, if they succeeded in ousting Wajid Ali from the throne, that one act of perfidy would provoke the entire Indian people to rise in united revolt?

       Instead of sticking to the discredited "Enfield rifle" theory, Satyajit would do well to realize that Malleson and Bird both throw fresh light on this period which should help us to discard the interpretations handed down to us by our British teachers in our anglicized schools in the glorious British Empire days.

       Quoting Munshi Premchand approvingly, Satyajit says that Wajid Ali's decision to disarm his soldiers, dismantle his guns, etc, was "an act of cowardice and a symptom of decadence". Col Kaye however tells us that this strategy was "most cunningly contrived to increase the appearance of harshness and cruelty". (A  History of the Sepoy War in India, P 151)

       It was a calculated attempt by Wajid Ali to make the entire country realize that Dalhousie's perfidious act was a naked and unprovoked aggression against a peaceful and unarmed people.

       We who have fought the British for generations know that this is exactly what our most venerated leaders did when they say that an armed struggle against the British was impossible - as Satyajit himself admits it was in Wajid Ali's predicament.

       But Wajid Ali did something more. He sought time to enable his people to prepare for the armed struggle which he knew was bound to follow. And how beautifully he succeeded in this is borne out by the dramatic events that followed. It is reported by every writer of the period.

Wanted: A Fresh Look At History

       Satyajit misunderstands me. My object was not to attack him but to call for a fresh look at history. If I had to criticize his film, it was only to the extent that it had bearing on the problems of history.

       But the very defence, which Satyajit has put up, forces me to new and rather unhappy conclusions. Satyajit draws our attention, through his article, to a "scene" in which Wajid Ali speaks about his "reforming the army", "holding daily parades", etc. Satyajit himself admits that "this is virtually a scene of monologue". On the strength of this monologue and a few other examples which he cites, Satyajit asks: "Is this Wajid not complex enough, not contradictory enough? Characterwise, what more could one have done?

       Is it necessary for me to tell a film-maker of Satyajit's repute and experience that you do not attempt characterization through a brief monologue or dialogue alone? You build up scenes, incidents, episodes, visuals for characterization. Surely Satyajit has not forgotten that film is, above all, a visual medium, that a script which resorts to dialogue or monologue as a substitute for visuals is not a very satisfactory script.

       And another equally unhappy conclusion: The defence which Satyajit has put forward seems to indicate that the remark he has made about me, viz, "Rajbans is incapable of reading a film, let alone reading between the lines", is more appropriately applicable to him. For, if he has indeed read all the works that he has listed in his article and yet failed to see the turmoil, the tumult, the turbulence, the tempestuousness of the times and has given us, instead, what I called the picture of a "placid and uneventful Lucknow", then he seems to be not only "incapable of reading between the lines"; he appears almost "incapable of" comprehending what is writ large on every page!

       Or shall I be more charitable to my friend Satyajit and suggest that he has done so much research that he has missed the wood for the trees?

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