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Wajid Ali Shah was a great patron of the arts. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Wajid Ali Shah was a great patron of the arts. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Lucknow lament

Finding the ghazals of nawab Wajid Ali Shah, a lost culture

Songs and stories often lie tucked away between the pages of old books. You need to retrieve them at regular intervals, brushing away the dust that so often coats bookshelves in India. This fortnight I found my songs and stories between the pages of a book that has been on my bookshelf for a while now—a book titled Naajo by Wajid Ali Shah, translated from the original Farsi (Persian) into Devanagari by Yogesh Praveen, and published by the Uttar Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi more than two decades ago.

The ruler of Lucknow from 1847-56, nawab Wajid Ali Shah is said to have been an aesthete and a great patron of the arts, with a remarkable proficiency in several performing and fine arts. Both a poet and composer, he wrote prolifically and is said to have authored a hundred books, of which 40 form part of valuable collections and holdings. By all accounts a colourful and multifaceted personality whom some accused of debauchery, the nawab declared his authorship with diverse pseudonyms. For his ghazals he reserved the pen name “Akhtar", but when composing thumri, he became “Jaan-e-Aalam Piya" or “Akhtar Piya". With the abundant wealth and resources at his command, the nawab would print and publish his writings through his own printing presses in Lucknow and Calcutta, and distribute them at will.

For students and exponents of thumri and its allied forms, the works and compositions of Wajid Ali Shah hold special significance, for he is believed to have contributed significantly to the development and popularity of thumri in 19th century Lucknow. Some of the nawab’s thumri compositions find place in the pages of Naajo along with khayal, dadra, saadra compositions, as well as folk repertoire. While the preface as well as information about the compilation has been authored in Farsi, the song texts are in Urdu, Braj Bhasha, Avadhi, Bangla, Punjabi, Khadi Boli, and even the Marwari dialect. The author includes compositions by great masters like Tansen, Baiju Bawra and Gopal Nayak, with due acknowledgement.

Among the lovely little stories the book reveals is the anecdote about a Holi celebration in 1867 at the Durbar Hall of Metiabruz, near Kolkata, where the nawab built a replica of his palace in Lucknow. In a gathering of eminent musicians and connoisseurs, Wajid Ali Shah sang and danced in a peshwaj, or long full-sleeved gown that flared from the neck to the ankles, where it measured as much as 80m in circumference! The nawab is said to have begun his recital with a khayal, and later moved on to the bandish ki thumri “neer bharan kaise jaaoon sakhi ri" that is sung even today in Raga Tilak Kamod. In Naajo, however, the composition is said to have been in Raga Kamod.

As for the songs, there is much to choose from and explore. From fast-paced chaturang compositions in Ragini Alhaiyya and Teentaalby Alamara Begum Khasmahal, the nawab’s favourite spouse whose pseudonym is “Aalam", to the nawab’s own thumri compositions, there is ample material for research and study. But the one “Akhtar Piya" composition that perhaps many could identify with is the well-known Bhairavi composition Babul mora naihar chhooto hi jaye, a lament he wrote as he was driven away from his beloved Lucknow to seek refuge at Metiabruz. Modern-day Lucknow, with its monuments and symbols of past glory lying neglected, replaced with a culture of hooliganism and corrupt practices, might well provide an appropriate backdrop for the lament that Wajid Ali Shah wrote in the 19th century.

Write to Shubha at

Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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