Exactly 155 years ago, on seventh of February, Wajid Ali Shah, the ruler of Awadh, was forced into exile by the British. They gave him a supposedly generous allowance to live off his days peacefully on a sprawling estate in the Garden Reach suburb of Kolkata.
Had he remained king for just one more year at Lucknow, Wajid Ali would surely have been swept up in the great uprising of 1857, ending up dead like Rani Laxmibai at Jhansi, or like Bahadur Shah Zafar, in captivity. Would the supposedly sybaritic king have wanted such an exit?
He was an accomplished dilettante. Destiny had thrust him onto the throne of a kingdom known as "the garden, granary and the Queen-Province of India" which was coveted by a powerful enemy.
But the British Resident had an obvious vested interest in portraying the illstarred prince as a corrupt nitwit. A sympathetic biographer presents a more complex picture: "Though he was a man of pleasure, he was neither an unscrupulous knave nor a brainless libertine. He was a lovable and generous gentleman. He was a voluptuary, still he never touched wine, and though sunk in pleasure, he never missed his five daily prayers; the literary and artistic attainments of Wajid Ali Shah distinguished him from his contemporaries"; some of whom later confessed to have been struck by his serene sense of detachment coupled with courtliness.
This comes out clearly in the King's farewell to his beloved city, the lyric of which (Babul mora) has been immortalised by singers of the eminence of late Kundan Lal Saigal and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.
On the surface, Babul mora talks about a newly-wed bride taking leave of her beloved father on the shoulders of four palanquin-bearers. As she exhorts her parent to go back home, she exclaims that her once-loved courtyard has become as forbidding as a mountain and the gate an entrance to a strange country (from whose bourn no one returns).
The farewell is thus the soul's allegory of our relentless journey to the final destination when the palanquin (duliya) becomes a bier (biriya) carried by pall-bearers. Only an enlightened soul (or a supreme artist) could summon the equanimity necessary for such a noble leave-taking.
It inverts the pleasure palace into a songless desert and glorifies exile into lovers' paradise. This is the quality King Janaka embodied for the sake of instructing the sage Sri Shuka Muni.
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