The Nawab’s Calcutta


Calcutta Heritage Collective started its schedule with a ‘Walk in Metiaburj’ during the Heritage week in November. In the Garden Reach area near the docks, it was not an area we frequented and the legendary opulence and folklores of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Oudh, had us all trooping there early in the morning.

Metia Burj, not Metiabruz as it is popularly called. Metia Burj means mud towers installed along the river in this area. The river twisted and turned, and these towers served as pointers to the right way for the sailors. Some interesting etymological trivia was shared by Shahenshah Mirza, the great-grandson of the Nawab. His Urdu is impeccable and he referred to one of us as “Humsheera”, a beautiful word for sister- “hum” (us) “sheera” (milk) – sharing mothers milk. Beautiful indeed, though metaphorically. People in this region used Aadaab as a greeting, and not Salaam Aleikum, as it is more secular.

Our first stop was Surinam Ghat. Slavery was abolished in 1853, and indentured labours were transported to the West. “Lalla Rukh”, the first boat sailed from here in 1873 with 110 passengers, and in total 64 ships with about 34 thousand people left this Ghat before this practice was stopped. One of these immigrants returned to India as Ambassador and it was an emotional moment as she spoke about her connect with this country.

In 1856, under the instructions from Lord Dalhousie, Wajid Ali Shah was exiled from Awadh. A compassionate and learned human being, he was loved deeply by all. He was not only a munificent patron of music, dance, drama, and poetry, but was himself a gifted composer. He even authored a book of verse called “Akhtarpriya”. Thumris thrived under his aegis and the very famous Bhairavi Thumri, “Babul mora”, was written by him.

He arrived in Calcutta in 1856, landed at Bichali Ghat and was put up at Fort William. The iron anchor posts with the heavy chains on the deck were perhaps symbolic of the shackles of the British empire which systematically tried to repress and wipe out the good and beautiful from our country.

Wajid Ali Shah decided to stay in Calcutta because he found Bengali culture and refinement, their deep interest in music and literature close to his soul. He was a Nawab who earned a substantial purse of about 12 lakhs per annum from the British, and to avoid feeling homesick, he recreated a mini Lucknow in this area. The closely built habitation, teeming humanity, bazaars, the glitter of sequined textiles were reminiscent of that era when music filled the lanes. The time when art and poetry coexisted.

A gourmet, he introduced the Dum Pukht Biryani to our cuisine. His cooks were instructed to reduce oil for healthier food and the result was this fabulous dish which is the favourite of most locals even today. Contrary to popular folklore, potato was added to the Biryani, not because there was lesser money to feed his large family but because it was an exotic, expensive vegetable brought to these shores by the Portuguese. The rest they say is History – as in this part of the world no self-respecting Biryani lover will have this dish without the “Aloo”.

PuttanMiyan, a descendant of the Royal Khansamas lived till recently. He called himself an artist as capturing the right flavours needed an artistic blend of flavours. The film star Feroze Khan invited him to cook for an occasion and very suddenly Puttan demanded to be sent home. Alcohol, he said, would spoil the enjoyment of the Biryani and that for him was sacrilege.

Wajid Ali Shah loved animals and he set up a zoo in 1864, with tigers, pigeons and other animals and spent almost 25% of his income on this obsession. A tiger escaped, swam across the river to the Botanical gardens, and mauled the resident Botanist. After he died, the zoo shut down and the animals were taken over by the Alipore Zoo.

An Imambara is made to honour the memory of the two grandsons of Hussain who were martyred. These shrines are set up by Shias all over the world. Sibtainabad is one such where Wajid Ali Shah was buried. A well-maintained relic with many memorabilia, the Tajias, manuscripts etc. This is the only surviving memory of Wajid Ali Shah as the other buildings homes were largely vandalized by the British.

A great kingdom, he came on a boat and went a dishonoured king. On his journey, a fish jumped onto his lap and he threw it back in the water thinking it to be lucky. It became his Royal Insignia and is decorating the wall and other objects in the Imambara. Not a mosque where active prayers are offered daily. This is just a shrine. A shrine to protect the memory of a grand old man, who is legendary and lives on in his Thumri, Biryani, lifestyle precedents – an indelible part of our state.

Vibha Mitra is a Heritage Enthusiast – actively involved with Calcutta Heritage Collective. With a passion to do things well, she expresses herself from an original point of view. Films, plays, crosswords, Scrabble, Sudoku, Netflix are all jostling for space in her world. Vibha has also authored the book “Odds and Bends”, a journal and her reflections on the world.