The royal family of Oudh (1722-1858) were the historically-rich and powerful rulers of their north-Indian state. The Nawabs of Oudh were generous patrons of art, poetry and music. Their royal treasury paid stipends and pensions to dancers, musicians and poets. Public poetry readings were held at the expense of nawabs, where poets from all over the India were invited. These free poetry readings (Mushaira’s) were as popular among ordinary people as baseball in our society. Lucknow became the center of a distinct culture, and distinguished itself in Lucknowi-style of spoken language, poetry, dress, cuisine, dance and music. In terms of cultural achievements their 19th-century capital Lucknow almost rivaled the Mughal Court in Delhi.
But due to a strange twist of fate and politics, the family’s strength withered away to nothing, dragging with it a historic cultural capital.
During the mid 19th-century, the British East India Company was slowly moving West from their stronghold in Bengal, subjugating big and small Indian states into their ever-expanding empire of control. During the 1857 Mutiny, the Royal Family of Oudh supported the indigenous forces fighting against the British expansion and rule. However, the colonial forces crushed the rebellion, and after an 18 month siege of Lucknow, took full control of the State of Oudh. The British authorities confiscated all possessions and properties of the royal family and they were forced into exile. The once-powerful family’s fall from grace lasted a hundred years, and is eloquently highlighted in Sam Miller’s Adventures in a Mega City. The family’s situation became so dire, they were actually forced to live in a New Delhi Train Station waiting room during the 1980’s. With the Oudh royal family deposed, Lucknow’s role as a cultural capital faded into memory, the artists themselves unintentionally sent into exile as well.
Cities like Lucknow or Delhi are more than a total sum of their parks, palaces and infrastructure. While their physical monuments may crumble over time, their cultural achievements are more enduring. We remember cities like Athens, Delhi, Baghdad, and Florence not only for their architectural landmarks, but also for their cultural achievements. Athens is forever etched in our minds as a city associated with some of the greatest writers, poets, and philosophers of antiquity. The Baghdad of 8th – 10th centuries was the center of learning for Muslims, reaching a cultural nadir never matched by Muslims in any other city since then. Similarly, Paris and New York has served that role of creating and nurturing an artistic milieu, drawing great writers, painters, musicians to their shores.
The flowering of high culture in these cities was a result of investments made by their elite in educational and artistic endeavors. In Europe, it was the mercantile families and the Church, and further east, it was Khalifas and Sultans whose patronage of artists, writers, painters, and craftsman helped create that level of cultural excellence. Cities which became centers of art and learning were not just prosperous, but were also able to nurture a tolerant society open to new ideas. The credit must be given to the rich of the city, who patronized the artist, as well as to the average person, who were the consumer of these bold new ideas.
Once these cities, whether Athens, Baghdad, Delhi or Lucknow, faced political and military upheavals, their cultural flowering withered away. The cultural milieu created by that city’s artists and their patrons was unique and organic, and it was hard to quickly transplant it to other cities or locals.
After the 19th-century Nawabs of Oudh lost their state to British colonial rule, the traditional ruling-family lost their ability to financially support artistic endeavors in Lucknow. The new rulers, English bureaucrats and army officers, uninterested in indigenous poets, musicians, dancers, and writers, cut these artists off from their royal patronage. These creators sunk into abject poverty, and so too did their cultural capital, assigning Lucknow to the pages of history.
Now, 150 years later, Lucknow is quite a different city, with a growing population and robust financial and industrial sectors. While Lucknow no longer has an extremely rich royal family, it is up to the city’s masses of citizens and their democratized-wealth to fund the next generation of cultural creators, and possibly reclaim their city’s shining past.