PARIS – Riches, arts and delights: the Guimet Museum brings to life the splendor of the royal court of Lucknow, a city of northern India, which glittered like a star for a century, from 1754 to 1856, until its annexation by the British.
The exhibition “A royal court in India, Lucknow, eighteenth – nineteenth century,” which runs until July 11, 2011 in Paris, demonstrates that for a century, the capital of the Mughal province of Awadh (now Uttar Pradesh) was home to a sophisticated cosmopolitan culture.
It has paintings of court, miniatures, jewelry, valuables, luxurious textiles, and old photographs of the city of gold and silver, all witnesses to “a hybrid, welcoming and brilliant Indo-Muslim civilization,” notes Amina Taha Hussein, chief curator at the Guimet Museum.
When Delhi, the seat of the Mughal dynasty, was sacked in 1739 by Iranian invaders, Indian artistes – painters, poets, musicians, dancers – flocked to the prosperous agricultural region of Awadh, and Lucknow in particular.
Europeans, adventurers, artists, representatives of military and commercial companies also were attracted by the beauty of the city, its opulence, and the generosity of its Nawabs, sovereign Shiites of Iranian origin. Among them were the English painter Tilly Kettle, the Frenchmen Claude Martin and Jean-Baptiste Gentil, and the Swiss Antoine-Louis Poli.
The exhibition, created by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is the first devoted to the city of Lucknow of the time of its splendour.
The golden age of the city was short, the British having ended it in ambush. It started with the accession to power of the ruler Shuja al-Daula in 1754, who made Lucknow his permanent residence. The Nawab attempted to curb the growing power of the British East India Company militarily, which earned him a stinging defeat in 1764. He then signed a treaty with the British in which he recovered his powers of Awadh in exchange for trade concessions and large payments of money.
Gradually, under the leadership of its nawabs keen to showcase their dynasty by the glitz and the arts, Lucknow was bedecked with palaces, mosques and mausoleums inspired by Mughal architecture, embellished with rococo and neoclassical European decor.
The houses stretched along the Gomti river (a tributary of the Ganges), on which floated the boats of Nawabs, shaped like fish.
In 1819, Ghazi al-Din Haidar took the title of king and freed Awadh from the nominal suzerainty of the Mughals, with the blessing of the East India Company. His crown was directly inspired by those of European monarchs.
The last Nawab of Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah, had a special interest in music and poetry. But the British East India Company, which despised him, decided to remove him in 1856 and annex the province of Awadh. This is a story beautifully told in the film “The Chess Players ” (1977) by Satyajit Ray.
The coup in 1857 triggered the Indian Mutiny (Indian soldiers serving the British), which will come to be described as the first war of Indian independence.
Lucknow suffered reprisals by the English and partly destroyed in 1858. A professional photographer, Felice Beato, was on hand to capture the takeover of the British. Deprived of its court, the city gradually declined.
(By Agence France Presse)
[Translated from L’Express, published 2 May 2011]