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Eastern Encounters pattern
Eastern Encounters

Drawn from the Royal Library's collection of South Asian books and manuscripts

CAT. NO. 80

Sarafraz Mahal dances as Wajid Ali Shah plays the tabla

Lucknow, <i>c</i>.1850

Fol. 238r from a manuscript of the Ishqnama (see cat. no. 77) | Painting in opaque watercolour including gold metallic paint with ink over traces of graphite on paper | 44.4 × 27.7 cm (folio); 22.8 × 23.1 cm (image) | RCIN 1005035

In this subversive painting, the King has abandoned the throne to join his musicians and play the tabla drums, among the lowest status musical instruments.[266] The dancer is Sarafraz Mahal, a former domini (of the low-class community of musicians and dancers) who features frequently throughout the Ishqnama narrative and of whom Wajid Ali Shah was particularly fond. Immediately beside the King is the musician Ghulam Raza, known as Razi al-Daula.[267] A talented and seductive performer, the King was greatly enamoured of him and the two spent much of their time together. Such was Wajid Shah’s affinity for the musician that their portraits have been conflated in this image so that they almost look like the same person. The King gave him and other musicians noble titles and important positions at court which, on top of his ‘degrading’ associations with the lower classes and rumours of his sexual practices, caused much frustration to Awadh’s British administrators.

In 1850, shortly after the Ishqnama manuscript was completed, Ghulam Raza and Sarafraz Mahal were reportedly caught having an affair. The musician was banished from court and eventually settled in nearby Ranpur. Though devastated, this eventuality may nevertheless have pleased Wajid Ali Shah on a poetic level, realising the popular topos in Mughal literature whereby the king, seduced by the musician, elevates him to a position of power resulting in both his and the king’s ultimate destruction. 

  • [266] Many thanks to Katherine Butler Schofield for sharing her thoughts on this painting.

    [267] Photos of Ghulam Raza exist in the Lucknow Album in the India Office Library: BL Photo 269/055b, 055d and 098c. 

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