New Delhi: An exhibition at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) brings vibrantly to life the story of the Rampur royal family before it slipped into slow decline after the 1857 Mutiny.
The Rampur story was first a 1989 Hindi novel by Zubeida Sultan called Sunehri Rait (Gold Dust). The novel’s recent translation into English by Syeda Hameed and Zakia Zaheer was launched as a part of the exhibition at the IGNCA. Strikingly, the exhibition and the original novel focus on three of the matriarchs of the family rather than the Nawabs themselves.
The Rampur nawabi household came into existence in 1774 by the Rohilla ruler Faizullah Khan. The Rohillas were driven out of Egypt, into the Afghani highlands, and finally into the area that is today northwestern Uttar Pradesh, supplanting the Rajputs. In 1784 the Nawab of Awadh, aided by the British, crushed the Rohillas – with the exception of Faizullah Khan of Rampur, who put up such a fierce resistance that he was granted the jagir of Rampur.
Artist Ranesh Ray conceptualised and designed the exhibition, sequencing excerpts from Sultan’s novel that are printed on long banners and illustrated occasionally with paintings. “The storyline is complex,” Ray noted of the original work by Sultan, “I have tried to ensure that the cultural values and systems [of the times] are well brought out.”
Documentary filmmaker Iffat Fatima designed the audio and video recordings that accompany the text, which include ghazals by Begum Akhtar, recitations by Yousuf Saeed, and clips from Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar and of a Majlis gathering at Muharram.
Items from the Rampur palace – fine clothes, jewelry, dolls and ritualistic objects – complete the exhibition, with the banners and videos surrounding the glass displays. The various audio tracks play in the different rooms of the exhibition, intermingling with one another.
The layering of text, sound, image and object results is powerful and affecting. Experiencing the story of Rampur, one is also moved to reflect that surely so many other such stories are scattered all over India, waiting to be told.