Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

A poster of Satranj Ki Khilari movie adaptation by Satyajit Ray

Premchand’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi Tells of how a Heady Mix of Nawabi Culture and Indulgence led to the Fall of a Prosperous Kingdom

Munshi Premchand (1880–1936) was born on July 31, 1880 in Lamhi, a village near Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. His original name was Dhanpat Rai Srivastrav. Premchand was his pen name. His earlier pen name was Nawab Rai. He got his B. A. degree from Allahabad University in 1919. He was the Deputy Inspector of Schools in 1921 before he decided to quit the post for joining Indian independence movement. He was in Lucknow as the editor of the Madhuri patrika before he returned to Banaras in 1932. He was a very famous novelist, short story writer, playwright   and essayist during the early period of twentieth century. Shatranj Ke Khladi published in 1924 is one of his famous short stories.   

The canvas of the story was in Lucknow during the reign of Wajid Ali- Shah from 1847-1856 as Nawab of Awadh. The story depicts a pen picture of the living behaviour of Lucknow city as indulging and drowning into debauchery, and the theme of all activities everywhere was luxury and lust. Officials were busy is debauchery, poet in theme of love and painting, artisans in making designs and traders in dealing in perfumes, body creams etc. Things had gone to such an extent that even beggars purchased opium or other intoxicants.

Playing of chess or cards was considered means for honing intelligence enhancing ability to solve difficult problems.  The story of Shatranj Ke Khladi was of two friends namely Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali who used to spend most of their time playing chess. Both were bestowed with inherited property and so had need not worry for their livelihood. Every morning they start playing chess at Mirza’s Diwan Khana and this would last till evening. The members of their families were not happy.

One day Begam Sahiba was sick and as her husband did not pay heed to her request for some medicines she was so angry and threw off the chess board when Mir was not in the room. On other side Mir Sahib’s Begum preferred her husband to be away from home, for the reasons only she knew. And when they started playing in Mir’s house she found her freedom disturbed. Their servants also began complaining. Neighbours also start criticising the excessiveness, and fear that bad days would befall.

One day when the two friends were busy playing, British officers came in search of Mir Sahib. They knew that something was wrong somewhere and their service may be needed. The two friends then change venue and continue to play chess at a lonely mosque across the river Gomti. They had to carry a small mattress and box of pans and also some whiskey and tobacco.

On other hand, political situation in the country was turning grave. British army of the East Indian Company was approaching Lucknow. There was panic in the city and people were fleeing to villages. But both of them were least bothered. On another day British army took over Lucknow, and Wajjir Ali Shah was arrested. The whole city was quite and the king of a vast country like Awadh was taken into custody without shedding a drop of blood when the whole city was sleeping soundly.

But the two friends continue to play chess and Mir expresses concerns about saving the king of the game before thinking of the Nawab of Awadh. Mirza lose the game and his patriotism had been vanished with his defeat. There was a fierce quarrel between the two friends on disputed moves of the queen on the chess board. The quarrel become so violent that they take out their swords which Nawabs usually carry with them and strike at each other. Both lose their lives.

It appears that the story of Shatrang ke Kheladi was published while Premchand was in Lucknow as the editor of Madhuri Patrika. He might had seen social behaviour of Lucknow during his stay there and also imagined the behaviour of the people during reign of the Nawab. The story tells of money pouring in from villages into Lucknow o be spent on debauched lifestyles. It showed how their luxurious life was the main cause of the downfall of the princely kingdom of Awadh. The two jagidars in the story were symbolic representations of the aristocratic families of the time. It also indirectly indicated the social behaviour of the people who were in politics. The story implied that the duty and the responsibility of the rulers and the noble men would be on the administration of the state as well as on poetry and arts and busy in debauchery.

From the history it is known that Wajid-Ali-Shah was a poet, playwright, composer and dancer himself and an earnest patron of arts. However, Wajid was known for being indulgent and debauched, as well as for love and lust, though Awadh was a prosperous and wealthy state during his reign.

Premchand in his short story describes luxurious life of Lucknow city as it was nothing but hustle bustle and the carving for enjoying life. In every sphere of society whether it is in administration or culture or social mores or art or business, everywhere the theme was to indulge in luxury. Everybody from the king down to a beggar was deeply involved in such activities like bird fighting and playing of chess games in all seriousness instead of discharging their responsibilities. Such obsession about luxury and consequent irresponsible way of life is depicted in the story of the two Jagidars who could fight with their swords for the sake of wazir (chest queen) in the chess instead of fighting in the interest of their state.

The story was also satire critical of this debauched lifestyle and irresponsibility of the people towards their family and the state. They were so irresponsible that they continued to play chess even when the British attacked their state and their ruler was arrested. It may also be observed that the splendid grandeur of arts and culture and patronage of the time appeared to have been overshadowed as the people indulged in luxury and lust, on the other side. Even then it was difficult to ignore the valuable contribution of the people in the field of arts and culture. The story tells how a country fell in the hand of enemy while the people were engaging more in luxury with arts and culture, and, wine and women.

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