Lucknow: Culture, History 2

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Lucknow: Culture, History 2

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Faded Glory

By Asif Noorani, Dawn, c.2007

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Two cities in the northern subcontinent have enjoyed a very large following. Those who have ever lived there are for ever nostalgic about them. Lahore is known for its robustness and vibrancy, and Lucknow for its finesse and tehzeeb (a fusion of culture, courtesy and good manners). Those who think that the ‘after you’ tradition has come from the West are grossly mistaken because the pehle aap refinement was there well before the colonials stepped into Awadh. This, as the editor of Writings on Lucknow: Sham-e-Awadh says, was once an inseparable part of the Lucknow culture.

The book begins with a poem in praise of the city by Shakeel Badayuni Yeh Lakhna’u ki sarzameen, which was used as the title song of Chaudhvin Ka Chand, a movie of the ’60s that was set in what is now the capital of India’s most populous province, Uttar Pradesh.

The next page reproduces three couplets of Mirza Ghalib, where he refers to the city in uncharitable terms. But if you are aware of the traditional rivalry that existed between Lucknow and the poet’s own city, Delhi, then you won’t be shocked.

Edited by Veena Talwar Oldenburg, a diehard Lakhnavi, who lives in New York but makes regular pilgrimage to her native town, the book is all encompassing because in-between the covers are pieces from and about the city’s distant past, its recent past and its not too pleasant present.

Oldenburg contributes six pieces to the book, lamenting the passing away of the Lucknavi culture and the onslaught of English and Hindi, not to speak of the language spoken by the Punjabi refugees, on what is her first language — Urdu. This reviewer has met many Hindu and Muslim Lucknavis, who spoke in the same vein about the city’s chaste Urdu losing ground to other languages.

However, a point that Oldenburg reminds us of is that even in the glorious days of the nawabs of Awadh all was not well. While the feudal lords and their relatives lived in luxury, the artisans ‘who made up two-thirds of the population, lived on a subsistence wage in the mud and thatch huts.’

The society during the rule, or shall we say the powerless rule (since the strings were controlled by the British), was decadent. When remembering Wajid Ali Shah’s contribution to semi-classical music and the classic dance Kathak, we tend to forget the squandering of all kinds of resources, mainly money, and his endless pursuit of pleasures of different kinds. Munshi Premchand’s story Shatranj Ke Khilari, on which was based Satyajit Ray’s only non-Bengali film, aptly reproduces the nawab’s addiction to one of his favourite pastimes, the game of chess. The translation of the story done by the writer’s grandson Alok Rai is included in the volume. Rai’s effort is so remarkable that unless one knows, one is likely to feel that the short story was originally written in English.

One of the finest pieces in the volume is the one written by Vinod Mehta, a leading Indian journalist, whose family moved from Rawalpindi to Lucknow when his father, a government employee, was transferred to the capital of what was once the United Provinces.

He narrated anecdotes and wrote about some typical Lucknavi characters of the 1950s and the ’60s. The most notable character was a man called Safdar. Nobody knew his antecedents and yet he was ‘furiously sought after’. ‘People fed him, clothed him, gave him regular pocket money, took him on trips out of town all because he was superbly entertaining.’

Safdar, says Mehta, could fix an appointment with any minister and had a solution to every problem. Above all, he was fantastic company. ‘In his presence you could pass hours and hours and never feel bored.’

Mehta moistens the readers’ eyes when he writes ‘One of the most poignant sights in post-Partition Lucknow was to see an entire class on the run. Nowhere to go, the local aristocracy withdrew into their mansions… fearful of the outside. To survive, they sold their heritage, but after dark.’

Ira Pande’s excerpt from Diddi while building up the character of a Hindu lady, shows the strong sibling relationship that she develops with Sahibzada Abdul Hamid Khan who belongs to the aristocracy that Mehta refers to.

It also reflects the communal (though not always sectarian) harmony that has been the hallmark of the city. One never hears of Hindu-Muslims riots, though sadly Shia-Sunni skirmishes are not unknown in the city of Anis, Dabeer and Majaz.

Saleem Kidwai’s piece on the great singer Begum Akhtar, who spent her best years in the city; excerpts from Attia Hosain’s highly readable novel of the ’60s Sunlight on a Broken Column; and Mishi Sharan’s My Nani Remembers are among the many readable pieces appearing in a book which makes it impossible to put down. There are other major contributors, including two Nobel laureates Rudyard Kipling and Naipaul, whose pieces have also been included.


Writings on Lucknow: Shaam-e-Awadh Edited by Veena Talwar Oldenburg Penguin Books, India Available with Paramount Books, Karachi ISBN 0143102451 273pp. Rs795

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