Shaam-e-Awadh: Writings on Lucknow

Item Code: IHL417
Author: Veena Talwar Oldenburg
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 97890143102458
Pages: 280
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 460 gm
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Book Description
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In 1528 the Mughal Sultanate conquered and formally incorporated Awadh as one of its constituent provinces. With the decline of Mughal power the nawab-vazirs of Awadh began to assert their independence. After the East India Company appropriated half of Awadh as ‘indemnity’, the then nawab, Asaf’ud Daulah, moved his capital to Lucknow in 1775. a move that resulted in the growth of the city and its distinctive culture known as ‘Lakhnavi tehzeeb’.

Since then, nawabi Lucknow has undergone enormous changes. The refinement of ‘pehle aap’ has all but disappeared. Originally built to support a hundred thousand people, amid palaces, gardens and orchards, the city now staggers under the burden of fifty times that number. Its unchecked growth and collapsed civic amenities are slowly draining the life and beauty of this once vibrant city.

The rich and flamboyant culture has faded amidst the decay that has eaten into the fabric of the city and the corruption and treachery that permeate the government. In separate pieces William Dalrymple and Barry Bearak trace the decline of Lucknow-the city, its architecture, people, politics, governance-and the sad end of the havelis and their once grandiose occupants. The elegiac Marsia tradition of the Shias strives to be heard over angry chants of ‘Hulla Bol’ of political rallies in Mrinal Pande’s account of her visit to the city. And, in his hyperbolic saga of seven generations of the fictional Anglo-Indian Trotter family, i. Allan Sealy meanders through two hundred years of Lucknow’s chequered history of Lakhnavi cuisine; the delicate artistry of chikankari; the legendary courtesans and the defiant voice of the rekhti; the melodious notes of the ghazal and the thumri.

Engaging and thoughtful, Shaam-e-Awadh: Writings on Lucknow celebrates the unique character of this city of carnivals and calamities.

Veena Talwar Oldenburg was born and educated in Lucknow and still has her ancestral home there. She moved to the United States in 1970 and stayed on after her PhD in history to teach and share a life with Philip Oldenburg in New York.

She is currently Professor of history at Baruch College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has written several scholarly articles and published two books, The Making of Colonial Lucknow, 1856-1877 (University of Princeton Press) and Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime (Oxford University Press, New York).


One of my earliest memories of my beloved native city—as a place of beauty, romance, heartbreak-is of wading off- a small private pier on the Ghaziud din Hyder canal. Built by the eponymous nawab, the canal leaves the Gomti river at its easternmost point in the city and loops lazily along a south—westerly direction around the southern edge of the city. It rimmed the house and its once extensive gardens, orchards, and fields that I called home. The waters of the canal were pellucid with fish darting like quicksilver, and I scooped water in my cupped hand to drink. The canal also feeds La Martiniere Lake, the picturesque frontage of: Constantia, the palace and mausoleum of Claude Martin. This mercenary soldier and amateur engineer willed his vast fortune to endow La Martiniere Boys, School, Lucknow’s most famous educational institution. When we girl students came from the sister institution for the annual Founder’s Day Ball, always in white lacy rocks, the more daring would slip out into the night and make their way to the Big Pun, the bridge on the canal, for furtive groping and Hollywood kisses,. Some just went out to smoke unseen on its cool, starlit banks. The river and the canal were to us what the Seine was to Parisians.

What has happened to these watery threads that ornamented the city tapestry reflects the fate of- the city itself. The Gomti that periodically inundates the city, tears away at the already corroded fabric of- the city. The disease, death and dislocation that follow have marked the memories of- many Lakhnavis, while huge earth dykes veil its vistas in most parts of the city. The canal, now stagnant and curdled with sewage, is a malodorous breeding ground for mosquitoes. The press of population——now well over six million—has forced many residential colonies to spring up in the low—lying areas that the nawabs used as orchards, with dank and ugly habitations. Our own orchards were destroyed over a period of two decades to accommodate such architectural wonders as the Talkatora Power House, shoebox—shaped grain storehouses of the Food Corporation of India, and finally by the city development authority to build a huge housing colony— Rajajipuram—for Luck ‘now’s teeming underclass. As I watched despairingly, bulldozers and crews of men with axes felled thousands of mango trees of intensely flavoured and luscious varieties- Lakhnaua safeda, Langra, Dusserhi, Chausa, Fajri, Totapari, Lab—e-rukh, and dozens of rare cultivars with sweet scent and vivid colours. Acres of guava, karonda, amla, mulberry, ber, and citrus were mowed down without demur. The grand bel tree—that had stood majestically in a field of its own and supplied us with its football-sized fruit— was savaged in an hour. The fields that produced seed for all the new dwarf varieties of wheat and lentils that made the ‘Green Revolution, were cordoned off by surveyors, chalk marks. In a few days the orchard became a barren building site parcelled into twenty-five square yard plots for sale. Small, box—like brick structures mushroomed on this acreage to add an eyesore to the city’s once verdant southern expanse. Our house stands like a lone and bewildered elephant in the concrete jungle. What happened to Talkatora is the microcosm of what happened, in those mindless decades of ill-planned and unlovely development, to the larger city that was once proclaimed the 'City of Gardens’.

In a corner of the landmark Mayfair building—once the jewel of Hazratgunj, soon destined for the wrecking ball———is a small bookshop that all English readers of Lucknow consider their own. Ram Advani Bookseller, now a suave, grey—bearded octogenarian impeccably dressed in elegant Lakhnavi chikan kurtas, still sustains this small half—century- old haven for scholars and serious readers. I have been a customer since I was in kindergarten. Here, over cups of addictive tea from Sharmais stall in Lalbagh, or chicken patties and cold coffee from Kwality, generations have browsed, consulted, and discussed ideas in a quiet alcove upstairs. Today, we squint in disapproval at the supremely ugly, concrete, laughably modern church that has replaced the classic cathedral across the street and shudder at the din of the thick traffic that clogs the main artery of Hazratgunj. Kwality restaurant vanished from the building leaving dark, plundered spaces. The British Council Library, that rare well-stocked, air—conditioned retreat for English readers, has also crated its books and departed. The Mayfair Talkies building is now just a shell stripped of its lights and ornaments.

My regular visits to Lucknow arouse conflicting emotions. A walk in the Botanical Gardens, amid familiar old trees, its rose garden, cacti and bamboo collections, and ponds filled with lotuses and water lilies, arouses a sense of well-being. But swivelling a hundred and eighty degrees to view the Carlton Hotel, which was my second home and family business, where my fondest memories reside, is a heart- wrenching experience. This arcaded and elegant building, set amid gardens and a eucalyptus grove, with a nawabi fagade and Victorian interiors, was completed in 1877 by the British to accommodate a flood of taluqdars who were to visit the city on the occasion of the durbar to celebrate the visit of the Prince of Wales. The hotel was built on the ten—acre site of the Karbala, from where thousands of graves hastily disinterred after the Rebellion of 1357 were moved to the new Karbala built in Talkatora, abutting our farm. The reason for this uprooting was the misconception that the dead bodies emitted a miasma that sickened British civilians and troops! The graveyard could not stay in the newly built Civil Lines with its spacious bungalows and palaces of the taluqdars recently admitted to the city, and the sprawling Carlton took its place. An equally strong belief held by the Shia nobility, whose ancestors, bones had been sacrilegiously exhumed, was that whoever dared to profit from this unfortunate hotel would be avenged. Science has discredited the miasmatic theory of disease, but the bit about the supernatural curse may well have some power in it. The hotel was an instant success, being the finest hotel in the state for some decades. Its gala Christmas and New Year’s Eve balls found the best coat—tails and achkans in town vying for praise. The cellar was legendary, the billiards room a class act.

The good times came to an end for the British owners when the Quit India movement began in 1942. They hurriedly sold the place, and my father, a young regular in the billiards, room, consummated a bargain, seeking my grandfather is blessing only later. However, some three decades later our family was torn apart in an ugly dispute. To confound matters, in 1978, Lucknow`s administration demanded an untenable amount to renew its expired ninety—nine—year lease. After prolonged wrangling and legal complications, a major part of the property was sold, to convert it to freehold. The new buyers were the then chief minister, Mulayam Singh, and Subroto Roy of Sahara, who made an offer no one could refuse. The plan, which was completed in 2006, has left only a small section of the original heritage building still standing, aggrieved and incongruous like a large mammal whose limbs have been hacked off It is now a glorified baraat ghar, where weddings take place in the front lawn. A shiny steel-and-glass shopping mall, Sahara Gunj, has risen on its flanks that were once covered with beds of amaryllis which bloomed at Easter. Perhaps this is the harbinger of a virile, modern, glossy future that will banish the ghosts of the past. ‘Gunjing’, that famous Lakhnavi pastime, will become a quaint gerund, as people ride shiny steel escalators to the new boutiques flaunting attractive and imported wares. Lucknow cannot resist the siege by its new, unsentimental denizens.

Even as the old city decays a very bold new city is rising from the rubble. The city has eaten greedily into the fertile countryside north of the Gomti and new neighbourhoods have sprung up. Massive new concrete bridges across the river overwhelm the clean lines of the iron bridge and the red sandstone bridges built during the nawabi. Exhaust spewing triangular, three-wheeled taxis, affectionately nicknamed 'samosas’, lorries, trucks and fleets of cars, and the less high—tech rickshaws, handcarts, tongas and ikkas cram these bridges and one wonders if anyone stops to look at the remains of that once famed skyline of minarets and domes which the reader will encounter in these pages.

Like in bygone years, the spring bloom in February has us exclaiming. The flower show at Government House brings throngs of Lakhnavis to its palarial grounds in finery that competes with the floral displays of annuals and perennials. The air is fragrant, the ice cream and cold drinks vendors are doing brisk business and the sunlit lawns hark back to the time when Sir Harcourt Butler rode his horse on these grounds and invited the taluqdars and other loyal Lakhnavis to his garden parties. We wend our way to Aminabad, past the nawabi imambaras freshly repaired through the Aga Khan’s generosity, just to get a whiff of the charcoal smoke mingled with the aroma of kababs at Tunde's famous eatery. My mouth waters in anticipation. Maybe I can persuade my brother to stop and share a plateful. Another day I insist we saunter through Phoolon Wali Gali so that I can replenish my supply of khus, extracted from the roots of that fragrant grass, and mitti, a perfume that evokes the scent of patched earth receiving falling rain, and keora water. And, of course, yet another spotless white muslin chikankari kurta to wear with my blue jeans.

I spot a faded calendar-art-style reproduction of the infamous painting of Wajid Ali Shah, the one in which he is flashing a nipple, as an endorsement for embroidered kurtas! He was Awadhis last king, who in a mere decade, 1847-56, put his own indelible imprint on all things we call Lakhnavi. He also became the poster boy of the royal oriental debauches whom the East India Company was determined to unseat. His sensuousness, so frankly depicted in the painting, had appalled his dour utilitarian successors. Amid the cries of the hawkers of Phoolon Wali Gali I could hear echoes of past exclamations in the accents of its British masters: Shall we tolerate this voluptuary with a harem of three hundred?! Who frittered his money on the arts?! Who wrote poetry?! Who danced with bells on his feet accompanied by his paris, his ‘paris’?! No, in the name of God (and bourgeois morality), let us order a bloodless regime change! And I could imagine the click of ivory balls and the aroma of brandy and cigars in the billiards room of the Residency as they ended the existence of a state that dared to be sensual. And then I cringed at the present. It is even more chilling——the contrast between that sensual kingdom and the carefully mimicked colonial prudery of the politicians that wrangle for power in the state of: Uttar Pradesh. With these unspeakable thoughts, I returned to Delhi to work afresh on this anthology and realized that my selections have a lot to do with the stamp the last king put on the mood of the city. He was palpable in a city that he was compelled to leave a century and a half ago, before the city was sacked during the bloody rebellion that rose in his wake.

A few days later, my mother calls to say in a voice hardly above a whisper——‘I have horrible news. Meher was shot by a goonda last night’. Meher Bhargava (nee Kharas), a lawyer and an old friend from Loreto College, had just finished her regular card game. She went to pick up her daughter-in—law from a high-rise apartment building that has, inevitably, replaced an elegant bungalow on Sapru Marg, just opposite the bungalow of the Senior Superintendent of Police. A clutch of young men taunted her daughter—in—law with lewd remarks. Characteristically, Meher did not avert her frank gaze or tolerate the unprovoked rudeness. She demanded an apology and threatened to call the police. At this, one of the men feigned regret, pulled out a pistol and discharged a bullet into her neck. This cold-blooded assault sent a shiver through the city, indeed the nation, for Meher was married to Luv Bhargava, an influential Congress Member of Parliament from Lucknow. Daily bulletins of her doomed battle for life were reported in the national press and she became the subject of thoughtful editorials in magazines. The murderer is still at large even as I write. The police are trying to put the best face on their bungling and corruption.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident but part of a trend that has come to haunt the city, a symptom of the malaise of disorder and criminality that poor governance and a succession of very greedy elected officials and bureaucrats have brought to Lucknow. In the Lucknow of our girlhood, we heard lovelorn taunts (Eh: haseena, zara idhar to dekhiye’) which we brushed off with a janab, hame pareshaan na kijiye’ as we strolled in Hazratgunj and ignored the Lukhnau ke baanke, young men of romantic but harmless dispositions. That benign place, that place where we said ‘pehle app’ in jest or in earnest has vanished; perhaps it will exist in the memories of those who loved it well and in the books we write about it. I hope that this collection will recall its various moods and moments in its history.

The selections in this volume reflect Lucknow’s glorious past, fashioned as it was with the wealth of Awadh after it became the capital of that fertile province. They evoke the rich and complex history of this once courtly city with its own distinctive ada, or cultural style, fastidiously cultivated from 1775 until the heartbreaking departure of the exiled King Wajid Ali Shah eighty—one years later. Today, when Lakhnavis talk about Lucknow they lament the present; even the colonial period has taken on a gracious glow, its depredations forgotten. Bollywood has produced memorable films set in the nawabi or colonial Lucknow with haunting songs that celebrate Lucknow’s once distinctive refinements: Chaudhvin ka Chand, Pakeezab, Umrao Jaan, Mere Mehboob, Palki, to mention some of the best—loved ones, The titanic power struggles of- the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, of Mayawati and Mulayam Singh, of: Shia and Sunni in the present—day arena of democratic politics have the potential of becoming epics for our age. Will Lucknow’s very own Muzaffar Ali of. Kotwara, who gave us Umrao Jaan, bring his talent to bear on Lucknow’s new arbiters of- power and culture? Who will write its songs? Will its elegant Urdu survive the onslaught of English, Hindi and Punjabi?

The mursiyas, the laments and elegies that were composed by Anis and Dabir, Lucknow's great poets, and new ones that continue to be composed and sung at each Muharram by the Shia mourners of that long—ago battle at Karbala, acquire a poignant immediacy as we think about our beloved city of carnivals and calamities.

I hope the varied selections in this anthology evoke the many moods of this thrice—born city.


Preface: Lucknow, City of Undying Memoryix
Rapture and Ridicule: Inpressions of Lucknow
Yeh Lakhna’u ki Sarzameen3
Shakeel Badayuni
Ghalib’s Verdict on Lucknow in Three Terse Stanzas5
Tafzihul Ghafilin6
Abu Talib
From Kim7
Rudyard Kipling
From The Trotter-Nama9
I. Allan Sealy
Nawabi Lucknow: Through Western Eyes12
Veena Talwar Oldenburg
The High Noon of the Nawabi
Nawabi Dastaan19
Veena Talwar Oldenburg
From Docoitee in Excelsis or, the Spoliation of Oude29
Samuel Lucas [Assistant Resident R. W. Bird]
The Coronation37
Michael H. Fisher
From Edge of Empire: Conquest and Collecting in the East, 1750-185041
Maya Jasanoff
Shatranj ke Khilari53
Munshi Premchand
The Mutiny and Rebellion of 1857
‘Going! Going! Gone!67
Flora Annie Steel
1857-58: The City as Battlefield 71
Veena Talwar Oldenburg
The Rebel Begun76
Michael Edwardes
A Lady’s Diary of the Siege of Lucknow79
G. Harris
From Government of India Archives
From Following the Equator91
Mark Twain
That Famous Touch of Decadence
Rekhti-A Defiant Voice in Urdu Poetry95
Carla Petievich
Mir Anis Lakhnavi
Interior of an Opium Den in Lucknow99
The Oudh Punch
Afternoons in the Kothas of Lucknow102
Veena Talwar Oldenburg
A Monograph on Trade and Manufactures in Northern India122
William Hoey
Fragrant Feasts of Lucknow125
Margo True
‘Zakr Us Parivash Ka’: Begum Akhtar in Lucknow146
Saleem Kidwai
Twentieth-Century Lucknow
Bats in a Dreary Lodge Where Life Imitates Poe161
Barry Bearak
From Sunlight on a Broken Column165
Attia Hosain
My Nani Remembers179
Mishi Saran
From toad in My Garden193
Ruchira Mukherjee
From Diddi202
Ira Pande
Laughing in Lucknow214
Vinod Mehta
From The Age of Kali221
William Dalrymple
The Unabashed Birthday Bashes246
Veena Talwar Oldenburg and Mrinal Pande
From India: A Million Mutinies Now249
V.S. Naipaul
The Lucknow That Is259
Mrinal Pande
The Double Wedding of the Century: I was There265
Nasima Aziz
Copyright Acknowledgement275
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