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The Lucknow literary broth


In the late 18th Century, when Delhi was being plagued by invaders, Lucknow's fortunes were on the rise under the Nawabs of Awadh, a relatively new dynasty. The Nawabs often imitated Mughal practices to gain legitimacy. Building imposing structures was one of them. Encouraging poets was another. ROSIE LLEWELLYN- JONES writes about the syncretic literary ambience that resulted.

Kerabi Dilli ka do chand behtar 
Lakhnau se tha 
Wahin men kash mar jata sar 
asima ne ata yehan. 

(The ruins of Jahanabad were ten times better than Lucknow Oh, that I had stayed there to die -- not come to live distracted here.)

SO wrote the poet Mir Muhammad Taqi who came to Lucknow as a refugee from Delhi in 1782. Although Mir was welcomed by the Nawab of Awadh, who even paid for his journey from Delhi, the poet was never able to reconcile himself to exile from the ravaged Mughal capital. It was a time of turmoil and change. Delhi, which was also called Jahanabad, had suffered terribly from foreign invaders as the Mughal Empire fell apart, and the Emperors lost control. Such was the devastation in what had been the greatest city of the East, that the poets complained ``not even a lamp of clay now burns/ where once the chandelier blazed with light.'' On a less poetic note, it is recorded that during the Afghan invasions into northern India, the fountains of Chandni Chowk ran not with water, but with blood.

Although Mir had been born in Agra, he had made Delhi his home, because that was where he could find patrons to support him. But at the age of 60, changing circumstances forced him and his fellow poets to leave home and travel to Lucknow, whose star was in the ascendant, as Delhi's declined. The Nawabs of Awadh, a new dynasty who had only recently established themselves, were anxious to gain approval as legitimate rulers, and they deliberately adopted many of the habits of the once great Mughals. Splendid new buildings, lavish celebrations, huge hunting parties and extravagant commissions were all part of the image that the Nawabs wanted to project, and one of the most important aspects was the patronage of poets like Mir.

It is difficult today to imagine in what respect these writers were held. Even a single line of verse would be copied out by a calligrapher and taken as a gift to a friend, while patrons would pay for whole volumes to be transcribed. Mushairas, for which Lucknow became famous, were originally poetic gatherings held in the house of nobles or scholars. The invitation to the event would include a line of verse that the guests had to incorporate into their own work, to be recited aloud, as a lighted candle was passed around before the seated poets.

Perhaps Mir had a premonition about his eventual fate in his new home. At first he became a great favourite of the Nawab Asaf-ud- daula, who paid him Rs. 300 per month and invited him on hunting parties. Mir responded with a number of ``hunting poems', including the "Shikarnama". But the poet and the patron eventually fell out and Mir died in relative poverty in Lucknow in 1810. Part of the cemetery where he lies was destroyed when the railway was built, but a road named after him exists today just east of the City Railway Station.

Urdu travelled to Awadh with Burhan-ul-Mulk's troops, as the first Nawab established himself there. At first it was literally a ``camp language', a convenient medium of communication between Persian and Hindi speakers. Then it was taken up by the poets, and spread rapidly through poetry before being adopted by prose writers. Although the common perception today is that old Lucknow's literary life revolved entirely around Muslim poets, and Muslim forms of verse, in fact there is growing evidence of a rich, syncretic tradition, where people from many different backgrounds contributed to the city's artistic reputation. It was usual for poets to adopt Urdu words as pen-names, and this has probably disguised a number of Hindi authors like Pandit Daya Shankar, who called himself ``Nasim'' and wrote the ``masnavi Gulzar-e-Nasim', which was full of artificial conceits. The poet Insha, who seems to have been something of a loose cannon, and who managed to insult all of his patrons, composed the "Rani Ketki ki Kahani" (The Story of Rani Ketki) more or less as a curiosity, for it uses no Persian or Arabic words, and is written in what the author describes as hindavi.

The input from another group of newcomers to Awadh should not be neglected either, that of the British East India Company officials. It may surprise us that these foreigners who entered India as merchants, and who left as rulers, should concern themselves, or even have time for, the literature of India. But during the late 18th Century, long before Macaulay's scornful dismissal, there was a real appreciation and sharing of India's written heritage among these men.

Mir's predecessor at the Lucknow Court had been the poet Sauda, known for his caustic wit and satires on contemporary events. Sauda was patronised by the Nawab Shuja-ud-daula and his successor Asaf-ud-daula, and it was through this connection that the poet met Richard Johnson, the British Assistant Resident who is supposed to have known Urdu and who enjoyed its poetry. At the very end of his life, Sauda presented Johnson with a manuscript of his collected verse, as a mark of high honour, a graceful tribute across cultural boundaries.

During the 1780s, there was a particular interest in the translations of the great Hindu epics, which were promoted by the Sanskrit scholar Sir William Jones, who founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Another connoisseur in Lucknow was Major General Claude Martin, whose library contained a number of important works including Seir Mutaquerin; The Code of Gentoo [Hindu] Laws, from a Persian translation from the original Sanskrit; The Hitopadesa, Fables and Proverbs from the Sanskrit, and "Sacontala" or the Fatal Ring, translated from the original Sanskrit and Prakrit.

Descriptions by visiting foreigners present delightful glimpses of cultural exchange in the tolerant period of late 18th Century Lucknow. Mrs. Elizabeth Plowden entertains the Nawab at dinner with a number of English songs. The Mughal prince, Mir Sulaiman Shikuh, who was Insha's patron, is heard reading in English a poem translated from the Persian and the English artist Ozias Humphrey sees Asaf-ud-daula teaching his young son to write Arabic and Persian words.

The Nawabs were of course the greatest collectors in Awadh, and up to 200,000 manuscripts and books are said to have disappeared from the royal libraries after the upheavals of 1857. Recently, a set of manuscripts from the royal Topkhana Library has been found in the Berlin State Library in Germany, and this is of particular interest, because it contains about 150 pahelis or riddles, ascribed to the great Amir Khusro, which were handed down orally until the 18th Century.

Asaf-ud-daula had started a private kitab khana in his palace, but a later Nawab, Muhammad Ali Shah generously ordered that ``all the books, English, French and Persian purchased from time to time by his predecessor to be collected and sorted with the view to form a library for the convenience of those, without distinction, who may be disposed to frequent it.'' This must surely be one of the earliest public libraries in India!

The Nawabs were keen to encourage new technology too, and the first royal printing press was set up in Lucknow in 1821, to publish Haft Qulzum, a two volume dictionary and grammar of the Persian language. The much-maligned Nawab Nasir-ud-din Haider ordered the translation of English books, particularly of scientific and medical interest, into the vernacular languages.

It was during the reign of the last King, Wajid Ali Shah, that the heady eclectic mix that symbolises Lucknow came to its peak. The King was himself a gifted poet, writing under the name of ``Akhtar'' or Star, and he published a number of books with romantic titles like Parikhana, describing his love affairs. He enjoyed watching rahas, the graceful dances portraying Krishna playing the flute surrounded by Radha and gopis. In fact, the King became so entranced by these performances that he wrote his own version in which he (naturally), took the part of Krishna, while the ladies of the Court became milkmaids.

He must have been a very podgy Krishna, for recently revealed photographs show Wajid Ali Shah as an enormous young man, bursting out of his clothes.

Becoming deeply interested in Hindu mythology, the King then commissioned a work from Syed Agha Hasan Amanat, who wrote ``Indar Sabha'' (The Court of Indra). This was a completely original idea - a musical comedy with dialogue in verse, and is now regarded as the first Urdu play. The attractive tunes caught everyone's imagination, and even inspired the successful German operetta "Reiche des Indra" by Paul Lincke. After the King's deposition and exile to Calcutta, the Parsi director Pestonji Framji formed his ``Original Theatre Company'' to stage the "Indar Sabha", and other spin-offs based on Amanat's popular work. The eclecticism of the tolerant Nawabs of Lucknow had begun to find new homes.

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