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Literary Review

Soul of a city

Today, Lucknow stands vandalised in the name of city planning and little remains of its legendary elegance and sophistication. UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA reviews an omnibus edition which brings together three studies of the city.

FASTIDIOUS Lucknow, on the banks of the Gomati river, where the Nawabs of Oudh held court, was one of the great cities of its time. This omnibus edition from Oxford University Press brings together three fascinating studies of the city, its glory and its decline. The first is of course Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, Abdul Halim Sharar's classic account, translated by E.S. Harcourt and Fakhir Hussain, which describes for us the glory and decadence of the grand city in its twilight years. The book first appeared in Urdu as a collection of serialised essays in the journal Dil Gudaz, from 1913 onwards.

Sharar describes, with meticulous affection and loyalty (occasionally coloured with his own opinions, and sometimes disapproving), the traditions, styles and diverse nuances of Lakhnawi culture, in this city where the rulers took their leisure activities seriously. "Life was sweet in Lucknow", writes translator Fakhir Hussain in his preface to this edition. Pehle Aap was a large part of it ("I claim that no other language in the world has so many honorific words of address", declares Sharar); so, too, were the games of chess, the music, the good food, and the kothis. But there were other, more effetely vicious, pursuits as well, ranging from rhinoceros-fighting and elephant-fighting, to battles between a tiger and a rhinoceros until one of the great animals fell. From Urdu poetry to self-defence, from parrots and kite-flying, to the development of classical music, and even an entire chapter on preparing and serving the betel leaf ("Paan dan, the betel box transforms the raw leaf into a thing of glory") — Sharar documents every possible aspect of the city's living traditions, and even what was being brought in from the outside world. He tells us about the bagpipes: "The bagpipes (were) brought to India by the British and unknown before their arrival. In Lucknow, the only people to play it are sweepers, who do this in addition to their usual duties. The probable reason for this is that initially both Hindus and Muslims felt such social revulsion towards Europeans that anything they had touched was considered defiled. This instrument had to be learnt from the British and one had to put one's mouth to it?" But he goes on to add that the sweepers, far from abandoning their new-learned art as everyone had expected them to, went on to play popular Indian tunes too, which brought them more success. And that is how the bagpipes came to stay as a part of the Indian music band. And here is Sharar's explanation of how the dragging-pulling style of kite-fighting became established: "It was really begun by small boys who had very little cord and would put their indigence to rights by recklessly cutting down other people's kites. In those days experts would look on them with contempt and keep their kites at a distance." Eventually, however, the new style proved too addictive to resist, and huge amounts of money went into the sport.

Perhaps one metaphor for the preoccupation with etiquette and formality that soon became an overwhelming obsession in Lucknow is that of the betel box. Important in itself as the serving dish for the delicate paans, it became even more important as the cash box and then the treasure chest for women. And so its size began to increase, until it went to as much as 40 pounds. "The larger the betel box, the greater the status of the lady. Eventually the betel box took up all the space in the palanquin and there was no room for the lady", remarks Sharar dryly.

Strangely, even in its days of splendour, Lucknow evoked strong reactions among its 19th-century European visitors, when the city was at the height of its sophistication. Irish journalist W.H. Russell did rate the city "finer than Constantinople or Rome"; but most other writers made disparaging remarks, with one even making an outraged reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. If outside visitors scoffed at the evolving architectural styles, even Dr. Fuehrer, who was the Curator of the Provincial Museum in Lucknow (his official residence was the Chattar Manzil), wrote uncharitably of the city, describing its buildings as "debased" — "the influence of a depraved oriental court and its politics upon art and architecture". Such criticisms, sadly, contributed to the decline of a once majestic city and allowed the justification of its vandalism in the name of new city planning. Lucknow today retains little of the elegance and sophistication for which it was once legendary. Several of the stately buildings have been chopped up into dreary sarkari offices. All this and more, the ebb and flow of architectural trends in the cityscape, is documented by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones in A Fatal Friendship: the Nawabs, the British and the City of Lucknow, a fascinating study of the evolution of a city at the interface between the Nawabs and the British. "Anger and sadness are not uncommon today to those who still care for the history of this marvellous city", writes Llewellyn-Jones bluntly in the preface to this omnibus edition. Llewellyn-Jones, who is Archives, Records and Conferments Officer at South Bank University, London, has also written about Claude Martin, the East India Company adventurer who shaped Lucknow's destiny in many ways and certainly its landscape as well.

Veena Talwar Oldenburg's The Making of Colonial Lucknow: 1856-1877 traces the "Anglo-Indian way of thinking and living that slowly nudged the Indo-Persian into the background of the urban stage". The map of the city had to be redrawn urgently, after the Mutiny of 1857, with "Never Again" as the theme; and in order to redraw the map, it was necessary for the British to raze large portions of the city to the ground. Oldenburg points out that in Lucknow, the streets served as the meeting-place for the people to share a leisurely conversation over a paan: "the street itself was a destination and an event". With swift and brutal strokes, Colonel Robert Napier of the Bengal Engineers transformed not only the cityscape, but also the entire way of life of a once-vibrant city. "Hardship will no doubt be inflicted upon individuals, property may be destroyed, but the community will generally benefit, and may be made to compensate the individual sufferers", he decided with typically bureaucratic insensitivity. Demolitions began, slow and ugly, and the debris of the city began to pile up on the roadsides. And slowly, inevitably, over a century and more, they took on the shapes of cityscapes that we inhabit today. They began to look like the cities we live in. And therein lies the continuing and sharpest relevance of this omnibus enterprise: the way we live today, in our cities, and the way our cities live — and die — around us. "Post-colonial administrators represent the unbroken chain of command", writes Oldenburg, who is Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Centre of The City University of New York.

For anyone who is interested in people, cultures and the great cities, this elegant and intelligent volume is a delight.

The Lucknow Omnibus: Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, Abdul Halim Sharar; A Fatal Friendship: the Nawabs, the British and the City of Lucknow, Rosie Llewellyn-Jones; The Making of Colonial Lucknow: 1856-1877, Veena Talwar Oldenburg; Oxford University Press, Rs. 495.

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