CULTURE CAPITAL

Mehru Jaffer

Looking at the sleepy old city of Lucknow wake up to its cosmopolitan character is cause for much celebration. It is often forgotten how the city has been multicultural for ages, welcoming people from different parts of the world to live here and enrich existing architectural styles, cuisine, fashion, language and trade.

All those who do not want outsiders to be involved in reviving Lucknow need to be reminded that it was always people from elsewhere who came here to fuse new energy into the city. According to local mythology, the first outsider to make Lucknow his home was Lakshman, the brother of Lord Rama. Perhaps the city gets its name from him and Lucknow is only the anglicised pronunciation of Lakshmanpuri. The raised piece of land on the balmiest banks of the river Gomti where Lakshman chose to build his home in pre historic times still stands and is known as Lakshman Tila.

Then came Kanyakubj Brahmins, Kayasthas, Pathans from Afghanistan, sheikhs of Turkic origin, Chinese traders, Persian poets, French adventurers, British bullies, and Punjabi refugees from Pakistan. All made Lucknow their home, contributing their respective ingenuity to make it a melting pot of humanity much before the word multiculturalism had made it into any dictionary.

The ancient neighbourhood of Firangi Mahal, which still exits, was a transit place for foreigners who poured into this lush heartland of the Indo Gangetic plains during medieval times for trade and travel. One of the city’s main arteries is called Toria, the local term of endearment for the Queen Victoria Street. The symbol of Lucknow is a gate from the 18th century called Rumi Darwaza, and the most prestigious school and college here is La Martiniere which was founded by Claude Martin, a Frenchman.

The city, always proud of its aesthetics and oceanic hospitality, lost its self confidence during the British reign – a gloom seemed to settle over the hearts of its citizens which lasted well after independence almost till the 1990s.

However there seems to be a turnaround now as Lucknow seems to be gaining ground in becoming, once again, the cultural capital of India. Today the city hosts not one but two literary festivals, the state’s Bhartendu Natya Academy has revived its repertory, and numerous new age dastango (Urdu storytellers) perform in auditoriums and other nooks and crannies of the city. Lucknow is also attracting students of Urdu from American and European universities. Old style bawarchis (chefs) who used to cook feasts for nawabs and kings have now learnt to combine their art with
aggressive entrepreneurship.

The annual cultural festival hosted by Mahindra Sanatkada, a local NGO for women, released a book called Feminists of Avadh par Salaam to celebrate the birth anniversary of female icons like author and broadcaster Attia Hosain, revolutionary freedom fighter Lakshmi Sahgal, and well-known singer Begum Akhtar.

While veteran theatre personality Raj Bisaria celebrates nearly half a century since he founded the Theatre Arts Workshop, the 70 year old Kathak guru Birju Maharaj continues to dream of spending more time in Lucknow to compose and to teach here. Historian Saleem Kidwai took early retirement from Delhi University to return to Lucknow and is busy rummaging through archives for unknown but interesting writing in Urdu which he translates into English for a larger audience. He has already published The Mirror of Wonders and other tales by Syed Rafiq Hussain who was born in Lucknow in 1895 but whose work had disappeared from circulation. Hindi literature’s greatest writer Yashpal’s work is also being sorted out and translated into English and other languages.

Lucknow boys Sudhir Mishra and Muzaffar Ali, who had left for Bollywood due to a lack of film making opportunities, have returned to capture the city on celluloid again. Together with a robust revival of dastangoi, the art of storytelling, interest in bait bazi (a verbal game and a genre of Urdu poetry played by composing verses of Urdu poem) and mushaira is also on the rise.

Professional architects are making much noise about the state of the city’s marvelous monuments that may soon disappear if not repaired and restored right away. How to get the Agha Khan Foundation to take over the historic Chattar Manzil, the lone surviving residence of the rulers of Lucknow, for a facelift is on the mind of all concerned citizens.

Many highways have already eased traffic in the city and metro lines will soon be laid out here to prepare Lucknow for life as it should be lived in the 21st century.   

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2014