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The City of Tehzeeb

March 2003
The City of Tehzeeb

One of the most well known anecdotes about Lucknow, actually a true story made popular by a song in Raj Kapoor?s film Bobby ? ?Aksar koi ladki is haal mein?pehle aap, pehle aap? ? tells of two Nawabs about to board a train. Their Lakhnavi tehzeeb (etiquette) demanded that each ask the other to enter first. So they kept urging one another politely: ?Pehle Aap?(Sir, after you). To which the other would say, ?Are Nahi Huzoor, Pehle aap? (Oh no Sir, after you). While they were thus engaged, neither willing to forsake his good manners, the train chugged away!

Nothing perhaps introduces the city of Lucknow better than this tale, clich�d though it might be. But like all clich�s, it has a ring of truth to it, reflecting the unique character and appeal of the City of Nawabs. And though much has changed over the decades, it is still this tehzeeb that sets Lucknow apart from all other cities of India.

To an outsider, Lucknow today might appear to be a culturally confused city with one foot rooted in the past and the other looking for a toehold in the present, where old mausoleums jostle for space and attention with new age architecture. But Lucknowites themselves seem to be as comfortable with sher-o-shayri and traditional Avadhi cuisine as they are with Shakira?s Wherever, Whenever and cappuccino and pasta. Lucknow lives as much in the serpentine bylanes of the Old City as it does in the plush shopping mall of Hazratganj where you can make purchases at the snazziest of showrooms selling international brands of couture and footwear, buy the latest electronic gizmos and ogle at the swankiest cars available in the country.

Today, after New Delhi, the city is the most important center of power in free India, by virtue of being the Prime Minister?s constituency. Politics has indeed been Lucknow?s forte, but culture has been its historical identification.

Rich Cultural Blend

The blending of various cultural strains nurtured by centuries of Mughal and later Delhi Sultanate rule and the folk traditions of the Indo-Gangetic plains has produced a rich and complex mosaic of Indian culture. It was here that the Urdu language acquired its amazing phonetic nuances and refined suaveness. Lucknow has also cradled classical art forms like Kathak, Thumri and Dadra. The Lucknow Gharana of classical music and dance is still referred to with great respect by the stalwarts with the Bhatkhande Music College carrying on this legacy.

No other city in India, except Kolkata, has inspired so much research, with innumerable books having been written on it. Says Ram Advani, a key contact person for most scholars arriving in the city: ?With its colonial roots and its role as a catalyst of the freedom movement, the city has and will continue to spawn research. The presence of archives also helps.? Others like photographer John Paulo, for example, or filmmakers and TV crews from the national and international media come armed with just curiosity, seeking traces of a lost era that they have heard, read or been inspired by. It?s worth taking a look at the movies which have had Lucknow as their backdrop ? Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Mere Mehboob, Palki, Chaudhavin Ka Chand, Pakeeza, Junoon and Umrao Jaan are just a few of them.

Lucknow truly is a history lover?s delight. It forms the link between tradition and modernity, the decline of the Mughals and the rise of the British. However, this transition cut short Lucknow?s cultural affluence. The city of tehzeeb received a serious jolt with the siege of the British Residency during the First War of Independence in 1857. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, Lucknow?s most loved Nawab, was made a scapegoat by the British, who annexed the Province of Avadh (with Lucknow as its capital) on grounds of ?administrative failure?, and packed off the Nawab to Calcutta with a pension. Interestingly, a city in Ontario, Canada was named after Lucknow after this 1857 War.

Located on the banks of the river Gomti, which bisects the city into new and old, Lucknow?s origin can be traced to the era of the Ramayan. When Lord Ram returned to Ayodhya after his exile, he gifted this place to his younger brother Lakshman, who is believed to have stayed at Lakshman Teela, a high ground near the banks of the Gomti where a mosque now stands in place of the Sheshnaag Temple. The region was named after Lakshman and was then known as Lakhanpuri.

If you?re the kind who loves to ruminate in the ruins, then this is the place for you! Whether as architectural marvels or as pages from the past, the lofty monuments of the city, the exquisite stucco and calligraphy work and cemeteries, lost reminders of a colonial legacy, draw scholars, researchers and even long lost relatives to the shores of the Gomti to retrace their steps in time.

Architectural Marvels

What strikes both laypersons and researchers alike while admiring the architectural masterpieces, is the predominance of the fish motif. Legend has it that when Saadat Ali Khan was first appointed the Governor of Avadh on Sept 9, 1722, he was up against the powerful Shaikhzadas who ruled the province. Saadat was to cross the swelling Ganga in the rainy season during the course of his journey. It is said that when he reached the middle of the river, a fish leapt out and landed in his lap. Taking it as a good omen, he treasured it. The skeleton of that fish remained with his descendants till the fall of his dynasty. Thus it found its way onto the royal insignia and remains to this day as part of the official emblem of the State.

The Bara Imambara (also known as the Asafi Imambara) takes its name from the benevolent Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah who commissioned it to help his people tide over the worst famine in his reign, providing a means of livelihood for his subjects too proud to beg. The Imambara boasts of the largest vaulted hall in the world. Incredibly impressive, it measures 162 ft in length, 53 ft in breadth and 50 ft in height. The enormous roof, unsupported by pillars or beams, has 16 feet hollow walls that serve to lighten the weight of the structure and cool the interiors. The Whispering Gallery and the labyrinthine Bhul Bhulaiyya within the complex are the other attractions.

You have to pass through the Rumi Darwaza to enter the Bara Imambara. Towering some 60 feet like a sentinel, the Darwaza is virtually the symbol of the city. It was on beholding this imposing structure that Howard Russel, correspondent for The Times, London on his visit to the city in 1856, had remarked: Not Rome, not Athens, not Constantinople, not any city that I have seen appears to me so striking and beautiful as this Lucknow and the more I gaze, the more its beauty grows on me.

Another exceptional building is the Chota Imambara. With its exquisite chandeliers, split-edged mirrors, colourful stucco on the interior and a silver mimbar (pulpit) complete with a golden dome and fine calligraphy, it presents a distinct contrast to the grander but more austere Bara Imambara.

Among the many other monuments which Lucknow boasts of are the 221 feet high Clock Tower which is larger than the Westminster Clock, the Picture Gallery at Hussainabad, Dilkusha Palace now in ruins, Chattar Manzil which houses the Central Drug Research Institute, the Vidhan Sabha, La Martiniere College with Gothic architecture, the illustrious King George?s Medical College and the majestic Charbagh Railway Station.

Now the site of a museum to commemorate the First War of Independence in 1857, the famous Lucknow Residency was the traditional accommodation of the British Resident appointed by the East India Company. A number of buildings were added to the complex, which finally took the shape of an exclusive European settlement. Incidentally, the Residency was one of Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul?s favorite spots and he was greatly impressed with its proportionate architecture. Interestingly, his novel India: A Million Mutinies carries a chapter End of the Line that features three persons from Lucknow. One of them, city litterateur Nasser Abid became Naipaul?s escort during one of his visits. Together they went to the Old City that Naipaul describes in his book. He loved the sunset on the river and Hussainabad, especially the steps leading up to the mosque. Recalls Nasser: ?Naipaul was keen to discover the feel of the city. He even went to the by lanes of the Old City Chowk and requested for a mujra (nautch girl performance)!?

A walk through time-ravaged streets of Chowk is still a memorable experience because of the series of unfolding scenes ? the rhythm of hammers beating silver into superfine paper called varq, the sweet smell of flowers, the fragrance of ittar (perfume), the intricate chikan embroidery and the mouthwatering aroma of roasting meat at a kebab shop. Not to forget the twitter of birds up for sale in the Nakkhas market. Venturing beyond the streets into the by lanes you behold a private world of courtesans? houses with their many stories and anecdotes.

The attack of

modern times

Veena Talwar Oldenburg, a Lucknow-born New York-based professor who has documented the strangely cultured lives of the courtesans of the period, laments the erosion of the essential culture of the city calling it a bigger crime than the erosion of much of its architectural heritage. One follows the other and it leaves the city stripped of its character in the bargain, she says. Turning her nose up at the gargantuan cubicles that she calls municipal architecture, she says she has learnt to accept that modern demands are taking their toll on the Nawabi city and that graciousness and spaciousness will be things of the past if attempts are not made to preserve the pockets in which they remain today. But visitors like German scholar Ute Falasch still consider Lucknowites to be a cut above the others. She says: ?I was pleasantly surprised by the attitude of people in the city, they are friendly and hospitable which is more than you can say about Delhi where I find the people pushy and commercial. There is an old world charm about this place which keeps bringing me back again and again.?

While old timers feel Lucknow is losing its essence, those growing up find the city waking up to the world. Well known city photographer PC Little feels culture in the Nawabi city is non-existent today. He attributes this to political orientations seeping into city life. ?We are creating a whole new generation of youth which has still to come to terms with the transition the city is going through. While a sudden influx of money opens vistas and facilitates city life, it also brings with it an apathetic outlook towards the culture that was so cherished once.?

But all?s certainly not lost yet. A new study by Professor Ashutosh Varshney of the University of Michigan cites Lucknow as a model for communal peace in India. Sample this: Lucknow did not erupt when 30,000 refugees came over from West Pakistan after Partition. Nor even when the disputed shrine was demolished in Ayodhya, 70 miles from Lucknow, when the whole country was experiencing the most gruesome riots since Partition. In his pathbreaking book Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life Hindus and Muslims in India, he seeks an answer to the question: Why are cities like Aligarh, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Meerut and Kanpur more riot-prone than Lucknow? The reason, says Varshney, is that inter-communal civic life is more prominent in the Nawabi city. He therefore concludes that civic links between communities, and not government initiative, is the biggest guarantor of communal peace.

The most important foundation of Lucknow?s communal peace is the chikan and zardozi industry, which brings together a large number of Hindus and Muslims. The timeless tradition of intricate chikankari and opulent zardozi finds expression on the most vibrant ramps countrywide as designers vie to translate the flattering fluidity of the garment to suit urban silhouettes and contemporary cuts. ?There is an understated elegance and a subtle richness about Lucknow chikankari that blends beautifully in the designer circuit calling attention to itself through its amazingly fine workmanship,? says Meera Ali, wife of filmmaker Muzaffar Ali.

Crazy for Cuisine

Modern Lucknow?s most overpowering collective passion is eating out. It is a city that just loves, or shall we say, lives to eat! Exotic cuisines of all kinds find f(l)avor with the connoisseur and the layman alike. The city is simmering with popular eating joints, each with its distinctive aromatic ambiance and fair share of loyal clientele. Perhaps you could trace this love for good food to the Nawabi era or more specifically to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah whose preference for the finer things in life was equally matched by his disinterest in state affairs. His love for the arts was shared by his people who spent their time playing chess, visiting the theatre and above all, gorging on fine Mughlai cuisine.

The special attention to detail and resolve to settle for nothing but the best is what has earned the Avadhi dastarkhwan (spread) its special place in the cuisines of India. Whether in the buttery melt-in-your-mouth flavor of the kebabs or the delicious kormas and curries, aromatic biryani or finely prepared kulchas and sheermal (saffron covered parathas made from a dough of flour mixed with milk and ghee and baked in iron tandoors) the obsession with refinement and perfection earns it a reputation as a spread fit for a king. Thus the legendary Tundey kebabs (during Nawabi marriages, 264 spices were used to prepare this dish alone) remain the all-time favorite of Lucknowwallahs as well as Lucknowphiles! Ask visiting celebrities what they love most about Lucknow and they?re sure to say: Tundey kebabs! Lucknow?s best culinary export, which has done the rounds of all the major food fests, held around the world!

Chronicles list about 37 types of breads, 47 types of pulao, 19 types of kebabs, five types of meat curry and a mind boggling range of desserts including 37 types of halwa, that were cooked in the good old days. No wonder powerful courts all over India vied with each other to wean away a cook who had either worked or was trained in Lucknow. To belong to Lucknow was the highest qualification a cook could aspire for.

Not only were the cooks paid astronomical sums; they also enjoyed total freedom in their domain. Examples of cooks laying down conditions of employment before crowned heads, and the latter meekly accepting them, would only be found in Lucknow. And here alone would you find cooks strutting off in a huff if the king did not sit down for a meal on time when the food was served piping hot. One of the popular tales is that of a cook employed only to prepare mash ki dal (arhar ki dal) on a monthly salary of Rs 500. The dal was cooked only once in a while, and the king was condition bound to sit down at the dastarkhwan when the cook announced that the dal was ready. Once the king got delayed and the offended cook walked off. Before leaving, he emptied the contents of the dish at a place where stood a stalk of a dead tree. And wonder of wonders, the tree began to bloom again! Another such story is that of King Ghazi-ud-din Haider who slapped his vazir (minister) Agha Meer for reducing the quantity of ghee used by the cook in preparing parathas!

Despite menus changing with the seasons, there are some things that you?ll find on the table all year round, like the korma, the chapatti and the roomali roti. Believe it or not, the test of a good chapatti in Lucknow is that you should be able to see the sky through it; the dough should be that loose!

In an interesting reversal, one type of cooking which later became popular as dum (handi or cauldron) cooking all over the country, traveled from the laborers to the royal kitchens, when Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah happened to taste it quite by accident during a famine.

The Old City still offers a taste of the real flavor of Lucknow. Be it in the stalls of Nazirabad in Aminabad, or the Tundey kebab sellers in the lanes of Chowk, there?s something for everyone. While Chowk is choc-a-block with stalls selling lipsmacking non-vegetarian fare from biryani to kulchey nehari, the veggies can feast on Mangal Tikaram?s sweets, Raja ki Thandai and Dixit?s Chaat. Again in Aminabad, the two lanes of Nazirabad and Naaz Cinema Road abound in eateries that make up in taste and calories what they lose out in elegance and ambiance.

Cosmopolitan Fare

However, in recent times things more cosmopolitan are carving a niche for themselves in the dining out scenario. Hazratganj, the shopper?s paradise, doubles up as the city?s belly button. But the treats it offers are such that one tends to forget that all we eat goes to waist! Aryans, The Pavilion, Ritz, Royal Caf�, Cool Break, Barista, Nawabs, the list is endless.

Chicken momos at the AMC Center are not to be missed. However, you need to have a Defense ID to manage an entry. Another place for great momos, Chinese and Thai food is the Orient. Cappuccino Blast provides a cozy outlet for some great coffee and snacks.

If you have a fetish for chaat, then King of Chaat near the KD Singh Babu stadium, Jains near Novelty Cinema and Shukla on Shahnajaf Road, all three a stone?s throw from Hazratganj, have you eating out of their hands. Also not to be missed en route are the mobile vendors selling chana jor garam papdi chaat that makes for a quick bite delight.

Then there is Nimish, makkhan malai, desi souffl�, call it what you will, which is Lucknow?s homegrown dessert and ummm...irresistible! This winter treat may be light on the bite but it?s high in calorie count. Every spoon is a mouthful of melting manna oozing its soft sweetness on the tongue, giving it time to savor the delicate richness before it disappears in a wispy nothingness down your throat. Swears Mihir Chaturvedi, a diehard foodie residing in the Old City area: The stall near the Gole Darwaza in Chowk is the best spot for nimish. It is not just the nimish itself, the milk left over as residue once it melts, is a delicacy too, one not to be left out.

Years after the Nawabs are dead and gone, they still remain the city?s best bet. When Lucknow puts its best foot forward, it has to be that of a nawab! Take for instance Lucknow?s most popular tourism package ? the Dinner Date With Nawab package ? which is a great hit with the Americans especially. Mir Jafar Abdullah, a descendant of the Nawabs, hosts elaborate traditional gourmet dinners for these foreign tourists at his Sheesh Mahal residence feeling quite like the cultural ambassador of Avadh. On occasions a tourist shows great interest in ?taking back home? a particular souvenir from his collection of artifacts. In true Lakhnawi fashion, the nawab initially shows reluctance, but after being cajoled, agrees to part with it for a ?small consideration?. A century-old torn chikan kurta that an American tourist took a fancy to, was recently ?gifted? in return for a whopping Rs 50,000! A sad commentary on the state of the once proud Nawabs! Time indeed is a great leveler.

The fabled Sham-e-Avadh is pass� and Clubs now dominate the entertainment scene in Lucknow. Clubs like the Celebrity Country Club, Genesis, Shivgarh Resorts and Chancellor Club that make a neat blend of the fun and food package and have hordes thronging to them. As is inevitable, old world entertainment like ekka tonga races have all but trotted into oblivion. (Kite flying though still flourishes in some pockets and there are special kite flying days like Makar Sankranti, Ganga Snan and Jamghat when the sky makes for a beautiful sight with kites of all hues, shapes and sizes soaring up, up and above).

Modern Entertainment

The new entertainment center, X?s Bowling Alley on the Faizabad Road offers a three-lane alley, video games, pool tables and a disco topped with a snazzy eating joint making it a hot favorite with the upwardly mobile. Besides, numerous water parks have opened up on the outskirts of the city putting fun and frolic within a short drive?s reach for city folk. One of them even offers snowfall in the peak of summer! Set across 30 acres of landscaped environs, Four Seasons boasts of North India?s only racing reverse multi-lane slide. The venue is also the location for the Farm-Fresh Country Club which is already a weekend haven for the city elite, replete with snooker and pool tables, a card room, go-karting, a dance floor and restaurant.

Another popular club is the Mohamed Bagh Club. Located amidst sylvan lawns in the Cantonment, it has the city?s Who?s Who as its members. The old colonial aura is retained by liveried orderlies and army discipline giving it a stiff upper lip culture. A strict dress code and exclusive entry keeps it a cut above other city clubs. The club houses a spacious bar with some smashing snacks and has facilities of a swimming pool, outdoor sports like tennis, squash and badminton and a card room. Sunday evening housie is a great crowd puller among the ladies.

Horse racing ? a legacy of the colonial era ? was revived recently after 14 years. And tracks of the sprawling and picturesque Lucknow Race Course in the Cantonment area have begun to resound again with the thunderous sound of hooves. Every alternate Sunday, the racecourse becomes the rendezvous for the elite and the horse enthusiasts of the city, when they?re not busy at the Golf Club, that is.

But all?s not hunky-dory. There are many things which worry the Lucknowites. With real estate propping up hundreds of commercial and residential establishments in the city during the last decade, the city has been transported to a paroxysm of unbridled capitalism. Under the onslaught of mindless and unplanned construction, the proud skyline of the city is disappearing. Silently layer-by-layer like an unraveling bandage, the high rising office monoliths and multi-storied apartments wafting across the minarets and monuments, are threatening to snuff them completely out of sight. The erstwhile favorite leisurely pastime of Lucknowites ?Ganjing? exists only in name today. At all times of the day Hazratganj presents a maddening scene with honking cars, frayed tempers and harried commuters. Where is the space and the time to take a leisurely stroll and window-shop? The congested Aminabad market is even worse with traffic jams being the order of the day. Gomti today is a dirty, polluted river. Boat rides are strictly for the bored & desperate!

The changing face of Lucknow

As the old order changeth yielding place to the new, it triggers a wave of nostalgia. Dr Damyanti Sharma remembers watching movies as a newly wed with her husband in the 60s at the exclusive Mayfair Cinema in Hazratganj, which was invariably followed by a romantic dinner at the Kwality Restaurant right next door. The news of the recent closure of both these places, rather institutions, evoked fond memories that left her misty-eyed, like many others in the city.

But there is something to cheer about. On the government's initiative, quite a few parks, including the Begum Hazrat Mahal Park near Hotel Clarks, have been imaginatively landscaped and revived, color fountains et al, offering a much needed retreat to the heat harried city folk. The latest addition is the multi-crore Ambedkar Park next to the sprawling Hotel Taj Residency.

The crowning of the Indian Institute of Management as the country's top business school has only served to enhance Lucknow's reputation as a seat of knowledge, besides being home to premier scientific institutions. The achievements of the City Montessori School have placed it in the Guinness Book of World Records and earned the UNESCO Peace Prize for its founder Jagdish Gandhi. The latest star on the city's horizon is Magsaysay Award winner for Emergent Leadership, Sandeep Pandey.

Maybe we can leave it to Siddhartha Mathur, a journalist, to sum up his city: 'It is only cocks and kites that fight in Lucknow. It's not that the city lacks its share of cantankerous ones. But at every site of a big fight, there are more arbiters than those exchanging brickbats, more to defuse the situation than to add fuel to the fire. There is mutual respect for each other's religion. In the most strife-ridden of times, Lucknow has maintained peace and harmony. Violence is not all together an unknown phenomenon but riots just don't find root. The city has no history of bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims. This can be attributed perhaps to the fact that there is commerce and trade in the city but no cut-throat competition, wealth but no ostentation, politics but not at the cost of a neighbor's/friend's love and a genuine feeling of concern and solidarity towards each other. Times are a changing but, nothing's gonna change the love Lucknowites have for each other.'

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