Lucknow is the capital of the Indian subcontinent’s Awadhi ‘heartland’, in historian Gyanesh Kudaisya’s evocative words. Less evocatively, it is the capital of the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and its largest city with a population of three million people, of which 26 per cent are Muslim. It is the centre of Shia Islam in India, historically the capital of Awadh, it was one of the major centres during the rebellion in 1857, the cultural capital of north India and home to the famous Chikankari embroidery work, thought to be popularised by Nur Jahan. The Nawabs of Lucknow were known for their refined tastes as much as their extravagant lifestyles, and the city has most beautifully been captured and bought to life in the 1977 film, Shatranj ke Khiladi that was based on the Hindi short-story of the same name by Munshi Premchand and the 1981 film, Umrao Jaan that was based on the Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa. Set in mid-nineteenth century Lucknow, they show the decadence of the Lucknavi high society through the life of Nawabs and courtesans, the moral decay/hypocrisy around their lives in the backdrop of political intrigue and rebellion. Shift to the present-day Lucknow/UP and the state is better known for returning a thumping win in the state election of 2017 for an ascending Hindu ‘nation’ led by Narendra Modi and, in return, finding itself being ruled by a Yogi. A milieu previously famous for its adab-tehzeeb is now the habitus of Adityanath and his terrific to many, terrifying to some, presence.
A recent visit their began at the annexe of the Charbagh station, past the pillars of the fly-overs of the-then on-going metro constructions and a rather tasteful red-and-white façade of the Charbagh metro-station with its Jali décor; apropos which my auto-wallah remarked, ‘Akhilesh ne kaam to bahut kiya par chacha ne harwa diya’. In no time, we were in old Lucknow; the narrow, congested streets of Aminabad, where the first thing noticeable was that while many shops had named the lane we were on as Latouche Road, others had it as G.B. Road, for, Gautam Buddha. The incongruity of being in a space that marked its time from both the British Lt-Governor Sir James Latouche (AD 1901-06) and the Shakyamuni Siddhartha (563-483 BC) did not end there. It was also reflected in much of the arms, air guns et al, and ammunitions market on one side being stared at by hundreds of chickens from their kens in many of the poultry-khanas on the other. While the arms stores dated back to 1933, 1940s-50s, prominent among these being Gupta Brothers, Hashim Manzil, with their colonial, hanging, dilapidated balconies, small windows, tapering and peeling pillars, darkening, decaying visage, plants growing out of lime plastered walls, the poultry-khanas seemed without pedigree. Amidst this sea of noisy chatter around the selling of guns and the stoically silent birds, there was also a serene and strikingly yellow-coloured masjid/madrasa and its school of calligraphy. It plainly stood apart and alone in its intent and purpose.