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Badshahi weekend

Arnab Banerjee |

Despite the heavy blanket of fog surrounding us, our flight was on schedule. It was early afternoon and we were peckish. Without further ado we hailed a cab for Aminabad. The Nawabs, the European imperialists, fortune seekers and politicians, all contend dazzlingly in the Lucknow firmament, but the brightest star got to be Haji Murad Ali, alias, Tunda Kababi. Haji Murad was the man without an arm (Tunda in Urdu) who improvised a wondrous treat for a toothless (perhaps both literally and metaphorically) Nawab. Thus was born the legend of melt-in-the mouth kababs called Galawati or Galauti in colloquial parlance.

A cramped, non-descript shop set up by Haji Murad himself in 1905 in the Chowk area’s labyrinthine alleys and now run by his son, continues to do brisk business. The grandson opened another outlet in Aminabad in 1996. For our first meal in Lucknow, we decided to bestow our gluttonous patronage on the grandson’s establishment. We had the kababs with shirmal, a saffron flavoured traditional flatbread. And the verdict — definitely not to be missed.

Nicely fed and watered, we visited the ruins of the ‘Residency’ complex in the heart of the city. This used to be the seat of the British Resident General, representative of the infamous British East India Company in the court of the Nawabs of Awadh. Less than three hundred years ago it had been one end of an intricate chessboard where a mini clash of civilisation played out with the Company seeking to oust the Muslim Nawabs and annex Awadh in their quest for domination of India.

The last Nawab was packed out of his palace in Lucknow in 1856 and exiled to Calcutta with a handsome pension. Less than a year later, disgruntled Indian soldiers, in the company’s employ, rebelled. When they marched on to Lucknow, the British residents, including women and children, took shelter in the ‘Residency’ which was subjected to a prolonged siege and heavy artillery fire. Many died. Particularly poignant were the weathered epitaphs –”Here lies the son of Empire who tried to do his duty”. Another nearby grave reads “Do not weep my children, for I am not dead, but am sleeping here.”

The ruins of the Residency stand today as monument to the violent aftermath of a misguided regime change. The Nawabs, though not very effective administrators and morally ambiguous, were popular cultural icons tolerated by their subjects, both Hindus and Muslims. Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab, it is rumoured, enquired of the Resident General if the subjects of her majesty, Queen Victoria, sang songs penned by her.

After successfully putting down the rebellion, the East India Company extracted its pound of flesh. The victorious Company troops entered Lucknow in 1858 through the elegant ‘Rumi Darwaza’ the Turkish modelled gateway of Lucknow and slaughtered the rebels and their suspected sympathisers. Many more died.

The stretch of road from Rumi Darwaza to Chattar Manzil or the Umbrella Palace was old Lucknow’s Avenue des Champs-Élysées and was reputed to be at par with the nineteenth century urban landscapes of Rome, Paris, London and Constantinople. Not anymore, I thought as we covered the stretch in a ‘Tanga’, a horse pulled carriage in which we barely managed to squeeze in, one of those touristy things that has to be done.

We had chosen Lucknow because it presents on one canvas the different layers of India’s rich and diverse past. Myth has it that Rama’s brother, Laxman, allegedly colonised and christened the city, Laxmanavati, although the subaltern movement claims that the city was originally named after Lakhan Pasi, a dalit ruler. In its prime Lucknow profited economically and culturally from the decline of the mighty Mughal Empire, attracting in equal measure both greed and wrath of several rampaging European East India companies before becoming the capital of modern India’s most populous state.

Lucknow flourished under the Nawabs with the blossoming of the ‘Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb’, a term describing the fusion of the very best elements of the Hindu and Islamic traditions characterised by cultural eclecticism and exaggerated rituals of refinement. This is best illustrated in a painting at the Hussainabad picture gallery which we visited the next morning. It depicts the celebration of ‘Basant Panchami’ on a gilded barge on the Gomti , presided over by Wajed Ali Shah, his family and ministers, all dressed in yellow and graced by the presence of the English resident and his wife.

The European influence added to this melange with contributions from John Company and individuals like Claude Martin. Martin was a French adventurer who came to India from Lyon as a soldier with the French East India Company. With the declining fortunes of the French in India, he shifted allegiance to the British and with their permission in 1776 took up the post of superintend of Arsenal for the Nawab in Lucknow. An amateur architect, a committed philanthropist and educationalist, he is best remembered for establishing the schools that bear his name and architectural imprint.

In the afternoon we visited the ‘Bada Imambara’, a grand assembly with a mosque and a labyrinthine maze where the Nawabs sported with their consorts and concubines. This sprawling building was commissioned by Nawab Asad ud Daula in 1785, during a famine, to provide employment to the poor and the suffering. Apocrypha has it that construction ended only when the famine was over – perfect example of Keynesian economics in action before its time.

We spent our last evening in Lucknow admiring ‘ chikan’, the exquisitely delicate embroidered patterns on cool pastel shades of light muslin and cotton fabric. Chikan is to Lucknow what lace is to Brussels and no visit to the city is complete without acquiring a piece of this traditional craftsmanship which goes back many centuries.

As we sat nursing our tea in the gathering gloom, across the murky waters of the river Gomti, the Victorian-gothic clock tower loomed over us in splendid isolation. History, jostling with the crowds, slowly dissolved in the din of modernity.