Lucknow: Decline, Demise, Despair?
Most people do not realize that Hyderabad’s cultural ambience began to fade only in the 1950s, after police action against the Nizam. But Lucknow as the centre of Urdu and India’s composite culture, “dropt from the zenith like a falling star” abruptly when the British dispatched the last King of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, to Matia Burj, a suburb 50 kms from Calcutta, in 1856 to complete their conquest of Oudh.
And, like a “falling star” (Milton used the phrase in a different context) it has been floating through the spaces in phases of cultural decline, rehabilitation, decline again, then, the final burn-out, the contemporary condition.
To borrow an expression from boxing, the British administered a double fisted one-two by sending Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta and, after the 1857 uprising, the last Moghul emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to Rangoon (Yangon), to languish and die in the garage of a junior British officer. It is an interesting detail that both the deposed Kings were accomplished Urdu Poets.
In fact Wajid Ali Shah wrote plays, thumris, patronized dance, retained and decorated Krishna Lila in Kathak, played holi and observed Ashura, the tenth day of Moharram, both with religiously mixed groups. This backdrop is important to realize that the cultural demise of Lucknow has not only been in chronological time but in creeping amnesia in our minds about the past.
Actually, Lucknow has taken three major hits – 1857, 1947 and Zamindari abolition in the 50s. These three events rattled the elites who determined the city’s cultural tempo. The last of these events must be accorded a mixed reception because it inaugurated an era of egalitarianism which no one can quarrel with (feudalism was untenable) but which entailed cultural costs.
The elite, bruised and battered, retained their elegance and style. If they had to pick a bone with the British, they did not pelt stones at the objects of their ire. They resorted to the most brilliant political and social satire, wit and lampoon ever seen in Indian literature.
Punch magazine was in those days the high point of British wit and humour. The Avadh elite (to call them Lucknow elite is restrictive) launched a magazine, naming it quite unabashedly, Avadh Punch, an extraordinary vehicle for Urdu satire (cartoons and all) in which the great satirical poet, Akbar Allahbadi, wrote his earliest verse.
On the Late Agha Khan’s politics he wrote:
“London se Dilli aaye hain do yaum ke liye!
Yeh zehmatein uthaeen faqat qaum ke liye!”
(From London to Delhi just for two days!
O’ his love for his people and his caring ways.)
Or on politicians in general:
“Qaum ke gam mein dinner khaate
Hain hukkam ke saath!
Runj leader ko bahut hai
Magar aaram ke saath.”
(For love of his people, with the rulers he dines.
He anguishes in comfort with the choicest wines)
Lucknow’s culture was enriched from many sources. There were the Qasbahs, the abode of the landed gentry who brought to their “camp” houses in Qaiserbagh in Lucknow an Avadhi tinge, introducing an earthy lyricism into Lucknow’s urbane Urdu.
In fact the “pure” urbanity of Urdu was much more a preserve of Kashmiri Pandits and Kayasthas, purely non rural groups. The only Muslims who approximated to this “urbanity” had their residence, from havelis to hovels, in the old city, Chowk and Nakkhas. The residents here prided themselves in their “gandi galiyan; saaf zubaan” (dirty lanes, but sparkling speech)
Lucknow’s cultural schizophrenia grew in direct proportion to the expansion of British administration.
For example, one brother stayed in the old town, clad in “Sherwani”, increasingly smudged with usage. The other, clambering onto western education, crossed over to the cantonments and Civil lines in black tie.
The upwardly mobile in the western idiom sought membership of the Army and Civil Service dominated Mohammad Bagh Club. Those obstinately anchored to the floral patterns of Urdu conversation, laced with verses in Persian, Avadhi and Braj Bhasha (Lord Krishna’s spell on Urdu aethetics is generally not known), gravitated towards Rifaah-e-Aam club near City railway station.
The Urdu elite kept the chin up in their ever shrinking spaces. In addition to indispensability of English for employment across the board, a newly emerging political class fell back on the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan call of Bharatendu Harishchand. This drove a nail in Urdu’s coffin. It also led to the supercession of Khari Boli over the lilt of Avadhi, Braj Bhasha, Maithil, Bhojpuri. Hindi successfully claimed the slot as the national language. However, resistance to Hindi in the non speaking states remains but is being slowly eroded by the expansive power of Bollywood. It is Bollywood which is emerging as the principal determinant of a sort of “Hinglish” as the de facto Lingua Franca, far removed from the ostentatious self assurance of Urdu diction as “she was spoke” in Lucknow.
No one exemplifies the tragedy of the decline of Urdu and Lucknow’s composite culture as Josh Malihadadi does. He was, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest master of Urdu since Mir Anis in the 19th century.
In the 50s, pushed by his uneducated sons and persuaded by Abu Talib Naqvi, ICS, Commissioner of Karachi, who was eager to claim Urdu’s crown jewel as a Pakistani, Josh crossed over much to the annoyance of Nehru and Maulana Azad. Josh feared the Bharatendu ideology and thought his “Dear Urdu” would be safer in Pakistan. He lived to rue that decision.
The disillusionment that set in, broke him. His hurt was not that Punjabi and Sindhi chauvinism towered over Urdu. His anguish was that he found himself among narrow minded Mullahs. He laments:
“Yahaan Maudoodiyon ke darmiyan hoon”
(I find myself among the followers of Maulana Maudoodi, the founder of Jamaate Islami)
“Sab se zyada khauf hai is baat ke mujhe.
Dum tor dein kahin na meri wazadariyan.
Aisa na ho ki aale suboo se bigar kar,
Ehle wuzoo se gaanthna par jaen yariyan.”
(I live in dread that style will be compromised. I fear that those colourful evening with my drinking companions will give way to the tedium of ablutions and prayer)
This finest of modern poets died with Lucknow and Malihabad etched on his heart.
But the one who died in penury in a Lucknow country liquor shop and who never abandoned hope, was another great poet, Majaaz.
“Phir iske baad Subah hai, aur Subhe nau Majaz
Hum par hai khatm Shaam-e-gharibane Lucknow”
(Look! A new dawn breaks! The tragedy of being exiled in my beloved Lucknow, ends with me)
So, this, in brief is the narrative from 1856 upto Majaz’s death in 1956, full hundred years. What we are witnessing is the inevitable aftermath, a Lucknow gripped in egalitarianism’s unaesthetic garb, one which would cause Josh to wail:
“Andhera, Alaman, itna andhera!
Ilahi Kaun hoon, Kyon hoon, Kahan hoon?
(Such blinding darkness!
Dear God, I grope for I do not know who, why, and where am I)
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