In 1775, Asaf-ud-daula chose the ancient city of Lucknow as his capital. More interested in refined enjoyments than military conquests like his predecessors, he was the right ally for the British. But it was not possible for Asaf-ud-daula to immerse himself in total luxury under the watchful eyes of his mother, the much-respected Bahu-begum in the capital Faizabad. This family dispute (where Hastings and company harassed and looted Bahu begum and her mother-in-law, Safdar Jung’s wife) paved the way for establishment of the greatest of late medieval capital cities of the subcontinent. In 1856, the British finally seized the kingdom of Awadh by dismissing Lucknow’s favourite ruler Wazid Ali Shah. And the very next year the city flared up in an unprecedented rebellion and became one of the focal points of the Mutiny. Veena Talwar Oldenburg described the period as ‘eight intense and inspired decades’ (1775-1856), when the city grew ‘magically’ to become what Sharar called the last example of oriental culture. Many observers – both contemporary and modern – have commented that whatever was lost in Delhi flourished once again on the banks of Gomati. But it was a brief illusion with a pronounced Shiite predilection and more syncretic participation. The British design was very clear – to keep Awadh as a buffer state, keeping it under definite military control without the responsibility of the civil administration. The later rulers of the house of Sadaat and Safdar Jung were only too willing to eat out of the British hand. As the British strengthened their military grip ever more strongly and increased their financial demands, Nawabs of Awadh were quite content in erecting grand palaces, indulging in music and quail-fighting and various other forms of sophisticated luxury. After the siege of Lucknow, the British destroyed much of the Nawabi Lucknow physically and the end of Nawabi of course meant drying up of the main source of patronage for myriad shairs and courtesans, artists and architects. Lucknow still remained the provincial capital, a status it lost to Allahabad in 1877 upon the merger with the North-West province. Better riverine and rail connectivity (with Calcutta) meant the rise of Kanpur and Allahabad as more important commercial centers than Lucknow. Still, till 1947, it remained the fourth biggest city of India after the three coastal Presidency cities but bereft of its former importance. Lucknow’s much-acclaimed tahzib (etiquette) and culture lingered on but was getting drowned in a new dominant culture and language. And 1947 marked a clearly visible break. The new political elite formally took over the reins and the orientation of their patronage was totally different. Even the most well-known manifestation of Lucknowi culture – Urdu shairi died out – Israr-ul-huq Majaz and Ali Sardar Jafri being the last two great torch-bearers of that tradition.
Maulana Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926) came from an aristocratic Lucknowi family known for academic excellence and close association with the court. He spent his growing up years in the court of the exiled king at Metiyaburz in Calcutta. Sharar (meaning Spark – his pen-name) went on to become a prolific Urdu prose writer who wrote more than 100 books but was most well known for his historical novels. Sharar was one of the pioneers of modern Urdu prose written in simple but elegant style in place of Persianised flowery rhythmic style. Along with Nazir Ahmad and Rattan Nath Sharshar, Sharar is credited with the introduction of modern western-style novel in Urdu literature. Among his translation works, one can mention Bankim Chandra’s Durgeshnandini (translated from English).
Sharar worked in Lucknow and Hyderabad and even visited Europe. He wrote in various papers but from 1887 till the end of his life his name was synonymous with Dil Gudaz, the literary journal he founded and edited. It was on the pages of Dil Gudaz he serialized his history of Lucknow. Sharar was also a historian who wrote on various chapters of history of Arabia, Islam and Sind. But his history of Lucknow was more of a chronicle. And it is an amazing social document.
Fakhir Hussain (one of Sharar’s translators) said in his note to the OUP Paperback edition, “Sharar witnessed and recorded the twilight of his culture before its journey into the night. His scholarship and insight provided additional credence to his study.” Written from 1913 to around 1920, these articles were titled by Sharar “Hindustan Mein Masriqi Tamaddun Ka Akhri Namuna” – the Last Example of Oriental Culture in India. Sharar did write about political history, he gave a brief history of the house of Sadaat and the rise of Awadh, the splendour of Faizabad and the shifting of capital to Lucknow. He also described the life in exile at Metiyaburz in Calcutta. But the most breath taking was the enormous social canvas Sharar drew with such competence. Here he authoritatively described not only well known art and crafts, stories of famous courtesans and different aspects of Urdu literature but also touched upon subtle forms of Lucknowi etiquette and mysteries of Yunani medicine. He passionately wrote about food – different delicacies, confectionaries, systems of water-cooling to preparation and serving of betel-leaf. He described different forms of headgears and palanquins, hair fashions and quail-fighting, peculiar ways of telling time and from wedding procession to funeral services – all with graphic details and great passion laced with justifiable pride. Comparisons were frequently made – both with foreign (Arabic and Persian) and Indian precedents and at times Lucknow’s humbleness was conceded but that pride is unmistakable. But above all what makes the entire description really informative and charming is Sharar’s way of looking at things coupled with his in-depth research (using traditional oral and written sources).
Lucknow is fortunate to have had a master chronicler like Sharar. As the refined legacies of Nawabi Lucknow’s cultural sophistication were buried in the sands of time amid pressing realities of our modern world, Maulan Abdul Halim Sharar, in his classic study of his beloved city preserved that fading picture for posterity.
Sharar’s Lucknow is the inevitable entry point for any study of Nawabi Lucknow. But otherwise also, the city is fortunate to have attracted not only laid-back connoisseurs of its many-splendoured culture but also a bunch of serious and sensitive historians and they have competently covered many facets of Nawabi Lucknow in fascinating details, some illustrative examples –
Violette Graff has edited an interesting collection of essays – Lucknow: Memories of a City (OUP, Delhi, 1997) – among other articles here, particular mention may be made of Veena Talwar Oldenburg’s article on courtesans and JRI Cole’s article on Shia women’s religious contribution.
Rosie Llewellyn Jones has been one of the most prolific historians of the city. Apart from her essays, one can mention her three books as very important contributions to the study of Lucknow –
- A Fatal Freindship: The Nawabs, the British and the city of Lucknow (OUP, 1985) – about interaction between Nawabs and the British, ethos and architecture of the city alongside the political story. She uses the term “political architecture” to describe the architectural manifestation of a particular political equation. And perhaps this is the only full-length study of fabled Nawabi architecture of pre-Mutiny Lucknow.
Almost on the same theme, one can also look at A Clash of Cultures: Awadh, the British and the Mughals – Michael Fisher (Manohar, 1997)
- A Very Ingenious Man: Claude Martin in Early Colonial India (OUP, Delhi 1992) – about one of the most enigmatic figure of India’s early colonial history, Claude Martin (interestingly Prof Theo Roy and S C Hill – well-known to the history students because of writings on Bengal around 1757 also wrote on the same subject)
- Engaging Scoundrels: The Tales of Old Lucknow (OUP, 1999)
Among the other recent books on the city mention may be made of Awadh Under the Nawabs – Surendra Mohan (Manohar, Delhi, 1997) And Lucknow, Fire of Grace – Amaresh Misra (Harper Collins, India, 1998).
Accounts of 140-day long historic siege of the city could be found in many forms – from personal diaries to academic histories. For personal accounts, one can start by looking at A Season In Hell: The Defence of the Lucknow Residency – Michael Edwards (Taplinger Publishing, NY 1973)
Among the other recent books on Mutiny
What Really Happened During the Mutiny – PJO Taylor (OUP, 1992)
The Raj, the Indian Mutiny and the Kingdom of Oudh, 1801 – 1859 – John Peamble (The Harvester Press, London, 1977)
Veena Talwar Oldenburg in her path-breaking study showed us how Nawabi Lucknow was remodeled into a colonial provincial town – both physically and metaphysically. “The Making of Colonial Lucknow” also challenged successfully, for the first time, the widely held belief among the historians that post-1857; there was a conscious policy to avoid interference in the native social sphere. She showed us through her vivid description and incisive analysis that while the non-interference is true in terms of a top-down approach, but at the grass-root level in Lucknow (and in other cities and towns across the subcontinent, as she hints) the physical space was altered, a loyal and effeminate elite was cultivated with great care and there was even a somewhat determined but rather subtle attempt to change social customs and habits and of course individual tastes.
For a wonderful and nostalgic account of the city and its timeless ethos, one can have a look at Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column (Virago, London, 1988). Incidentally she is the grandmother of noted Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie. Other important portraits of the city in literature could be found in Umrao Jan Ada – story of an extraordinary courtesan of Lucknow by Mirza Hadi Ruswa (Eng. Translation by Khuswant Singh & M A Husaini, Orient Longman, Calcutta, 1961) – also immortalized in a famous Hindi film.
I Allan Sealy’s Trotternama is a novel-based on an Anglo-Indian family of Lucknow from 1799.
For a graphic description of Lucknowi culture in contemporary literature, Ratan Nath Sharshar’s classic ‘Fasane Azad’ is widely mentioned but I couldn’t locate an English translation. Of course one can have a look at Lucknow and the World of Sarshar – Firoze Mukherjee (Saad Pub, Karachi, 1992).
For other interesting aspects of Lucknowi culture-
Carla Petievich – Assembly of Rivals: Lucknow and the Urdu Ghazal (Manohar, 1992)
Reminiscences – The French in India – INTACH, Delhi, 1997
About religion and religious tension in the city –
JRI Cole – Roots of North Indian Shiism in Iran and Iraq: Religion and State in Awadh 1722-1858 (University of California Press, London, 1988)
For some later day accounts Sandria Freitag– Religious Rites and Riots: From Community Identity to Communalism in North India 1870 – 1940 (Ph D dissertation, University of California, Berkley, 1980)
And Sarojini Ganju (The Muslims of Lucknow before 1919-1939) and R L Jones – (The City of Lucknow before 1856) – both in The City in South Asia – edited by K. Ballhachet and John Harrison (Curzon Press/Humanities Press – London/Dublin, 1980).
Three of the major works mentioned here Sharar (translated by late Colonel E S Harcourt and Fakhir Hussain), Fatal Friendship by Rosie Llewellyn Jones and Veena Talwar Oldenburg are now available together in OUP’s Lucknow omnibus, wrapped in an exquisitely designed jacket.