As a child, I visited Lucknow at least once a year as my grandparents lived there. As an adult I continued to visit my grandmother, and now that she’s gone, I find myself trying to understand the city more. Lucknow, in the context of modern India is seen as a ‘small’ place. With a population of ‘only’ 4 1/2 million people, it’s nowhere near the size of Bombay or Delhi. I always thought of it as a small place too, but I realise now that it doesn’t hold a small place in the collective memory of the nation. As a child playing with my cousins in my grandparents’ fruit orchard, climbing trees and sitting on the swing in the verandah, I didn’t understand that Lucknow was once known as the Paris of the East. I didn’t fully understand why there were always scholars staying in the various courtyard rooms my grandparents let out to guests. As children, of course, we weren’t really encouraged to spend time with the guests or listen to their stories (stranger danger). The main house was and still is shut off from the guest rooms.
Rear courtyard at my grandparents’ haveli, Shaumyika Sharma
On my most recent visit, I did have a chance to engage with guests and find out what they were doing in Lucknow. One of the guests, an Italian woman who had previously lived in India, was in Lucknow carrying out research on chikankari, a special type of embroidery native to the region.
Chikankari motif details
She heard of the place through a well-known photographer, Antonio Martinelli (who, incidentally, trained as an architect). Martinelli, it turns out had his work in an exhibition in Paris which ended this month entitled Lucknow Au miroir du temps (Lucknow in the mirror of time) at the Musee Guimet. Below is his capture of the Imambara, one of Lucknow’s most famous monuments.
Le Husainabad Imambara, le tombeau de Zinat Algiya et le Jawab. Vue depuis la loge au dessus de la porte monumentale d’entrée, Antonio Martinelli
Inside the Imambara, Shaumyika Sharma
In recent times there have been other exhibitions about Lucknow outside of India including “India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow” at the LACMA in 2010. It seems to me that there is a surge of interest in the city from outside of India. Or perhaps I just hadn’t noticed till now.
Image of “Relief of Lucknow from 1857” at the LACMA
I have met other scholars at my grandparents’ place previously; one of them an Australian with no Indian background who spoke shuddh (pure) Hindi far better than I ever could.
As I have previously mentioned, I myself was in Lucknow carrying out research, mainly on my grandparents’ house, but I am increasingly becoming more curious about other havelis in Lucknow. I noticed that a number of them are in ruins and no longer occupied by the original owners. Given the city’s growing population due to a number of factors such as its growing IT industry, Lucknow’s havelis might be facing extinction as Lucknow heads towards low-medium rise status. At the same time, it’s hard to tell, at this point, what Lucknow will look like in a few years time. The horrendous structures that have been put up by Mayawati have created a new, unappealing edge condition to say the least, but will they remain if she doesn’t return to power? That, of course, is a whole separate topic that I hope to cover later.
Ambedkar Memorial, Lucknow
Le Journal de la Photographie mentions Martinelli’s exhibition and also describes how the once prosperous city was, right up to the mid-19th Century. “Attracted by the generosity of the ruling power, a vast number of travelers, diplomats, European and Indian artists came and settled here, blending with the locals to create a cosmopolitan society that largely contributed to Lucknow’s radiance.” I do see echoes of this description of the city’s past, in the city’s present. The guests who stay in the courtyard rooms and upstairs at my grandparents’ place are “travelers, diplomats, European and Indian [and American and Australian] artists”, scholars, researchers and professors but they are certainly not attracted by “the generosity of the ruling power”. The ruling powers, both current and most recent, are very clearly problematic. So what is it that attracts them? To say it is nostalgia would be oversimplification. Perhaps the power of the collective memory of the city is enough to attract and although the aforementioned generosity is not seen in the ruling power, it is still visible in the manners of the still-polite Lucknowites known for their pehele aap (you first) rhetoric.
La Martiniere College, Lucknow