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Guest Editorial

By Prof. Nadeem Hasnain & Aseem Hasnain

Lucknow, Awadh’s capital of yore, has been famous for its Urdu poets, tehzeebadab-o-ikhlaqKathak, and Muharram for a long time. While some of this reputation has a historical basis, it is not completely free from overemphasis and stereotyping. From the mid and late twentieth century, Indian cinema often used the figure of the male Lucknowi persona so intensely tied in the web of particular manners in his everyday life that would look practically impossible in the modern world. Premchand’s Shataranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) represents another aspect of the decaying aristocracy in the mid-nineteenth century, when Lucknow’s leisure class, especially Muslim, often Shia, experienced the first rupture from its habitus. While Lucknow, as a metaphor for a leisurely lifestyle and refined language, has faded from Indian Cinema, contemporary Pakistani television still refers to ‘Lucknowness’ when a chaste Urdu speaker is depicted in the otherwise Panjabi milieu of Pakistani productions.

Scholars have placed Lucknow as a space primarily constituted by the coming together of Awadhi and Persian ways of meaning making, but open to influences from many other quarters. Lucknow’s past and present show influence from the Kayastha communities from the Indo-Gangetic Plains, who formed the backbone of the Nawabi and, later, colonial bureaucracy, Kashmiri Brahmins, who served the court, and various Shia and Sunni cleric-scholar-poet refugees from Delhi and the Deccan, who came in search of patronage.

Lucknow has competed for the title of the ‘Muslim city par excellence’ with Delhi and Hyderabad, if not with Lahore, at various times. This same Lucknow has transformed many times in the past. From being the newly designated capital of the Nawabs to one of the major centers of the great Mutiny, to being an important British provincial headquarter, and, finally, one of the key arenas for electoral politics in independent India. Barring an incident in 1924, Lucknow has never witnessed Hindu-Muslim violence, and, hence, is often chosen to represent spaces where various religious communities have lived together peacefully. However, the ongoing elections reemphasize the importance of Uttar Pradesh for national politics, though, perhaps, at a time when we witness the worst phase of divisiveness in districts that surround Lucknow. It is an entirely different matter that this communal peace and co-habitation is often interrupted by sectarian conflicts between the Shia and Sunni sects that sometimes take violent turns in Lucknow. In an unusually violent case recently, a non-Muslim youth died in the cross-fire. This was unprecedented, as both the Shia and Sunni, including the troublemaking individuals (whom I had the chance to interview), have always prided on the fact that this conflict never affects their Hindu neighbors in Lucknow. Interestingly, the populist Shia and Sunni leadership simultaneously attempted to appropriate the dead Hindu youth as a martyr in their respective sectarian struggles.


Read Cafe Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, for other stories.


Today, this city reflects many continuities with its past. And, yet, a large part of its character is remarkably familiar, resembling just about any other comparable city that is undergoing similar change: the onslaught of homogenizing fast food chains; ahistoric and surreal built spaces such as mega malls, where, once inside, one is never sure if one will step out on a street in Shanghai, Gurgaon, or Dubai; and apartment complexes imbued with a cultivated ignorance of neighbors. Emerging, and the usually ruthless ways of the, markets have translated into loss of many things – local food, art, craft, craftsmen, and, the biggest loss in the eyes of the Lucknowi Muslims, the chaste form of Urdu.

Modern Lucknow is also witness to an outflow of educated youth from upwardly mobile urban families having aspirations that are insatiable here, and inflow of youth and families from nearby rural areas, upwardly mobile in their own right, having dreams that Lucknow will fulfill. This outflow means that the Lucknawi diaspora is spread far and wide and nostalgia reproduces ‘Lucknowness’ in new spaces. The inflow is interesting too, and, often, makes the traditional Lucknowi a bit anxious. The rise of Bhojpuri and Awadhi colloquial on campuses, bazaars, and other public spaces once prompted an otherwise composed local social scientist to call this phenomenon, contemptuously, ‘the inevitable ruralization of urbanity.’

Muslim candidates have represented Lucknow at least in one of its elected seats since the advent of elections in the 1930s. This happened through crosscutting support despite the rise of communal and sectarian tendencies. The discontinuation of this trend since the 1970s marks the advent of not only the otherwise cold nature of majoritarian politics, but also the beginning of Muslim marginalization on social and economic parameters. In a recent independent work, Laurent Gayer and Christophe Jaffrelot discuss such a  ‘trajectories of marginalization’ for Lucknow’s Muslims.

With this background, this special issue of Café Dissensus – Lucknow’s Many Muslims – raises several questions: What are the ideas, objects, and issues that re-present Muslims in Lucknow today? Does Muslim culture, per se, exist as a defensible category? How do Muslims see themselves? What kind of spaces do Muslims in Lucknow occupy, or, do not occupy? Can we trace out the ways in which the Muslim and non-Muslim Lucknowi people interact, or the ways in which Muslims interact with other Muslims?What are the local distinctions of faith, sect, class, habitus, and language that make them diverse? What kind of politics do Muslims in Lucknow practice? What are the issues that engage them on an everyday basis? We also wanted to explore how non-Muslims are placed in the making and constitution of Muslimness in Lucknow. How do shared life-experiences with non-Muslim friends, colleagues, lovers, neighbors, and rivals shape Muslimness? In asking and responding to these lines of enquiry, we hope to generate diverse narratives of Muslimness that coexist in the space and time that constitute Lucknow.

Our contributors help us address some of these questions about Lucknow, Lucknowness, and its Muslims. Mehru Jaffer and Maulshree Gangwar help us understand nostalgia, belonging, and longing associated with growing up in Lucknow and how they shape our experience when we are away, dealing with new ideas, manners, and emotions, in ways that don’t make a distinction between Lucknowness and Muslimness. Uzair and Anver Sahab’s pieces illustrate loss. They give us glimpses of the dead and the dying, and yet fascinating, arts and crafts of Lucknow, which haven’t met the destiny of Chikan work. Nishat’s paper on Tawaifs, and their role in Muharram mourning rituals, lets us explore the intersections of ashraf Muslim culture, marginalized women, and performance. Joel’s discussion of the Lal Begi community tilts not only the precariously balanced lid from the census cauldron, but also complicates the meaning of belonging to any community. Christopher’s interaction with the Madrasa students at Nadwa explores the worldly anxieties of the youth, coincidentally Muslim, thus destabilizing the normative expectations that the term ‘madrasa’ usually generates. Akhilesh presents conversations with two individuals, in an everyday fashion, so approachable that you feel you are hearing them, stating simple and, yet, real anxieties, wisdom, and responses about the lived experience on the ground. Himanshu takes us to the street revelries of Holi in the Chowk area, where the population is so mixed and dense that most public rituals are commonly owned.  Holi has a special place, having been patronized by the Nawabs, mimicking the Persian Nauruze, thus attracting many Urdu Poets. Navras introduces an often ignored, and, yet, important issue, stock anti-Semitism, among Lucknow’s Muslims, especially negative feelings about the Jews in general and the dangerous tendency to conflate the Jewish community and the Israeli state, and, hence, treating them as equally abominable. Stefanie explores the Muslim middle class, its aspirations, and its unique features, partly emerging not from below but from above, through a decline of the elite class, and its tendency to look, not forward, but towards a romanticized past lost in time. Finally, Raphael discusses habitation patterns among Muslims in Lucknow and helps explore factors that keep Muslims confined to the old city, on the culturally correct side of the Gomti River. Raphael’s visual analysis and discussion are highly interactive and, hopefully, some of us will explore further.

Contributions for this special issue are diverse in width, depth, and approachability. While these articles deal with a lot of issues we flagged, some are still unaddressed. However, we hope that these varying pieces will help readers get a sense of Lucknow, its Muslims, and its salient anxieties related with change. And, the discussions, disagreements, and outrages that the comments hopefully throw up will help us think about the others.

Guest Editors: 

Dr. Nadeem Hasnain is professor of Anthropology at University of Lucknow, and a former Fulbright Scholar in Residence. He has taught at St. Lawrence University, USA, in the past.

Aseem Hasnain, born and brought up in Lucknow, is a graduate student in sociology at UNC, Chapel Hill, USA. He has worked with non-profits in India, and his current research is on the construction of collective identities.

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