The vanishing culture and traditions of Lucknow
By Uzair Rizvi
“Aasmaan ki kya hai taaqat, jo churrae Lakhnau,
Lakhnau mujh per fida hai, Main fida-e-Lakhnau”
The lines were penned in the seventeenth century by Sheikh Imam Baksh Nasikh Lakhnawi, who described his love for the city thus: ‘Lakhnau (Lucknow) is in love with me and I am in love with Lakhnau and no force can part us twain’.
Lucknow, a teeming space of hybrid culture and heritage, is renowned for its many treasures. Its name is synonymous with architectural beauties, fragrance of itra (perfumes), refined speech, entertainment, and hospitality. Various cultural ingredients have contributed to the richness of this city.
Lucknow became the focal point of a cultural renaissance with the shifting of capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1776. Under royal patronage, ghazal, qawwali, kathak, thumri, and sher-o-shayari reached their zenith. As a centre of Islamic learning, Lucknow witnessed a formation of Lakhnawi shayari (poetry) under the renowned poets like Anees, Dabeer, Imam Baksh, Shauq, Josh, and others. Urdu acquired its baffling phonetic nuances and suave perfection here. Lucknow became a centre, especially for Shia Muslims, for Moharram, where people commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husain (grandson of Prophet Mohammad). It was patronized by the Persian Shia Nawabs of the city.
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Once very famous and rich for its tehzeeb, (etiquette and traditions), Lucknow is fast losing traditions and practices, which showcased its cultural significance. Chowk, the bazaar of yester- years, and the pivot around which many traders and artisans grew, has transformed. Let us look at some of the traditions and work that were largely performed by the Muslims of Lucknow, which are slowly receding to memory.
The Declining Professions/Artisans
Chandi ka Warq (Fine Silver Foil): The word, warq, has been derived from the Arabic word, meaning leaf. The warq, which enhances the taste of many delicacies, evolved in Lucknow. The city was a major centre for warq production because of its importance in Mughlai cuisine. The warq is used for covering desserts like kheer, phirni and plays an important ingredient in ‘Sewain’, a sweet dish prepared during the festival of Eid. Preparing ‘Chandi ka warq’ is a tedious process and involves physical labour. Thin silver sheets are beaten into a super fine foil. This is achieved through precision hammering with wood within a leather cover for over five hours. However, the workshops are dwindling and the karigars (artisans) are also vanishing.
Kanghi (Comb):- Kanghi-making is one among the many unique professions and practices in Lucknow. A lane was named as ‘Kanghi wali gali’ in old Lucknow as the profession was at its peak during the Nawabi era. It is believed that there were more than hundred kanghikar (comb artisans) residents in that lane. The art of kanghi-making involved fine skills such as choosing the best animal horns, washing and drying them, and then continuously beating them into the required shape, followed by cutting teeth on them, and, finally, sharpening these teeth. After the introduction of plastic combs, horn made kanghi vanished from the market and so did the artisans. Mohammad Usman is the last kanghikar in that lane. He is disheartened by the fact that the profession he inherited from his father will soon die as there is no one in his family to take this profession forward.
Tanga: A Tanga is a horse-pulled cart, dating back to many centuries. In Lucknow, the Tangas were very popular since the reign of the Nawabs and until some decades ago. A Tanga is a multi-seater mode of transport, while the Ikka was a single seater, and a Bagghi was the largest one, usually used by royals and upper sections of the society, until the introduction of cars. With the passage of time and competition from the fuel powered vehicles, the Tanga seems to be living its last days. Iqbal miyan, a Tanga owner, says, “There are hardly any Tangawalas left in Lucknow. Why would people use it when they have bikes and cars?” Though the Tanga has already become a thing of the past, a small number is still visible near Lucknow’s most important tourist attraction, the Imambada complex in Hussainabad, where one can avail a short pleasure ride for a nominal charge.
Calligraphy: The art of calligraphy has its roots in early Islam. The sacred nature of calligraphy ensured that the inscriptions became an important means of decorations in Islamic architecture. Calligraphy found its way to Lucknow under the patronage of Awadh King, Nawab Saadat Ali Khan. The calligraphers of the nawabi era were masters in this art. Numerous monuments in Lucknow are decorated with the art of calligraphy. Hashim Akhtar Naqvi of Lucknow is credited with inscribing ‘Bismillah hir rehmane hir raheem’ (a verse from Quran) in over 6,000 calligraphic designs. He feels sad at the fact that no one has ever approached him to learn this art. Azeem Haider Jafri, another well-known calligrapher, says that Urdu calligraphy is suffering a major blow as people’s interest declines. The art has no monetary value now and is only limited to wedding cards and name plates.
One of the most important reasons for the decline of these artisans and traditions of Lucknow is the diminishing interest of the new generation. New forms of education among Muslims have played a crucial role in the decline of these art forms. For the younger generation, eager to break free from the shackles of Lakhnawi culture, the city offers fast food joints, nightspots, and multiplexes. The old culture and traditions of Lucknow are dying a slow death. Lamenting this fact, a member of the former royal family said, “Taalim to hai lekin tarbiat nahin aur tarbiat nahin to tehzeeb nahin” (There is education but no grooming. And if there is no grooming then there is no etiquette).
Lucknow invokes images of an ancient city with splendid buildings and people bred in the best traditions and refinements. It still evokes an era, which had its advent in the seventeenth century and dominated the North Indian cultural landscape until the nineteenth century. However, it is now on the verge of becoming a forgotten dream, a part of its culture has been destroyed, and what is left is dying. In a few years the, traditions, culture, and the aforesaid artisans will be lost forever amidst the fast development of Lucknow. Perhaps Wali Aasi, Lucknow’s famous modern poet, is right when he says:
“Mujh se subho-shaam shikwa kar raha hai Lakhnau,
Dekh tujhmein dhere dhere mar raha hai Lakhnau”
(Lucknow is complaining to me every day, as it is dying a slow death among the people of Lucknow.)
Uzair Hasan Rizvi is pursuing his Masters in Journalism at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India. He writes for various print and online sources of news and views.