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Tuesday, Nov 30, 2021
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Review Essay

No Illusions

An excellent and truly comprehensive book constructed around the rare photographs of Lucknow in the extraordinary collection by Ebrahim Alkazi, marred only by some serious editorial errors.

No Illusions
No Illusions
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53
Lucknow: City of Illusion
By Rosie Llewellyn-Jones [Ed.]
Prestel Publishing 295 pp.

The siege at Lucknow during the 'Great Indian Mutiny' of 1857–8 was the fabled event of its time. A flourishing town in Ontario, Canada, and a defunct gold mine camp in New South Wales, Australia, still carry the name—Lucknow—they then received. The naming of the gold mine was particularly appropriate. The extravagant display of wealth by Lucknow’s rulers in the years between 1780s and 1850s had drawn to the city numerous European hucksters and mercenaries, as well as genuine merchants, artists, engineers and other professionals. All of them left as large an impress on the city’s landscape as on the purses of its elite.

Most Indians still see pre-colonial Lucknow as a fabulous place: a city of extravagant nawabs, refined manners, flowery Urdu, and sumptuous cuisine. Now comes a book that makes visible the major sights of Lucknow as they appeared in the immediate aftermath of the famous siege and a bit later. Lucknow: City of Illusion, edited by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, the respected author of two important books on Lucknow, is constructed around the rare photographs of Lucknow in the extraordinary collection assembled by Ebrahim Alkazi. Mr Alkazi, best known in India for his fifteen years as the Director of the National School of Drama, is equally distinguished in two other fields: advertising and art exhibition. His extensive collection of rare photographs is now held by Sepia International—of which he is the Chairman—and it is gradually being published for wider use. Though the book naturally highlights the 150 or so fascinating prints in the collection itself—including two spectacular multi-part panoramas by Felice Beato dated 1858—it also contains any number of maps, drawings, paintings and other illustrations that enhance its pictorial impact. Nothing of major architectural significance at the time—1850s thru 1870s—is left uncommented-on. All reproductions are of the finest quality. Much care has been invested in the book’s design. It is indeed a sumptuous production, well befitting both the collection and the collector.

The original photographs were all albumen prints, apparently from negatives made by the wet-plate collodion process that was the big new thing in photography at the time. It was a difficult and dangerous process. One first set up and focused the camera, and only then prepared the plate by using a mixture of collodion—i.e. guncotton dissolved in ether and alcohol—and some other chemicals, followed by a bath of acidified silver nitrate. The wet plate was then rushed to the camera for exposure, and promptly developed before the collodion had fully dried. Potassium cyanide was the preferred fixer! The photographers traveled with complete darkrooms (or ‘dark-tents’), and had to have several bulky cameras, since there was no way then to make different enlargements from a single negative. Learning such facts from various web-sources made me more appreciative of the amazing works displayed in the book. It also explained why there were no images of the still inhabited, though much ruined, areas of Lucknow—there had to be little or no movement when the relatively slow exposure was made. The few human beings in these photographs seem to be firmly held in a pose. Nothing appears to be in natural motion.

Now a word about the book’s title. The word ‘illusion,’ in the singular, is intriguing, but it is never made clear what it implies. Mr Alkazi, in his Preface, mentions the ‘illusions of Lucknow.’ He believes that the nawabs of Oudh—whose capital Lucknow was—turned ‘inward’ in the face of changing times (i.e. the increasing British power in India), and ‘sequestered themselves in a realm of their own imagining, behind walls, beyond the gaze of the invader.’ There, he continues, ‘they invented a world of fantasy—with its own language, logic, and meaning. Through song, dance and verse, they celebrated the senses in their subtlest nuances and variations—as the mystics, in their way, had done before. Power and glory, they realized, were illusions—the self-defeat of individuals and nations (p. 8).’ I cannot quite imagine the nawabs of Oudh as introspective Sufis, particularly when from the founder of the dynasty in the 18th century to the last ruler in 1856, they avidly pursued private gratification, even after losing political power through their own shortsighted ambitions. They began as nawab wazirs (prime ministers) appointed by the Mughal Emperor of Delhi, but soon enough had themselves crowned as badshahs (kings) by the Governor General in Calcutta. Theirs was an act of fantasy, all right, but there was nothing mystical about it.

The only other time the word ‘illusion’ occurs in the book is in an essay by the editor, in her description of an imagined boat-ride down the Gomti, the river that embraces the city within its many curves. ‘The journey ends at Dilkusha Kothi, another European style "country house" subtly transmuted to suit the nawabi taste in this city of illusion (sic) (p. 210).’ The sight of such a house in Lucknow countryside could indeed have the effect of an illusion on some, not unlike—for example—the first sight of the architectural phantasmagoria in Las Vegas. But does it make Lucknow ‘a city of illusion?’

And yet the elite of Lucknow were known to take delight in creating illusions. Even in matters of gastronomy. Consider this anecdote provided by Abdul Halim Sharar in his seminal book on old Lucknow, Mashriqi Tamaddun ka Akhiri Namuna: Guzishta Lakhnau:

Prince Mirza Asman Qadar [of Delhi] . . . who came to Lucknow and became a Shi’ah, was invited to dine by Wajid Ali Shah [the last King of Oudh]. Murabba, a conserve, was put [before them] which looked very light, tasty and delicious. When Asman Qadar tasted it he became intrigued because it was not a conserve at all but a qaurma, a meat curry, which the chef had made to look exactly like a conserve. He felt embarrassed and Wajid Ali Shah was extremely pleased at having been able to trick an honoured Delhi connoisseur. [1]


Needless to say the Delhi prince had his revenge later in a similar manner. But, whereas for the king and the prince the illusion was mostly a source of delight, the word ‘illusion’ as used in this book—and in a few other books on Lucknow—seems to express a value judgment concerning Lucknow’s culture in general, and its architecture in particular. Surely the editor doesn’t mean the crass comparison with Delhi that one often hears with reference to Lucknow? (That argument, as applied to architecture, goes as follows: the sandstone buildings of Delhi are ‘real,’ while the brick-and-plaster buildings of Lucknow are merely an attempt to create an ‘illusion’ of that reality.)

Besides the editor’s introduction, there are five extended essays: ‘The Royal Palaces’ by Sophie Gordon; ‘Monumental Grief: The Bara Imambara’ by Peter Chelkowski; ‘The "Country Houses" of Lucknow’ by Neeta Das; ‘The Residency and the River’ by the editor herself; and ‘La Martinière: An Enlightened Vision’ by Nina David. The two panoramas by Beato are presented with brief comments from Mr Alkazi himself. Additionally, there are some fifty pages of scholarly tools—historical and biographical notes; bibliography; glossary; and more—to round out the book.

The introduction outlines the foundation and expansion of the Nawabi Lucknow and its major architectural projects, introducing also much pre-photography graphic information on the city. Lucknow is commonly described as raising itself at Delhi’s cost, from where the best in all trades and professions fled to escape the many marauders of the 18th century. That is also the editor’s view. But it could be said to be true mainly for the final two decades of the 18th century. People stopped fleeing from Delhi after 1803, after the British forced the Marathas out. No major Urdu poet, for example, then left Delhi to seek fortune at Lucknow. Only several Mughal princes did, to enjoy the generosity of the nawabs. The editor, however, is right in pointing out a desire in the elite of Lucknow to claim superiority over Delhi. That desire, to much extent, reflected the already existing sectarian—Shi’ah vs. Sunni—and racial—Persian vs. Central Asian—rivalries.

Sophie Gordon’s essay on the four royal palaces of Lucknow—Macchi Bhawan, Daulat Khana, Chattar Manzil, and Qaiser Bagh—is magisterial in its exposition of the buildings’ original design, extent, and purpose. Her juxtaposition of the photographs of the area in and around the Qaisar Bagh taken by Beato (1858) with those taken by other cameramen only a few years later, forcefully brings to our awareness the grandeur of the original, and its subsequent diminution—first through destruction, then by reconstruction—at the hands of the colonial authorities. William Howard Russell, a correspondent of The Times, witnessed the ‘drunken plunder’ of Lucknow in 1858, and then revisited the city in 1876. After seeing the colonial constructions, he wrote in his diary: ‘Lucknow has been fairly "improved" off the face of the earth (p. 89).’ (Sadly, Russell was wrong; far worse things happened to Lucknow after 1947.)

It was Nawab Asafuddaulah (1775–97) who built the Great Imambara, the most renowned structure at Lucknow. It is highlighted in the book in an extraordinary eight-part panorama by Felice Beato, together with some brief comments by Mr. Alkazi. The substantive chapter on its complex of buildings is written by Peter Chelkowski, who usefully brings to the subject his knowledge of the rituals of mourning in Iran that relate to the martyrdom of Imam Husain and his companions at Karbala. His comments underscore the fact that the construction in India of large edifices devoted exclusively to Shi’ah rituals of mourning—i.e. imambaras—was an indigenous development, and not an imitation of something Iranian. He could have further augmented his argument by referring to the appearance of similar buildings, though smaller in scale, in Jaunpur under the Sharqis, who ruled over much of Oudh in the 15th century. Chelkowski’s extensive use of structural drawings and ground plans further enriches his discussion. He is also the only author who draws our attention to the spectacular effect of the local stucco on the Nawabi buildings. ‘Using recovered lime or shells from dried up lakes, the masons were able to produce stucco that shone more brilliantly than the marble tombs of the Mughals (p. 110).’ Since no extant structure in Lucknow can now provide that experience, we are fortunate to get from several of the photographs an idea of those buildings’ original resplendence.

Chelkowsky’s discussion of the use of taziya—temporary symbolic replicas of holy tombs—in the mourning rituals of Muharram is extensive and rich in detail. His assertion that Durga Puja and Jagannath processions ‘had a significant influence on the Indian taziya rituals,’ is a useful suggestion, even if the processions he mentions do not as much belong to Oudh as to Bengal and Orissa. The commonality he rightly underscores is that the respective devotees first construct and put on display ephemeral sacred structures and then, once the ritual purpose has been served, return them to the elements—to water in one case, and to earth in the other. I must point out, however, that the same indigenous influence failed to make acceptable the Iranian practice of taziya—i.e. an enactment of the events of the Karbala—despite the powerful presence of the annual Ram Lila enactments all over Oudh. If the overarching Sunni domination disallowed the latter imitation, why did it allow the former?

The Great Imambara complex contained several buildings of which three were major structures: the Rumi Darwaza (the Byzantian/Ottoman Gate), the Jami’ Masjid (the Friday Mosque), and the Imambara itself. The name of the formal gate has long been a topic of much speculation. Chelkowski believes that ‘"Rum" here indicates not only Byzantium . . . but the Roman Empire as well, and that the Rumi Darwaza is the equivalent of a Roman triumphal arch (p. 108).’ The is no evidence to indicate any interest on the part of Asafuddaulah—or, for that matter, any other ruler in India—in Ancient Rome. We don’t even know for certain if the gate was so named by the Nawab. The Sultan of Rum (i.e. the Ottoman Caliph), on the other hand, was not only well-respected in India, but his court was referred to as ‘the Baab-al-‘Aali’ (‘the Sublime Porte’). My own equally far-fetched speculation would be as follows: the Rumi Darwaza was Asafuddaulah’s assertion against the Sunni Caliph, his Jami’ Masjid was a rejoinder to the Sunni Emperor Aurangzeb, whose rather nondescript mosque still stands close by, and that his Imambara, with its facsimile graves and wide aisles, was something like the Westminster Abbey.

I should also add that contrary to Chelkowski’s assertion (p. 104) it was not unknown among the Indian Shi’ah elite to send bodies of their dead—or what remained of the bodies after temporary internments—for permanent burial at Karbala. In fact, the awkwardly placed grave of Asafuddaulah in the Imambara could be due to just such an instance. His burial became permanent when his own line ended with him, and his younger brother—a bitter rival—ascended the throne. However, Chelkowski’s comment about ‘bringing Karbala to India,’ by bringing dust from there or creating facsimiles locally, is right on target.

The essay on the ‘Country Houses’ of Lucknow by Neeta Das convincingly delineates increasing interest among the Nawabs for European architectural fashions. Asafuddaulah, who moved the capital to Lucknow from Faizabad, and his successors, avidly patronized enterprising European engineers and also self-taught architects, such as Antoine-Louis Polier and Claude Martin. Sa’adat Ali Khan, who had spent several years in Calcutta, tried to create something akin to its Esplanade in Lucknow’s Hazratgunj. He was also, in effect, turning his back on the original city, building his new residences furthest away from its people. The predilection for things European, however, should not be read as ‘a severance from the Mughals (p. 168).’ In fact, the only ‘Mughal’ structure of any note built in Delhi during the 18th century—the tomb of Safdar Jung, an ancestor of the Lucknow nawabs—was built under Oudh patronage and emulated poorly what preceded it in Delhi. The Nawabs of Oudh did not have the resources that Shahjahan had. Even Shahjahan’s descendents did not have the resources to emulate him. In Lucknow, European engineering skills, indigenous talent, and locally available constructional material (bricks and stucco) made possible, and dictated the shape of, what the different Nawabs, with their eclectic taste, desired and achieved—something as baroque as the Rumi Darwaza, and something as ludic as the Chaumukhi building.

The remaining two chapters, ‘The Residency and the River’ by the editor and ‘La Martinière: An Enlightened Vision’ by Nina David, are equally comprehensive and rewarding. Well-chosen paintings compliment the photographs and enrich the discussion. Several appendices, including detailed biographies of the photographers and a useful bibliography of English language sources make this excellent book truly comprehensive on the subject.

I must, however, point out a number of serious editorial errors. On page 13, the editor, writes: ‘Claude Martin] built for himself a townhouse called "Lakh-e-pera" (later renamed Farhat Bakhsh). . . .’ Both names, constantly repeated in the book, are incorrect. The correct word, in the first case, is lakh-pera, lit. ‘having one lakh (100,000) trees,’ most probably a hyperbole. The word as insisted upon by the editor here, and also elsewhere, makes no sense in Urdu. It would translate as ‘the tree’s lakh,’ and also violate the rules of Urdu grammar. These extended orchards, containing at least a few thousand trees, were common all over North India in the nineteenth century, and were quite often used as camping grounds by armies on the move. The editor should have trusted Martin’s knowledge of Urdu and his various spellings of the word.

Claude Martin died in 1800. His town house (the so-called ‘Lackperra House’) was originally purchased by Sa’adat Ali Khan in 1803, for the use of a guest, Prince Sulaiman Shukoh of Delhi.[2] It soon became the Nawab’s own favorite house, who named it Farah Bakhsh and launched major new constructions nearby. The building was always called Farah—not Farhat (much less Farhad)—Bakhsh. All Persian and Urdu sources use that name alone, as do the two early English sources mentioned in the editor’s own important book (A Fatal Friendship). [3]

Similarly, the alternate name for Darshan Bilas was always Chaumukhi, and not ‘Chaurukhi.’ Both ‘Farhat Bakhsh’ and ‘Chaurukhi’ seem to me as inventions by semi-literate contemporary guides. One also comes across a totally incomprehensible name, ‘Zinat Algiya,’ with reference to a tomb within the Husainabad Complex. The person buried in the tomb, according to a contemporary account, was the mother (d. 1256/1840–1) of Muhammad Ali Shah, and not, as guides now tell, his daughter. [4] (The same author, incidentally, also mentions the Gend Khana (lit. Ball Court) as one of that Nawab’s many new constructions.) The confusion of the old Iron Bridge with a later, colonial bridge that replaced the Nawabi bridge of boats, is also unfortunate (p. 208), since it could have been resolved by consulting the map on page 20.


C. M. Naim is Professor Emeritus, South Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Chicago.

Notes:

1.

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