<b>Book Review:</b> A charming history
Every city has its own smell. It lingers in the air like an unending story, wafting through the streets and lanes, finding expression in people’s lives. In Lucknow, the city of nawabs, some would say that smell is of the kebabs prepared with delicate spices and herbs. Take in the air deeply. You will smell its heritage and its culture too. It is everywhere, in crowded Chowk or the city’s best market in Hazratganj, around the Imambara or in front of the Sankatmochan temple, in quiet Mall Avenue, in the eerie silence of the Residency or in front of the Jama Masjid. Lucknow’s residents are infectiously house proud. That is why they never hesitate to invite their guests in.
This heavily illustrated book by Vipul Varshney, an architect with a special interest in heritage – she studied architecture in Lucknow – is a well researched introduction to the city embellished with Ajaish Jaiswal’s photographs. It tells the story of Lucknow in its very own way, taking you by the hand to the many landmarks of Lucknow.
The author approaches the Lucknow story with an architect’s eye, and it is this that is the highlight of this work. For instance, about the Imambara she writes: “The Mughals, who were Sunnis, very rarely built imambaras and if they did they were very inconspicuous, with the axis always aligned in the direction of Mecca. The Nawabs maintained the axial symmetry of the Mughals but not to its strict limits. The juxtaposition of dual axiality in the Shia complexes results in a dynamic relationship between the two, giving significance both to the mosque and imambara.” Throughout the book, Varshney offers sketches detailing the layout of the various structures.
She does not restrict herself to just the architecture. She dwells at some length on the courtesans of Lucknow, the traditional cuisine, the bird fights and kite flying. There is also mention of the famous kebab outlets, like Tunday Kebab in Aminabad.
However, it is evident that the buildings and architecture of Lucknow are uppermost in the mind of the author. Despite its rich cultural heritage Lucknow was not given much importance by the Mughal rulers. She writes that it came into the limelight in 1775 when Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula's son Asaf-ud-Daula came to the city. He took up the construction of many palaces and gardens across Lucknow. There are references to the lakhauri bricks used in buildings as also chunam, the specially-formulated lime mortar that is a part of Lucknow history. It was this Nawab's efforts that brought fame to the city. No wonder then that Lucknow's history is inextricably linked to that of the Nawabs.
Modern Lucknow is known for being a centre for the arts, a tribute too to Wajid Ali Shah and his literary prowess. The city's syncretic Ganga-Jamuni culture, which glorifies tolerance and communal harmony, is its hallmark. In ways small and big, the book captures all this. The best way to read this work would be to consider it a companion to understand the city and what it stands for. It is not history in the academic sense, but it lays out the city before the reader in a charming way.
Ananda Majumdar