The past tumbled through the passage of time carrying records of bygone moments, and met an audience waiting eagerly. Attired for a 46-degree evening with air as sticky as glue, they sat in the garden of Safdarjung’s Tomb to hear about an empire whose cultural standards continue to dictate — and mock — how the Hindi heartland behaves. This was Shaam-e-Awadh, a heritage baithak organised by Delhi Karavan last weekend to separate history from the romanticised decadence of Lucknow and its surroundings.
Speaking in Hindi and Urdu, Asif Dehlvi of Delhi Karavan opened the kahaaniyon ka pitaara by pointing behind him at the domed monument of sandstone and marble. “We are sitting on the lawns of an 18th-century tomb where the second Nawab of Awadh lies buried. Though we like to think of Lucknow as synonymous with Awadh, it was Faizabad that was the seat of power of the early rulers such as Nawab Safdarjung,” he said. The bazars of Faizabad were so crowded with people from the old cities of Hindustan as well the French and the English that “they literally rubbed shoulders at every step”.
When the capital shifted to Lucknow, the golden age flowed into every aspect of life, from customs to cuisine to clothes and constantly sought to outshine the grandeur of Delhi — a rivalry that exists even today. “If Delhi loves biryani, Lucknow is fond of pulao. The people of Lucknow also eat biryani but it comes after the pulao. It is the place with the most pulao experiments, from moti pulao and navratan pulao to anardana pulao,” said Dehlvi and added a personal anecdote: “When my sister married a boy from Lucknow, the baraat let us Dilliwalas know ‘arrey, pulao nahi hai’.”
From Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s culinary contest with a shehzada of Delhi to Begum Hazrat Mahal’s determined bid to oust the British in 1857, from the tradition of calling a female servant bua to a nawab’s foolish promise to “Company Bahadur” or the East India Company — Dehlvi presented the many layers of Awadh through anecdotes and shers.
The baithak itself mirrored those that were held in the gali and mohalla of Lucknow, where the common man gathered around a storyteller as cuckoos and parrots shrieked away to roost after a summer day. The audience at Safdarjung’s Tomb, however, was treated like khaas mehman — they had itr rubbed on their wrists, were offered elaichi in silver foil and chikni dali to munch on and, at the end of the session, served paan or gilori from a mitti ki handi.