The Oudh Orchestra

An exhaustive account of the Awadh region which mines crucial historical and cultural resources which counter the unidimensional narrative of the present.

Published:September 30, 2017 1:11 am
Awadh Symphony by Aslam Mahmud.

It is indeed sad that this remarkable book, this monumental labour of love, could only be published posthumously. In the preface, the author’s daughter has reported on how Janaab Aslam Mahmud Saheb worked tirelessly at this for seven years and more.
His ambition was to put together the definitive work — “a go-to book”, in his daughter’s words — on the life and times of the nawabi era. And in this ambition, one may say, he has pretty much succeeded. And yet, if I may say so without indelicacy, there is a sense of belatedness that extends from the sadly deceased author to the very subject of his enquiry. But there is no doubt that he has put together a wealth of information covering a wide range of activities, and I have no doubt that it will become the first port of call for anyone who desires to know more about nawabi Lucknow.

And then there’s Awadh, briefly signalled here in the title, but pretty much absent thereafter. It is the gap — or the silence — that is my point of entry into this cultural terrain. It is undeniable that nawabi Lucknow is much-maligned — and, it would be fair to say, often unjustly maligned, particularly by the colonisers who wished to cast some retrospective legitimacy on their flagrantly illegitimate takeover of the Kingdom of Awadh. The picture of degeneracy concocted by the British was, to a considerable extent, a caricature — and perhaps, also, something of a cultural misunderstanding of a different “oriental” culture. But the fact is that the caricature was widely believed, and taken up enthusiastically by cultural forces which, while they had little love for the feudal culture of Awadh, were enamoured of a vision of possible modernity, ironically under colonial aegis.

Perhaps the best-known exploration of this “encounter” — unfortunate word, in our Indian context, but perhaps even more appropriate therefore — is Premchand’s short story, Shatranj ke Khiladi. The story was written in a moment of political despair when the entire energies of the political classes were taken up with their own tactical and limited games, even as the kingdom itself was being taken over by an insidious conquering force. It was the little victories that mattered. Unfortunately, the historical context of the writing of the story has dropped out of view, and what has remained is a powerful reinforcement of the caricatured
degeneracy. But my limited point here is to note that in the Premchand story, the metaphoricity attaches primarily to the game of chess — shuffling wooden pieces on a board, turning one’s back on the great and crumbling world — and refers to the games that politicians play.

In Satyajit Ray’s generous cinematic reinterpretation of the story, however, the burden of metaphoricity itself seems to have shifted to the feudal degeneracy of nawabi Lucknow — splendidly represented by the epicene Farrukh Sheikh and by Amjad Khan, who combines a portly, heavy presence — shades of Gabbar! — with a piquant but unmistakable effeminacy. The way metaphor works here is subtly different from the way it does in the original story. Ray manages superbly to combine a sense of cultural resources that are invisible to the mercenary British, but they are also hopelessly inadequate to challenge an aggressive, calculating modernity. Feudal Awadh is the dominant metaphor here, and not the game of chess.

Aslam Mahmud’s Awadh Symphony too is haunted by the metaphoric weight of “Awadh”, even though he maintains a tone of anthropological realism. This is a field report from a past that is longed for ever more keenly, as it recedes further and further into irretrievability, even as we sink ever deeper in the raucous present. This is the Awadh — no less real because it is also, at least partly mythical (like our gods, I suppose?) — of the composite, shared, multicultural, polymorphous, hybrid and promiscuous — in a word, sankara — culture of the great Gangetic plain in north India. Even as it is mocked by the relative monocultures of the peripheries, by the cultures of the Brahminical elites of Bengal, and Pune and Tamil Nadu, it is undeniable that the great cultural achievements of which we are justly proud as Indians — the music and the poetry, but perhaps even more significantly, the styles of living — also arise in the zone that is today derided as the Cow Belt.

There is little point in trying to summarise the anthropological wealth that is contained here. Indeed, I can do little better than to simply list the subject headings under which Aslam Mahmud’s meticulous accumulations have been gathered. The first section is called “Customs and Traditions” and comprises three chapters: 1. Customs, Manners, Traditions and Ceremonies; 2. Dastangoi: the Art of Storytelling; 3. Muharram and Marsiya in Awadh.

The second section is called “Cuisines, Culture and Crafts” and again comprises three chapters: 4. Cuisine of Awadh; 5. Art, Games, Skills and Pastimes; 6. Painting, Aquatint, Lithography and Photography. The last section is called “Society and Women” and the chapters are: 7. Life of Muslim Women and Their Rights; 8. Courtesans of Awadh; 9. Miscellaneous Information. As will be evident, each of these sections and, indeed, sub- sections, could do with extensive, book-length treatment. Dastangoi has had a surprising and miraculous revival recently in the work of Mahmood Farooqi and his associates. The cuisine of Awadh has begun to emerge from the smothering embrace of the Punjabi- Mughlai bastard that has passed for “Indian” cuisine for far too long. The decline of the tawaif culture is only now beginning to be recognised for the cultural loss that it represents, the replacement of a deep, cultured civility by an arrogant, prurient moralism. All of which is only to say — as indeed, is said both by his daughter, and by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi who has written an introduction to this work — that Aslam Mahmud Saheb died far too soon. But also, perhaps, to say that it would require several lifetimes to actually do justice to the ganga-jamuni culture that is here remembered in such loving detail. But there is another sense of “Awadh” that needs to be salvaged, not only from the saffron-swathed louts of the present, but also from the nostalgia that haunts the mere mention of Lucknow, all the way from the sensuousness of Chaudhvin ka Chand to the painstaking reconstructions on offer here.

This is the culture of coexistence which developed, along with zamindari exploitation and aristocratic narcissism, that is exemplified in the premakhyans, in the deep Awadhi colour of Anis and Dabeer’s retelling of Arab Karbala, and by Nazir and Hasrat Mohani’s poems in praise of Krishna. This is not elite, metropolitan “secularism”. This is the necessary dharma of ordinary folk who must rub along with minimal civility in their daily lives of hardship and of celebration. These people cannot afford to be denominationally picky, and even their Muharram is a celebration of martyrdom — and at least in its rural Awadhi incarnation, the celebration outweighs the martyrdom.

The savagery of the colonial repression post-1857, of which the well-documented destruction of Lucknow was a part, sought to erase both the achievements and the embryonic possibilities of pre-1857 nawabi Awadh. (The “nawabi” of the post-Mutiny period is another story altogether.) It is precisely for that reason that it is important to record, remember, and possibly to mine those cultural resources, so that we may combat the poisons of the present.

The writer taught in the department of English, Delhi University.
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