Lucknow then & now
A discotheque in Lucknow was recently witness to a dramatic scene that best reflects the changing contours of Avadh’s once-proud capital. A woman stormed onto the dance floor, slapped a teenaged girl, her language replete with references to tahzeeb (etiquette) and tameez (manners), even as she dragged the hapless girl out. The girl, along with a friend, had earlier sneaked into the disco wearing a decorous salwar-kameez but had changed into a red micro-mini and was all set to hit the floor when her mother appeared from nowhere. City bookshop owner Chander Prakash of Universal Books is less vocal but as enraged as he points out the decline of a civilisation, specifically the degeneration in zubaan (language) from the polite “aap” to “tum” and now “tu”. “I was speechless when the other day a young customer called me tu,” he says. “What can I do except watch the rot?”
While the oldtimers vouch for the decay of old Lucknow, redolent of a rich and refined culture, the lobbyists for change say the city is only coming out of a time warp. Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah, a direct descendent of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, the benevolent ruler who built some of Lucknow’s best known architectural structures like the Bara Imambara and Rumi Darwaza, sadly shakes his head as he talks of the invasion of the neo-Lucknowis. “The younger lot, the children of bureaucrats, criminalised politicians, traders and contractors, have ruined the city with their wealth,” Abdullah claims. “Talim to hai, tarbiat nahi. Tarbiat nahi to tahzeeb nahi (They are educated but not groomed well. When there is no grooming, there can be no etiquette).”
S.S. Bindra, director of Wave, the city’s new multiplex that houses four movie halls and an array of flashy showrooms, begs to differ. “If you don’t change you will be left out. In the process of change a clash of cultures is bound to happen,” he reasons.
So as more and more boys and girls gather at roadside bars and liquor joints for “bhaloo nach”, the code word for beer sessions, veterans like Ram Advani, who runs the eponymous bookshop in Hazratganj since 1948, says there seems to be no method in the madness. “A dying culture always gives birth to a new sub-culture that has its own rules and language, and this has hit Lucknow.” The city, he says, is showing signs of aggression that would ultimately destroy its unique identity.
For girls like Nadira, who belongs to a conservative, middle-class Muslim family, it is peer pressure that often dictates their lives. Nadira admits that when she goes to birthday parties of friends, she wears the burqa, but promptly removes it once inside the friend’s house and lets her hair down, literally. “Some of my friends spike the drinks and when I refuse it they pointedly ask, ‘Tu backward hi rahegi kya (You want to remain a backward)?’”
Local beauty pageants are quickly gaining acceptability as girls from rich and influential families have started participating in them. Wamiq Khan, who runs an event management company, says that when he first launched the ramp culture in the city in 1996 he faced a lot of resistance, not only from the administration but from the models themselves who refused to wear skirts or pants. No such inhibitions exist now, he says, saying the models today are ready to give the likes of Mallika Sherawat and Bipasha Basu a run for their money when it comes to the dare-to-bare act.
The dichotomy of cultures is not something new, says Ibn-e Hassan, an advocate and prominent social figure of the city. Lucknow has been in constant conflict with change, first during the Raj and later since Independence. Partition transported a large number of refugees from West Punjab and Sindh to the city, who resettled here and swamped the Lucknavi culture with their own, says Hassan. Abdullah points out that the post-independence period saw the alienation of noblemen from the political mainstream. In their place came the politicians from outside with their armies of lumpen lackeys. The 1990s saw the emergence of a more insidious political culture that used the tools of casteism and communalism to capture power-and threatened to destroy the composite culture of the city. Also, like several other Indian cities, Lucknow succumbed to the vicissitudes wrought by the New Economy boom, a change further catalysed by its proximity to Delhi.
The contradiction of cultures is reflected in the two parts of the city itself-old Lucknow, where the aroma of the kakori kebabs wafts happily with the undulating strains of Hindustani music, and the new trans-Gomti zone of high rises, commercial complexes and fast-paced living. The Sahara India group has already come up with the sprawling Sahara Shahar and an ultra-modern supermarket complex, Ganj. The government too, enthused by the transforming landscape, has drawn up a plan for a futuristic township known as the Gomti Nagar Extension project. Besides, several resorts, water parks and fun clubs have mushroomed giving new meaning to fun and entertainment.
For the younger generation, eager to break free from the shackles of Lucknavi culture, the city offers jazzy fast food joints such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Dominos, cafes like Barista and Cafe Coffee Day and nightspots like eX’s Club which also has a bowling alley. Nidhi Sharma, a young school teacher, who is a regular at X’s, explains away the changing attitudes of the youth. “You come out of old Lucknow that still protects its old tahzeeb and you feel you have stepped into an entirely new world full of excitement and action,” she says. “It is a kind of free zone where youngsters don’t want to clothe their inner selves.”
The contradictions do exist but there is also an attempt to marry them, for Lucknow’s glorious past still remains a good marketing proposition. So if five-star hotels in the city set in motion the night life in the city, the cuisine that dominates the spread from Clarks Avadh to the Taj Residency is ubiquitously Avadh.
So even if Advani warns that the brand new world is standing on the ruins of Lucknavi tahzeeb, others like Urdu poet Rais Ansari who lives in old Lucknow, argue that the change is natural and welcome. Says Ansari: “Old people always look at the shafaq, the golden rays spread on the horizon by the sinking sun, while the youth get inspiration from ufaq, the red rays of the rising sun that bathes the morning.” And in the city of eternal dualities, the sun has not yet set on the Lucknavi tahzeeb.