The Tribune - Spectrum


, June 30, 2002

The pinnacle & debacle of Lucknow
Harbans Singh

The Lucknow Omnibus—Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture
by Abdul Halim Sharar; A Fatal Friendship: The Nawabs, the British and the City of Lucknow by Rosie Llewllyn-Jones; The Making of Colonial Lucknow: 1856-1877 by Veena Talwar Oldenberg. Oxford University Press. Rs 495.

NO other Indian city and its culture arouse so much curiosity, nostalgia and debate as Lucknow. Its virtues have often been berated, its sins and follies magnified, and the legendry manners lampooned; its wealth and splendour have been yearned for and the loss of cultural ethos lamented. Lucknow, in fact, has had something for anyone who may wish to study the rise and fall of a city which was the culmination of a culture born out of unlimited power and wealth for the rulers, as also a symbol of all that was wrong with the elite of the country.

The omnibus on Lucknow is a boon for all those who wish to understand the city, the times and the causes that made and unmade it and its culture. The three books, Lucknow: The Last Phase Of An Oriental Culture by Abdul Halim Sharar, The Fatal Friendship by Rosie Llewyn-Jones and The Making of Colonial Lucknow: 1856- 1877 by Veena Talwar Oldenberg, collectively offer a perspective of the city from different angles and provides an insight into the life-style of the Nawabs and the motives and chicanery of the British. The reader has the luxury of a juxtaposed version of the city that was Lucknow.


There is no aspect of the nawabi culture and life that has not been noted and commented upon by Maulvi Abdul Halim Sharar. Growing in the sunset days of Wajid Ali Shah in Matiya Burj, and exposed to the changes that were taking place in the world, his comments on life and works of the successive Nawabs is penetrating and incisive, though, understandably, soft and forgiving to their foibles. Indulgently, he absolves the last Nawab of any blame, and offers explanation for the vanquished and the vanishing.

The other two books supplement the theme of the decay of the culture and the kingdom. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones has made a very spirited defence of the Nawabs. It is a different matter that in her eagerness she has only succeeded in bringing out the single-minded pursuit of self-interests by the British and the less than determined approach of the Nawabs to stand firm in their convictions. Veena Talwar Oldenberg’s remarkable study of the city after 1857 brings out in detail the system evolved by the British with the sole aim of ensuring their safety, controlling the citizens and commanding their loyalty.

Abdul Halim Sharar provides a brief history of Avadh and that of rulers from Burhan-ul-Mulk to Wajid Ali Shah. The former, who lived in mud-houses in Faizabad, occupied as he in ‘touring the domains about matters of administration’ had neither the time nor inclination for building luxury houses, is contrasted with those who came later. One was Nasir-ud-Din Haidar, who had become so effeminate that he spoke and dressed like a woman. The last one, so romanticised by many, took some interest in military affairs by giving the regiments fancy names and raising ‘a small army of beautiful girls.’ Obviously, this did not prepare the kingdom to face the imperial onslaught of the British.

The extent of corruption in the largely absent administration comes through the book of Veena Talwar Oldenberg. She also brings out the despicable living conditions of the common people in the dissolute culture of dancing and singing girls, which in turn was fed by the lawless-ness of the countryside. While Sharar’s work educates a reader about the life and culture during that period, her painstaking effort provides an insight into the life of the citizens in general, though her intention was to study the system introduced by the British to control and command the citizens.

A Fatal Friendship by Rosie Llewllyn-Jones is a book, she acknowledges, written in anger and sadness. She has attempted to redeem the architecture of the nawabi period. The less than classical architecture of the Nawabs has been discussed by her, and she admits that ‘if one were to engage in the fruitless task of apportioning blame for the demise of the city as an indigenous organism one would have to indict the Nawabs as much as the British for their vacillating, half-hearted attempt to keep the city purely Indian.’ Nevertheless, in her misplaced defence of the Nawabs, she has taken exception even to the building of the observatory, hospital, a bridge and a college (aborted), arguing that all these were primarily meant to benefit the British. For much too long Lucknow culture has been lionised and its decay lamented. This omnibus gives a reader the chance to compare and evaluate facts and opinions in totality, to analyse history and its events and to also listen to what is unsaid but nonetheless loud and clamouring.

At Rs 495, it is a collector and a reader’s pride.