17 August 2008

Sham-e-Awadh: Book Review

Author : Ed by Veena Talwar Oldenburg
Publisher : Penguin
Cost : Indian Rupees 395

Most readers probably expect exactly what this anthology of writings about Lucknow delivers. There are tales of nawabi delicacy and decadence, accounts of British depradations and melancholy twentieth century laments on the decline of everything – architecture, music, dance, language, manners – that had once made the city famous as the repository of cultural refinement. Yet, Sham-e-Awadh leaves you with a feeling of dissatisfaction.

Perhaps the problem with the book is precisely this failure to depart from expectations. Piece after piece goes down the same well-trodden paths, as if what can be said or thought about Lucknow is circumscribed by some pre-existing narrative outline. This is particularly true of the attempts to sum up what has happened to Lucknow in the twentieth century. Veena Talwar Oldenburg herself never seems to look at the present city except to look for survivors from its gentler past. Neither Mrinal Pande’s take on the new political culture forged by Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, nor Nasima Aziz’s description of the grand double wedding of the sons of magnate Subroto Roy manage to go beyond evoking the predictable shock-and-awe to actually tell us something we don’t already know.

Oldenburg’s elegiac proclivities make the historical sections much more substantial – the eminently readable extract from Flora Annie Steel’s 1897 novel (On The Face of the Waters, set in 1850s Lucknow) is a revelation, as is Carla Petievich’s all-too-brief glimpse into the sexier, more colloquial side of Urdu poetry, rekhti. There are several individual portraits that provide revealing insights into the city – especially Michael Edwardes’ affecting little account of Hazrat Mahal (“the Rebel Begum”), and Saleem Kidwai on Begum Akhtar’s complex relationship with Lucknow.

But even here, the book seems incomplete, since Oldenburg uses her editorial privilege to give us not one but two of her own accounts of Nawabi Lucknow and chooses to include nothing at all from Abdul Halim Sharar, who spent his childhood in the Lucknow of Wajid Ali Shah and produced an account of the city’s life and culture that is unrivalled in its detail. Trisha Gupta

Published in Time Out Delhi and Time Out Mumbai, 2007

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