About the author: Amaresh Misra is a freelance writer, historian and poet, with a doctorate in modern history from Allahabad University. He is a political columnist for the Economic and Political Weekly of India and a regular contributor to the Times of India. He is also a script-writer and director of a television serial on 1857. The contemporary photographs are by Ravi Kapoor, a prominent photo-artist who is deeply interested in architecture and heritage.
Review: Lucknow: Fire of Grace is the first full-length, historical and contemporary narrative, spanning a period of 250 years, of the Indian subcontinent’s most fascinating city-culture. In 1722, as the Mughal empire embarked on the descent to its collapse, a wazirdari arose in Awadh. Led by Mughal officers and Persian adventurers, it marked a break in world culture. Combining power, aristocracy, freedom, science and subterfuge, Awadh became India’s first modern and secular kingdom. It was the last kingdom to be annexed in 1856 and the city of Lucknow fought valiantly against the British the following year, a keystone in the Revolt of 1857. The city never recovered from its defeat, nor would it be revived after India’s independence in 1947. December 6, 1992, seemed to many the final nail in the coffin of a once magnificent culture. Very little of Awadh’s past splendor remains today, but Lucknow has struggled on, not yet entirely bereft of the things that made it one of the greatest cities in Indian history. 1857 is a bugbear and an obsession. Many Indian and European writers have lost their focus and minds while studying the event. It is a very Asiatic, indigenous event. Its true study requires the explosion of Eurocentic and hitherto established Anglo-Indian perspectives. It also requires an insight into the Urdu-Persian-Awadhi-Islam-Sanatan Dharma-Mughal-Maratha-Sikh peasant world. The task, simply, is too overwhelming. It is beyond the grasp of most of our city bred and English-speaking historians. The book gives a mnemonic shock as it redefines the Indo-Persia, Lucknowi way of beauty, politics, cuisine, fashion, architecture, money making, sensation, ‘ada’, ‘zaban’, honour and culture as authentic Indian-ness – in opposition to Hindutva, Jinnah’s two nation theory, and Nehruvian ‘pseudo’-anglicised secularism. Amaresh Misra has a passionate, overarching style. His book is about Lucknow. But he starts with comments on the coastal metros. The author Misra gets better when he plays on home ground: the Urdu, Hindi, Indo-Gangetic belt. He sees Uttar Pradesh as a zone of culture and power. So he is able to link the Babri Masjid’s demolition with Kathak and see the influence of folk culture on Hindi cinema. For Misra, Lucknow “burns with a hard gemlike flame”. This is evident from the titles of his chapters, one is called “Evenings, Gomti, Henna and the Bagghi”. The style grows too intense: “Like a dazzling gem, this catechism has served to incorporate all aspects of Lucknow life.” This kind of hyperbole is a feature of the book. Misra does well when he sets out the history of the city, the post-1857 resurgence of Urdu for example. The thrust of the book is to show the inter-relation of what may crudely be called Hindu and Muslim cultures. Is there anything which can be termed “Lucknawiyat” today? Misra refers to a subtle cultural Hindutvaisation. My view is the old Lucknow culture is dying a slow death in the fin de millennium. Misra’s book is a good tribute to a lost cause and a lost culture.
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