I love the north Indian winter. I spent this sunny morning—lovely despite the polluted air—in our small garden pinching off all my seedling heads. In case you are uninitiated and think I have gone batty, seedling heads are pinched so you can have denser growth. The annuals have been planted- a little late, as usual – but I am certainly happy to have them !
Two days back, thanks to a group of ladies from Chennai who wanted a tour of homes, I discovered another lovely old house in the heart of Lucknow. It belongs to the Bhargava family, descendants of the man who pioneered printing in Asia and became one of the wealthiest and most influential men of Lucknow in the mid eighteen hundreds, Munshi Nawal Kishore.
Upon entering Hazratganj (the famous road originally built by the Nawab Saadat Ali Khan in the early eighteen hundreds and, post 1857, turned into a shopping mall by the British) from the Ashok Marg end, you come to a lane on the left with a sign overhead announcing, among other things, ‘Levana Hotel.’ You turn in and continue straight till you reach a wrought iron gate with a house beyond .
The facade of the house, the portico of which, I notice, is Art Deco style, is obliterated by a tree and the boundary wall. I knew, and it was confirmed later by the family, that I had entered and come via what had once been the gate and the driveway flanked by gardens leading to this house I was now looking at. In place of the gardens and what was (I am told later)a lovely house called ‘Peeli Kothi’ stand multiple commercial buildings and Levana Hotel.
The portico leads to a very wide verandah of beautifully laid, glossy terrazzo, giving away the time frame when it was probably put in : around the 1940s. A large door with Art Deco style pillars leads in. On the left a striking looking concrete staircase, also Art Deco, beckons upwards.
There is more beauty in store on the first floor, where the living areas are. A wide verandah opens onto a terrace with terrazzo floors , once beautiful but now worn by elements of nature. I am told later that this terrace, despite the weight of concrete, was cast by an Italian architect who was also commissioned by this family to construct the elaborate Central Bank building and clock tower on Hazratganj.
There are large doors leading to rooms both on the right and far left. What surprises me is the high, vaulted ceiling, typical of the later Nawabi period of the early 1800s. As I wait for the hosts I have time to take in the massive drawing room through a door on the right with the same vaulted ceiling, as also a single row of modern-looking rooms built on the other side of the terrace.
Renu Bhargava, warm and charming, greets me. Kush, her husband and Nawal Kishore’s great great grandson, follows later. With justifiable pride and pleasure, Renu takes me through some of the rooms which includes the ‘trophy room’. This could really be part of a Natural History museum: Large tigers and other felines stare ahead fiercely, their postures frozen, bodies anointed and preserved for years to come. They are covered in transparent plastic covers to make them survive the harsh Indian weather. Skins of similar animals are arranged on the walls. The upholstery on the Art Deco sofas in the room are also tiger and leopard skin. ‘It is not appropriate to have these trophies now but these were hunted by my father-in-law, Raja Ram Kumar and also his wife, Rani Leela in the days of the past when hunting felines was a sport,‘ Renu says.
The room also has old Chinese vases and crockery in sealed cases, bought by Kush’s great grandfather, Munshi Prag Narain, in auctions in Calcutta- some of the pieces very valuable .
Back in the verandah, Kush tells me that the house was part of the ‘Begum Kothi’complex. Begum Kothi , a massive , elegant mansion built along Hazratganj during Saadat Ali Khan’s reign, once stood where Janpath now stands and was the site of a bitter battle at the time of the Uprising of 1857. The ‘daat ki cchat’ or vaulted roof and the eighteen inch walls of a portion of the house and the lakhauri bricks used are proof enough. This kothi, some adjoining buildings and 6 acres of surrounding land was purchased by Munshi Nawal Kishore in 1866.
‘Our family owned the taluqdaris of Shivli and Rudauli. My grand father, Bishan Narain, died in 1931 when my father, Ram Kumar was only sixteen. Since it was still the British ruling, the estates came under the Court of Wards (by which, if the head of a taluqdari was underage, the estate would appoint a caretaker till the head came of age)and a confidante of Bishan Narain’s, Kunwar Bam Bahadur Shah, became caretaker. The estate had lost huge amounts of cash and kind and was in debts amounting to Rs forty lakhs in those days. Bam Bahadur took very strong measures , repaying debts and making the estates prosperous once again. In 1936,my father, all of twenty-one, was made in-charge again and soon became a very influential man. My mother was also an important public figure, becoming Member of the Legislative Council of Uttar Pradesh.’
Kush says his grandfather, Bishan Narain was a person, who, in surges of generosity, gave away parts of the family fortunes as gifts and aid. He narrates an incident, ‘ Upon seeing a beautiful Persian rug in this house, a visitor remarked that after the Maharani of Gwalior (a lady considered wealthy by international standards), Bishan Narain was the only other person to possess such a rug. Pleased by the wealth of this compliment, Bishan Narain immediately asked for the rug to be sent to the visitor’s home as a gift !’
The house is dotted with a Venetian chandelier here, English porcelain there ; walls carry photographs and memorabilia and shelves house crockery.I cannot stop looking. With Renu I visit the puja room downstairs and seek blessings from the deity that has presided over the family and its vast estates of the past.
As I leave, I see the resident priest going about his rituals. There was something genuine and timeless about this. Just like the house.
Thank you to Renu and Kush Bhargava for opening your amazing home to us–you may not know it, but you are doing great service to Indian heritage by proudly preserving this house for generations to see and learn from !
Thank you, dear readers for coming by and reading ! Do tell me, in the comment section below, how you liked this post. I am certain you, as well as many like you and me, would like to see many more such homes that tell us our history …