Hello, all !
I am recovering from the shock of seeing a new door frame installed in our kitchen completely crooked. Suhel mian, the raaj mistiri who did that beautiful job, reasoned, in good Lucknawi style, that the wall itself was crooked, not the door frame. ‘Purane gharon mei meeshteek(mistake)hota hi tha’ –In old houses there would invariably be mistakes like crooked walls, he said ! Then his assistant, Kallu, helpfully suggested that all I had to do was cock my head and look at the door frame. That way, he said, it would appear straight ! Silly me !
These are but minor frustrations in our task of repairing my grandfather-in-law’s house..
About a year ago, while walking through Hazratganj (the Connaught Place of Lucknow) I was delighted to see the Habibullah house, a Lucknow landmark, repaired, painted and in pristine condition. I noticed neat, unobtrusive signboards with the names of well-known fashion designers placed in the front of that house. A part, I gathered, had been rented out to boutiques. I saw all the construction that had taken place around the house and realized that it would have been easy for the Habibullah family to have sold off the house and to have lived off the proceeds for the next generation or two. But this was the way forward if people wanted to keep old treasures alive ! I had mentally congratulated them and, though it might seem a bit extreme, almost wept with gratitude !
It is impossible to get a good, open view of the entire façade but here is one-
(photo by Jyotsna)
I bumped into Amar, a member of the family that owned the Habibullah house, one evening and upon learning of my interest in old houses, including his, he kindly invited my husband and me over to see it. In the past 4 acres of the area belonged to the family, which is why the area is still known as Habibullah estate. Now about 1.5 acres remain with them.
From the main Hazrtaganj road, a narrow lane between two shops leads to the house. The lane curves around it and takes you to the rear. On either side of the lane are tall buildings which house banks, offices, beauty parlours and a hotel. Cars and motorcycles are parked in a haphazard manner. People move in and out of the buildings. Some crowd around a thela selling puris. It is still surprisingly quiet. And in the valley created by these buildings lies the Habibullah house. It is dignified, elegant, and, compared to the gauche structures around, almost arrogant.
The present entrance to the British style, single storied main bungalow –
We meet Amar, his charming, warm wife, Jyotsna and Amar’s illustrious father, Wajahat Habibullah, a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service, thereafter India’s first Chief Information Commissioner( I will be needing his help with all the illegal construction happening around our house !)and Chairperson of the Minorities Commission. Amar worked for a bank and after moving to Lucknow runs their property and a company in Mumbai that provides business solutions. The senior gentleman was dressed in the conventional civil service attire of a white, full-sleeved bush shirt with cuff links and dark trousers and the junior, décontracté, in a T-shirt and running shoes—both somehow pictures of the roles they play.
This property with the main house was bought by their ancestor, Sheikh Mohammed Habibullah in early 1900s. He was the manager of Raja Mahmudabad’s estates and the Talukdar of Saidanpur, a property the family still owns.
The oldest part of the house, it would appear, dates from 1736 when it was possibly a private residence on the outskirts of the then city of Lucknow. It later became the Delhi London Bank and rebuilt in its present proportions. It was then purchased by Sheikh Mohammad .
The family, including the women, are , in one word, distinguished. Every member of this one had their own occupation—managing the lands they have from their talukdari being only a part of it. It would take a couple of pages to describe the many roles they played. Here are just a couple of paragraphs-
Sheikh Mohammed was also Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University. His wife, Begum Inam, was the first from a family of talukdars to give up‘purdah’. She became an MLA and member of Lucknow Municipal Council, founded Lady Irwin college,Delhi, among other things. Her niece, who married her eldest son Ali Bahadur, was the famous writer Attia Hosain.
Their son, Enaith retired as a Major General of the Indian Army and was founder commandant of National Defence Academy, Khadakvasla. His wife, Begum Hamida, still a commanding presence at 97 years of age, a former minister of State for Tourism and Civil Defence, among other roles.
Wajahat, I have written about before, and his wife, Shahila, also his cousin, a quiet, dignified lady, former Montessori teacher, who was joint secretary of Indian Council of Child Welfare. His older sister Nazli is a doctor with the NDTV, and his younger sister was the internationally acclaimed artist Rummana Hussain.The large oil paintings that you see in the house are by her.
For those of you interested in knowing more members of the family or more about them do search the net- there is a lot about them.
Amar and Jyotsna met while students at St Stephen’s college, Delhi. Later Amar worked for a bank in Mumbai and Jyotsna headed marketing for Air Arabia. At one point, they realized that, like an ageing parent, their beautiful home in Lucknow needed care. The family had two choices—sell the house and continue with their comfortable lives in Mumbai or move to Lucknow, start a new life and, most importantly, preserve the house. They took a decision and Amar and Jyotsna with their two young sons moved to Lucknow. They knew they would have to make preserving the large old house in as much originality as possible and living in a section of it viable. Finances would have to be generated. So they decided to rent out the main house to high end boutiques. Then started the process of selling the idea.
It was only when Ritu Kumar and Kimaya agreed to come on board that the massive process of repair and renovations began .That was 2011. And how beautiful the whole place looks now ! The boutiques are making sales, funds to maintain the gracious house are being generated and people like me and you are grateful and happy that old treasures are being preserved !
A view of the beautiful, shaded front verandah of the main house with doors leading to what are now boutiques-
(photo by Debashish)
The floors are made of tiles, all original, the pattern incorporates the letter ‘H’.
Just so you know what this boutique is about-take a look here.
The roof had begun falling in so it was a huge task to remove it and make a new one. They included what is called permanent shuttering of metal for the ceiling on top of which rests a reinforced concrete roof-
The table belonged to the original house. It now has a coat of silver grey film, though, to suit Kimaya’s interiors.
Through the door, on the left of the verandah you can catch a glimpse of a cafe called ‘The Cherry Tree’. This had been a kitchen that had been introduced by Begum Hamida. What’s better than relaxing with a cup of tea or coffee after shopping – that, too, in a bungalow like this !
Sheikh Mohammed was highly anglicized and often hosted balls and lavish dinners for his guests both English and eminent Indian.
Ritu Kumar should also be congratulated. She has let the terrazzo floors( put in perhaps in the 40s or 50s) stay, as decent people should ! It has a beautiful pattern with checkered boxes in pink and green. It looks brownish in the image but is actually green.
Alright, go ahead, now you can take a look at Ritu Kumar’s gorgeous clothes here.
The third room , formerly the office of Sheikh Mohammed and then of the Major General and Begum Hamida, houses another boutique, Anokhi–and I LOVE what they have. I don’t have a picture of the room but you can see what Anokhi has by clicking here
In 1935, Sheikh Mohammed decided to build himself another house by the side of the main bungalow with a suite for each of his three sons. It was built aesthetically, as it should, in keeping with the design of the main structure. Wrought iron arches were added by Amar and creepers introduced so it would look like a part of Monet’s garden. You can imagine how gorgeous it will look once the creepers take over !
A fountain in a corner of the garden. It was originally located in the front of the house and the dancing girl on the fountain was supposed to have been sculpted in honour of a famous dancing girl of that time-
For repairing the old house, Amar and Jyotsna consulted three people, Rajiv Sethi and two Indian architects based in Australia, Kausar and Sarita Hukum Chand .They advised well, with sensitivity.
Jyotsna says they were clear about another thing when they moved to Lucknow. That they wanted to experience living in this beautiful house as well. So, having decided to rent out the old house, they adjusted and made only simple changes to the newer wing where the entire family now lives.
Begum Hamida, elegantly dressed, of sharp mind and straight walk, at the age of 97 years-
In the picture, reflected in the mirror behind her, is her Homeopath who had come to visit.
She gleefully smiled and said I could take her picture only if I made her look beautiful !
The fixed shutters are typical of colonial bungalows, meant to keep the sun and rain out but the air in.
As we chat what strikes me is the sensitivity and pride with which both Amar as well as Jyotsna talk about the house. The painstaking task they undertook of repairing their house- and our combined heritage- is truly remarkable.
Here they are-
And here is a picture of four generations of the lovely family at Eid, last year (from the family archives) From the left, Amar’s brother, Saif, Shahila and Wajahat, Begum Hamida with her great grandchildren, Jyotsna and Amar.
Thank you so much, Jyotsna, Amar for opening your home and heart to us. Hope a few of us can learn from you about physically caring for our heritage !
Do put in your comments–I would love to hear from you ! ‘Bye until next time !