Alright, it IS very hot. But it is also time for the fragrant bela and Chameli to bloom. My own three pots have started to yield four or five blossoms a day.My mother-in-law insists on offering them to her deity so I whisk away two and keep them on our dining table and delight in the wisps of fragrance as I pass by ! No wonder Indian women in the past wore gajras (decorative, thick garlands for the hair made of fragrant white flowers)-you could smell them all the time !
Away from gajras, coming to old homes, my dear friend Yasmin Khan and I had talked about a house in Lucknow that was old and that she had visited long ago. A phone call or two later, thank God for graceful people like her and the recipient of the call, our visit to this house, on a hot April afternoon, came about.
A bit about the house and the people that make it home-
Iftikhar Ali Khan’s marriage was arranged with Saeeda when he was 22 and she 18. Saeeda lived in the home of her maternal grandfather, the Raja of Salimpur. Although Iftikhar often visited this house he never saw her even once. The first time he saw the beauty was when he brought her home after marrying her seven years later.
‘Khakan Manzil’ where he brought his new bride to was not just a house. It was really rooms built around a monument worthy of pride, a monument meant for congregations, called Ada Khaana or more popularly, Imambara. It is in such Imambaras that Shia muslims gather also to mourn during the important period of Muharram. It is these very structures that the Shia Nawabs of Awadh built, structures of great beauty, that Lucknow is known for.
Entering the sehan or the courtyard through an old wooden gate, it is the Imambara that you see before you. A yellow and white, interesting-looking building with pillars and a Palladian style triangular top, it has extensions on either side that sit a bit uncomfortably with the stately structure. The extensions are colonial style and, turning at right angles, continue their journey as barracks on either side until they fully enclose the courtyard with the wooden gate making up the fourth side of a rectangle.
Seated in his drawing-room in the left extension, Iftikhar Ali Khan gives us a lesson in elegant Urdu vocabulary. I hastily add it to my meagre repertoire. He is himself a picture of elegance—a crisp white kurta-pyjama, a paan held on one side of his mouth and a peek-daan (spittoon) by his side. A classic nawabi imambara, he says, would have the ‘Naubat khaana’ on either side of the gate. A Naubatkhaana would house musicians who would play music—shehnai or nagaara-to welcome guests. Then you would find the ‘Ghulam gardish’, quarters to house ‘ghulams’ or servants. You enter the ‘sehan’ or main courtyard which would have a ‘nehar’ or water body. Then a ‘chabutra’ or raised platform. And on it, finally, the ‘Ada khaana’ or imambara. There would be ‘sehanchi’ or small rooms on either side of this main structure meant for members of the family or guests.
It is in the sehanchi that his own mother and paternal grandmother before her lived.
On this hot April afternoon,Yasmin, who introduced me to Iftikhar Ali and to their interesting home, my daughter Geetika and I are taken on a tour of the imambara by Iftikhar Ali’s son, Murad, daughter-in-law, Samar and son-in-law, Ilyas. They are all welcoming and interested. Even Geetika who usually wilts in hot temperatures has not noticed the heat.
‘Ise sambhalta hi jaa raha hoon’, Iftikhar Ali has told us. ‘Ek,ek karke chatein girti jaa rahi hain’.( I have been continuously trying to save this place. Roofs keep collapsing one after the other). He has replaced quite a few.
Seeing the roof of the main hall, I can see what a feat it must be to keep it in one piece, especially if it is your private funds you have to use and you have other things to take care of as well.
It has been the tradition to white wash the building before Muharram, Murad tells us. He points out the layers of whitewash that all but obliterate what was once beautiful stucco work on all the doorways and pillars. Attempts to remove the layers of whitewash have resulted in the plaster decorations crumbling—so it is not a situation where you can win.
This Imambara was built around 1820 for Khaakan bahu, Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah’s elder son’s wife. The son died in his father’s lifetime. His younger son, Amjad Ali Shah became the nawab later, and his son, the famous Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh, succeeded. Khakaan bahu, the elder son’s widow, was given this imambara and, as iftikhar Ali discovered later in government records, a ‘kharcha-e-paandaan’ or pocket-money of Rs. 1500. It is here that she spent the rest of her life in prayer and in bringing up her children. Hence the name, ‘Khaakan Manzil’.
The buildings were, later, inherited by Nawab Noorjehan begum and her children, the eldest being Iftikhar Ali Khan or ‘Huzoor mian’ as he is called.
As a boy and young man Iftikhar Ali Khan’s world was within the walls of Khaakan Manzil and his school, St Francis in Lucknow. There was, however, another different world that existed for Iftikhar and that he loved- that of two Anglo-Indian homes. Every day, after school, the young Iftikhar was taken to the home of Mrs. John to be given lunch, then a nap and finally private tutoring before coming back to his own home. In the last years of school he would go to the home of another Anglo-Indian gentleman, Mr. Jacob, the director of the United States Information Service, where the schedule remained similar. He got acquainted to a non-traditional, westernized world through these homes. After passing out of school, his mother refused to let him go to study on scholarship to Ibadan. She, however, let him go to Aligarh Muslim University to study Science. There was a phase, he says, when he used to dress in suits stitched at the famous Haridas in Hazratganj and haunt the Mohammed Bagh and Gymnkhana Clubs of Lucknow. But the day he married, he says, he gave that up and concentrated on his beautiful wife and home, instead.
Back in his drawing room Iftikhar Ali tells me that he intends to hire craftsmen at some point to first take ‘khaaka’ or impressions of the plaster patterns on the walls of the imambara and then work on reconstructing them. I admire his will to preserve. We are offered tea, biscuits and pineapple cake. His eldest daughter Sheeba has just come back home. She is a well- spoken young lady who teaches in a local school. Her husband, two brothers and their wives and children live together in the same house. The young children with their respective maids wander in and out. Iftikhar Ali’s younger brother and his own family also live in a different part of the extension.
Members of the family, each, go out of the four walls to the world outside to work or visit. And when they return it is as if they are absorbed into the sehan, sehanchi and the ada khaana. They love the place and take pride in it. The Imambara , the main body with a throbbing heart extends its arms- its two wings, and seems to embrace them. It is as if it is a world all on its own—the mother, and in her arms, her children.
Thank you, Iftikhar Ali sahab, Sheeba, Ilyas, Murad, Samar and the other members of this family, for sharing your beautiful home with us ! I am delighted to have seen a different world !
Thank you, dear Yasmin, for arranging this visit– waiting to see Salimpur and Malihabad soon !
And thank you all for stopping by to read !