Begum Akhtar and the ‘pehleaap’ culture

In her book on the one and only Begum Akhtar, Shanti Hiranand – herself a great ghazal singer of her own stature and well-known first disciple of Akhtari Bhai Feizabhadi – writes that although Delhi was the centre of politics, it was the eternal cities of Lucknow and Faizabad that were the centres steeped in the particular traditions of Awadh.

Awadh provided a near ideal environment for artists of all kinds to flourish. The growth of Urdu as a mode of expression of the highest of Arts, to the ganga-jamuni tehzeeb, the ‘pehle aap’ (‘after you please’) culture, the development of dance, music, progression of fine arts, the growth of tabla, sitar, urdu theatre, parsi theatre, and in fact the beginning of what we now know as Hindi films, all came from one source, Lucknow ! Lucknow ! Lucknow !

I became very intrigued by this city of a bygone era. Of course after the partition, Lucknow is now a shadow of itself and Awadh does not exist. In this age of division we find a reader replying to an article in the Indian Express ‘Which Ambedkar’ as follows: ‘India was waking up after an eclipse of nearly 12 centuries of intolerant alien rules of Muslims and Brits. She was waking up with a foggy awareness of having a tryst with destiny actually made up with a vote bank and with the miming of Soviet planning. That tryst meant a sudden interruption with the continuity of Indian civilization, with such errant, misleading pomposities as Bhakra Nangal dam being elevated as the new Tīrtha. The people quietly acquiesced, with Nehru’s popularity acting as the inspiration for national sleep-walking, and without anyone noticing the Congress Party breaking the continuity of the indigenous tradition, an occurrence unique in the annals of history’.

So wonderfully put not but not totally accurate. Is it really fair to claim that old Indian Aryan history was pure and un-distilled ‘all good no blots’ and it is all Nehru`s blunder that the continuity of the indigenous Aryan culture was broken? Which is why we are in such a particularly dire political conundrum in India, and why The Guardian writes of Delhi that ‘the planners of independent India’s new capital failed spectacularly in their attempt to create a poverty-free modernist utopia. Their legacy is a sprawling city awash with slums and hampered by bureaucracy’. What really happened to India as discussed in the same Guardian article is that no one (referring to governance) was in fact able to keep up with the rapid pace of development since this is the very land of no-consensus, and we are still using Nehru’s urban planning apparatus, to project-manage a city. Not to sound like a doomsday scenarist, but it seems the horse did leave the starting blocks au gallop and the jockey remained stuck at the gates.

It is author Amaresh Misra who provides a daunting argument of the roots of the sadly dissipated golden age of civilized tehzeeb in India, when he says that a certain ‘entente cordiale’ flourished, only because Asiatic capitalism guided the propensity to create the Indo-Persian impulse of empire building, and the tehzeeb emerged because Thakur-Brahmin-Sheikh-Sayyid-Mughal-Pathan-Ahir-Parsi-Ram-Mohammed-Ram-Krshina-Tulsidas-Wajjid Ali Shah-Ali-Ackbar all became one– the great metissage of Awadh. It is so strange that no one seems to remember that but maybe Ghalib did try to remind us of a sadly bygone, very beautiful and deeply artistic era, and like Basham would say ‘the wonder that was India’:

What do you ask? What should I write? Five things kept Delhi alive – the fort, Chandni Chowk, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower-sellers. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive?

Yes, there used to be a city of this name in the land of Hindustan.

* Published in print edition on 6 May 2016

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