Rendezvous in the City of Nawabs

Lucknow, the city of Nawabs was once the epicenter of the quakes of various literary, cultural and social activities. From shayari to dastangoi and qawwali, the city gave birth to many different arts of storytelling, singing and other vocal and oratory skills. The shayari, songs, stories and other poetry became the living proof of Lucknow’s magnificence. The art of chikankari and zardozi rendered the people of Lucknow, its own unique look. Various dance forms, especially Kathak flourished during the Nawabi rule. Lucknow’s fame reached the zenith during the reign of the Nawabs. The glory of distinct adaa and tehzeeb of Lucknow and intricate architecture are renowned throughout the world. However, the lapse of time changed all.

From housing Taronwali Kothi and Begum Kothi, plush bungalows and skyscrapers came up. The dying culture of the city was masqueraded in the name of development. Craftsmen perished and artists’ voices became silent. Nevertheless, the society was satisfied with the illusion of development, equating the cultural loss with good roads, expensive shopping malls, multinational companies and higher standard of living. But the satisfaction of the lop-sided development resting on the eroding traditional base was short-lived. In the glimmer and glitz of the new and improved modern lifestyle in Lucknow, the tehzeeb started to vanish. In the race to become a home to the world, it lost the values and identity of its very people. It then dawned upon the people and the authorities that Lucknow would die a slow death unless immediate steps are taken for its revival.

With the objective to preserve and protect the cultural heritage of Lucknow, and to maintain its cultural legacy, was born a non- governmental organization, The LUCKNOW Society, which is steadfastly noble to the cause. The Lucknow in The LUCKNOW Society is an acronym for ‘Let’s Unite for Culture, Knowledge, Nationalism and Objective Welfare’. As the name suggests, The LUCKNOW Society is an organization dedicated to the preservation of Lucknow’s culture and heritage, making it a better place and thus, restoring its glory.  The Lucknow Literary Festival, which is a brainchild of this organization, is held every year and witnesses a like-minded gathering of intellectuals, authors, poets and performing artists who, besides showcasing their talent, present their views on plethora of contemporary as well as historical issues. The festival also brings diverse languages such as English, Hindi, Urdu and Awadhi on a common platform and not only discusses these languages and its styles but also showcases the masterpieces from these languages to the masses.

The event is entirely youth-led and is an outcome of voluntary efforts of more than a 100 Lucknowite. The first edition of Lucknow Literary Festival was held in Indira Gandhi Pratishthan, Gomti Nagar in 2013. The event witnessed the gathering of around 200 delegates. Notable among them were actor Nasiruddin Shah, author Amish Tripathi, Neelesh Misra and former Outlook editor-in chief Vinod Mehta. The first edition was a huge success and encouraged the organizers to return with a second edition.  The second edition took place at Scientific Convention Centre near KGMU, Chowk. In a galaxy of delegates, actress Shabana Azmi stole the limelight, whereas a few other names to be mentioned were of author Tuhin A. Sinha and Nikita Singh. Overwhelmed with a yet another enthusiastic response of Lucknowite towards the festival, The LUCKNOW Society decided to hold the recently concluded edition for three days.

With the endearing hope that the event will further strengthen the tradition of discussion and debate and enlighten the audience, the much-awaited third edition of the festival kickstarted on February 13 in the heart of the city, Scientific Convention Centre, KGMU, Chowk. The enthusiasm and zeal of the youth volunteers towards organizing the event was reflected through the tagline of the festival: ‘Young zealots of Nawabi lair rustle up a literary siege.’ With blue and green chosen as theme colors for the occasion, the venue came alive with hoardings and posters adorning every nook and corner. The uniqueness of this edition was a three-day cultural extravaganza, which conferred Nawab Wajid Ali Shah award + Pride of Lucknow Award. Entry to the festival was free and open for all. The festival was inaugurated by former bureaucrat Ms Praveen Talha, Mr. Sharib Radaulvi, Mr. Asif Ali Mirza and Mr. Arif Naqvi lighting the lamps followed by a vote of thanks by Mr. Shaheer A. Mirza, formally declaring the festival open. This was followed by a felicitation ceremony honoring the talent of Lucknow. LUCKNOW Society conferred the Pride of Lucknow award to three distinguished luminaries; author Shiv Murti for contribution to Hindi language, Anees Ashfaq for contribution to Urdu literature and Ms Madhvi Kukreja for contribution to women empowerment.

The opening event of the festival in the city blessed with unique heritage had to be obviously on history. The opening panel discussion highlighted Lucknow’s last Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s contribution to art and culture. The panel discussion was graced by noted historian Roshan Taqui, Urdu author Anees Ashfaq, Malikzada Manzoor Ahmed, Asif Ali Mirza and Ali Abdullah. Delegate Asif Ali Mirza noted that Wajid Ali Shah authored over 100 books and highlighted his secularism by pointing out that he had established various ghats in Benaras and invented Aadaab (meaning respect in all forms), a secular greeting in Lucknowi culture. Roshan Taqui, an eminent historian, enthralled the audience by reading out the secular thumris written by the Nawab including Ganesh Stuti.  ‘Angrakha’ was another invention of the Nawab. The panel mooted the idea to establish the Wajid Ali Shah Academy, dedicated to the researches on heritage and culture of Lucknow. Delegates highlighted that Wajid Ali Shah’s era was the one of tolerance and flowered of literary activities from Kathak to shayari and thumris. The panel concluded that British annexation of Awadh led to decay of the city and that the literature and art of the nawabi times, which are now on the verge of extinction, should be preserved to sustain the legacy and identity of Awadh.

The panel discussion on ‘Vartamaan Kavitaon Ki Chunautiyan’, focusing on poetry was graced by author Naresh Saxena, Nalin Ranjan and Vishnu Nagar. The panelists noted that this technological era has led to evolution of various styles of poetry and freed it from the technological mould of ‘chhands’. Thus technology has blurred the distinction between prose and poetry. Though a poem can be composed in the blank verse, a composition written to give effect of poetry does not always qualify as a poem. Subsequently, the delegates spelt out meaningfulness of words, rhythm and melody as essential ingredients of poetry. The delegates noted that ‘nakli kavita’ poses a challenge to genuine poems. Naresh Saxena lamented that Hindi is deprived of its rightful status and English medium educated students shy away from learning Hindi. Vishnu Nagar however, was optimistic on the status of Hindi and stressed on the responsibility of readers to understand the complex poems and added that it was not the sole responsibility of the author to explain his composition and that the reader, too, should be free to choose his own interpretation. The issue of plagiarism in this technology-based world has now prodigiously grown and the panelists have expressed a concern towards the effect it has on the credibility and integrity of the authors, both young and old.

The event also saw the launching of a book authored by Shikha Kumar ‘He fixed the match, She fixed him’ followed by the discussion of romantic relationships in present day scenario. Tushar Upreti pointed out that human beings of today have become self-centered putting one-self before others. He said that this seems to be the latest trend where emotional sensibility and sensitivity have been turned into signs of weakness. Shikha Kumar, however, did not seem to agree with his statement and stressed that human relationships have evolved for the better with time. She was of the opinion that in today’s world, there are more people who are emotionally aware in practicality and not merely readers of the bookish morality. She noted that friendship was the best form of relationship and there is a need to spend, maybe a miniscule, but quality time with your loved ones.

Best-selling author Preeti Shenoy took the limelight on the first day of the festival. She obliged the huge gathering of her fans beaming with emotions through photographs and autographs.  The session witnessed the launching of her book ‘It Happens For A Reason’, a work enunciating the male perspective on human relationship. In conversation with Prof Nishi Pandey, the Head of Department, Foreign Languages in Lucknow University, Shenoy talked about her book and pointed out how relationships have transformed through technology and love letters have given way to Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages. Nevertheless, “emotions in relationships have remained untouched,” she said.

The panel discussion on Socialism in Indian Constitution highlighted the need to provide common basic needs to all and reducing socio-economic disparities. The session graced by DNS Yadav, Justice Khem Karan and Justice Syed Haidar Raza witnessed active participation from the enthusiastic audience debating on the need to restructure poverty line and issues associated with reducing poverty. They emphasized on the ideal yet practically bleak prospective of the Socialist clauses in the Indian Constitution and suggested that every problem should be resolved at a micro level with society and its people at the crux of the agendas.

The event also witnessed the launching of a book ‘Your Dreams Are Mine Now’ by noted author Ravinder Singh followed by a discussion on his book and his experiences that led him to write. Again, the frenzy of the audience to meet their idol was beyond limits.

Later in the day, Lucknow Literature Festival (LLF) conferred Wajid Ali Shah Award on the noted dance guru Pandit Birju Maharaj Ji. A huge round of applause welcomed him as he graced the stage. Accompanying Maharaj Ji on the stage were Mr. Asif Ali Mirza, Mr. Mir Jafar Abdullah and the Founder & CEO of The LUCKNOW Literary Festival, Mr. Shamim A. Aarzoo. Mr. Sunil Sunkara who is an internationally acclaimed performing artist conducted the ceremony. Mr. Sunkara led us through time, onto the screen where the audience witnessed the highlights of life and times of Pandit Birju Maharaj Ji, his youth, his works, his accolades and Maharaj Ji himself as a person. Overjoyed to receive the award and emotional over the restoration of his ancestral home in Lucknow, Pandit Birju Maharaj Ji also stressed the need to revive unique tehzeeb and performing arts in the city. The audience couldn’t have asked for more when Maharaj Ji sang a raaga on the stage. He further recited various taals to mark the distinction between different expressions or bhavs. The first day would have been incomplete without the mesmerizing kathak performance by celebrated artist Natalia Hildner. Clad in yellow attire, the grace and elegance reflected in her dance interspersed with dialogues enthralled one and all. She dedicated her performance to her guru, Pandit Birju Maharaj Ji. The auditorium was in a trance while she performed on a ghazal.

The same level of enthusiasm and commendation as the first day marked the second day at the festival. The opening session aimed at tracing the role of rhythm and expression in the performance of poetry. Delegate Amit Mukherjee highlighted the essence of rhythm in Mirabai’s compositions and asserted the thumris of Lucknow had Taal and laya as essential components. Eminent Kathak dancer Saswati Sen noted that kathak art is drawn from literature and went on to say that one word in a language can assume wide variety of meanings depending on their use in context collaborating her statement with example of the words ‘laal’ and ‘bank’. Her performance on ‘Dekho Shyam kar gaiyan dagar chalat’ enthralled the audience.

The second day also saw the launching of the book ‘Deedni Hun Jo Soch Kar Dekho’ followed by a discussion on the shayari culture of Lucknow. Delegates Anees Ashfaq, Ali Javed and Sharib Radaulvi reminisced of glorious bygone days of Lucknow when noted shayar Mir enthralled audience with his novel compositions. The delegates were unanimous in the view noted that shayari has become extinct due to migration of upper level strata of society and decaying of Urdu language, and stressed the need to revive the art. All the delegates agreed to the fact that Lucknow has been the origin and the birthplace of some of the world’s finest poets and poetries. To let go of an innate asset, which the rest of the world so dearly cherishes, would be nothing less than foolishness.

Attahaas editor Anoop Srivastava, Navbharat Times editor Sudhir Mishra, youth satirist Alankar Rastogi and Anoop Mani Tripathi graced the session ‘Chheentakashi’ on satire. Alankar Rastogi highlighted the essence of love in sacrifice. While equating morality with ‘medicine with expiry date’ and ‘patriotism’ with India-Pakistan cricket match, Anoop Mani Tripathi spared no object from his satire. He also told how time has changed the meaning of some Hindi words. Mr. Subhash Chandar read a part from his book and the ingenuity of the sarcasm was praised by one and all. In the session, Mr. Sudhir Mishra, in his own leg-pulling way, spoke on how technology can be lethal in near future. Mr. Pankaj Prasoon took the stage in this session and explained how materialization of intellect has led to a situation where no celebrity guests equal to no following. He went on to add that the Lucknow Literary Festival has risen above that situation and beyond that materialization.

The second day also witnessed the launching of books ‘Catching the Departed’, a thriller novel authored by Kulpreet Yadav. The novel is a mix of suspense, romance and mystery with Andy Karan comparable to Mahabharata’s Karna as its protagonist. In a conversation with the host Ayaz Khalid, Kulpreet talked about the writing styles of the Indian authors as well as the Indian readers. He explained that in his opinion, on one hand the depth of expression is missing on the part of the writer and on the other hand, the depth of understanding of the reader is either too shallow or too demanding. When asked about his book, he said,” Karna is back…and this time not to lose!”

Further on the second day, audience witnessed the launching of book Stri Katha authored by Ranjan Zaidi. Summarizing his book, Ranjan stressed that though the society has progressed, female infanticide, dowry and child marriage were still rampant in the country. Ranjan maintained that the society might survive without mankind but never without womankind. He laid great emphasis on education system taking up the responsibility and individuals to give up the chauvinistic patriarchal upbringing for the coming generations.

The session on ‘Hindi Sahitya ki Upekshit Vidhaye’ graced by novelist Rajni Gupta, Dayanand Pandey and Subhash Chander highlighted the need to revive various forms of writing in Hindi that are now almost forgotten and the need for the authors to adapt to the changing scenario. Rajni recalled the era when letters were main form of communication and stressed the need to revive ‘lalitnibandh’. The delegates expressed grave sadness at the absence of various writing styles like Yatra Vedant (travelogue) in which an account of the author’s travels and journeys were published; Sansmaran (memoires); Rekha-Chitra, in which pictures depicted the story, and et al.

The second day came alive with the folklore on Mirasin tradition. The atmosphere was in full sway as the singer took the stage and delivered Mast Qalandar in the very raw yet beautiful rendition.

With the objective to break the stigma associated with mental illness, a naturopath and author, Sherry Duggal, had a heart-to-heart interaction with the audience on her book ‘Beneath the Surface’ which highlights her own experiences of emotional turmoil and healing power of Chinese medicine. Everyone was enchanted with the sweet lady when she turned solemn and read out a few lines from her book.

The session by Padma Bhushan author Gopaldas Neeraj on his compositions was the main highlight of the evening. Evergreen songs like ‘Khilte hain gul yahan, khil ke bikharne ko’, ‘Shokhiyon me ghola jaaye’, ‘Mera Man Tera Pyasa’, ‘Rangeela re’ etc. evoked nostalgia among the audience.

A centenary commemoration of Begum Akhtar concluded the day, with a performance by Rekha Surya, the then youngest disciple of Begum Akhtar. She performed ghazals in her dedication. The melodious voice of Rekha Surya, accompanied by the music of the skilled musicians, set up a delightful show for the audience.

The third day at the third edition of the Lucknow Literary Festival 2015 opened with a topic on a relevant theme in the world of today -‘Aaj ka samaaj aur adab ki zarurat’. The word ‘adab’ not only means respect in Urdu but also it refers to the branch of study that deals with the literature. The session was an attempt to revive the signature manners, etiquettes and politeness of the Lucknowi culture, and the Urdu culture overall. The delegates pointed out that adab had been an integral part of human lives in the past but the age of information technology has superseded it. Noting that adab is not confined to any particular city or community and is global in nature, delegate Arif Naqvi opined that commercialization has eroded it. Delegates stressed the need to impart adab to students irrespective of their career choices and the need to understand our societal responsibility.

In the second session, ex army officer, IIM Calcutta graduate and now a prominent theatre artist Major Mohammed Ali Shah had a heart to heart interaction with the audience on his craft. He won over the audience as soon as he took up the stage by commencing his speech with the cry of Jai Hind. He also showed his knack for literature by quoting Shakespeare’s all famous quote ‘All the world’s a stage…’.  He went on to reveal to the audience how his experience in the army was useful while playing the role of army personnel in the movie Haider. Negating that theatre is a dying art in today’s world, he stated that drama should be made compulsory in school and college curriculums. His passion for theatre is evident in the fact that he regards theatre as a cure for all ills.

The third session was a collaborative venture of two NGOs – Roundtable India and Sarthak Foundation- which saw the delegates, most of them associated with UNICEF, interacting on the theme of the role of education. Pointing out that over 8 million children were still out of school in India, delegate Niloufar Pourzand stressed the need of quality education, as it was crucial to the development of a child. The delegates shared their experiences ranging from teaching in schools in some rural areas to establishing the educational facilities in many others. Delegates were unanimous of the view that education needs to be transformative and should challenge the status quo and bring about a positive change in society. Due to active participation evoking a lively debate on the venue, the event had to be stretched beyond its duration.

Since this day clashed with India-Pakistan World Cup face-off, The Lucknow Literary Festival did not disappoint the die-hard cricket fans and made arrangements for the live screening of the match. The emphatic win registered by the Indian Cricket Team set the spirits of everyone on the venue high. From volunteers to visitors, the wave of energy effused by the win never faded through the day. Later in the day, our very own volunteer, Eveta Roy performed Bharatnatyam to the song Breathless evoking a thunderous applause from the audience. The evening concluded with the shayari session by Mr. Irfan Ahmad and Dr. Sehba Ali, a prolific writer whose roots are traced back to Asrar-ul Haq Majaz- Keats of Urdu poetry. It was an inexplicable atmosphere, where an entire hall filled with people fell silent, in awe of the power of the words and the eloquence of the readers. Gripped is the word that aptly describes the state of the audience.

Lucknow is a land of heritage, culture, history and a legacy that is in a league of its own. Every alley, park, shop, book, tree, is a witness to a memory that is long forgotten and sings of a legend. With such initiative, the LUCKNOW Society has tried to bring back what rightfully belongs to Lucknow. The Society however, was not alone in this and acknowledges the efforts of government, delegates, volunteers, media and audience, which made the event a success. With the overwhelming response received by the Lucknow Literary Festival, the entire city is pumped up for another such initiative and looks forward to another rendezvous with the city. The Lucknow Literary Festival also braces itself for yet another edition.

(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 1 Issue 12, Dated 05 March 2015)

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