The Heart of Lucknow
A casual stroller taking a final turn from Qaiserbagh, would find himself gazed upon by monuments of exquisite beauty and a square of singular pride and stateliness. An ardent Lucknowite would congratulate him on his feet for he has embarked upon an experience of a lifetime the heart of modern Lucknow, and Lucknow through the ages – colonial splendour, Nawabi hues, the Indian spirit, revelry, refuge , luxury, erudition, amusement, calm and happy confusion all have found home in the serene, sagacious enticing stretch of Hazratganj. Technically a mere road, a simple dry tool of modern commutes, but never once since its conception so.
No Lucknowite has known life without active and sincere indulgence in the ever alluring and ‘novel’ pursuit of ganjing, the phenomena born out of Hazratganj’s immense capacity to please, its enchanting beauty and arresting charms, endless entertainment, food and shopping delights. To just go strolling along the street in the company of friends basking in its many offerings, enjoying a witty cup of tea or munching on delicious life, a mere mention of the exclusively conspiring verb lights up the older generation’s faces with reminiscing smiles and youngsters springing to their feet. Tales, rather legends of the memorable times spent ganjing sit huddled in recollections to be kindled and told. Once, in the words of a venerable admirer it used to be like one big family that assembled in the evenings for some light banter, everyone knew everyone else and cherished the easy familiarity of the people and the place. It has changed over the years, accommodating, evolving, and braving a new phase and continues to be one of the first and best things associated with Lucknow that draw visitors instantly for all the promised pleasure.
Born out of the shrewd anglicized imagination of the then nawab of Awadh Yamin-ud-Daula Saadat Ali Khan II in 1810 as a functionary joining his beloved European facsimile Dilkusha kothi and the British Residency, it emerged as an efficient essential artery into a city, which previously had none. Owing to its regal and stately ends, European residences soon blossomed along it as did a grain market on the opposite face of its extensive expanse. Initially christened munnawar baksh, it became Hazratganj after Nawab Amjad Ali Shah in 1842. Since then it has been a site of historical eminence, one phase dissolving to give birth to another more glorious one.
The street today stands as a succession of nostalgic interludes for an old timer, a burial ground for old world charms, history, memories and a prised identity. The imposing, calm keepers of antiquity wearing a beige blush betray nothing of their celebrated heritage to the indiscriminate eye. To a fervid historian though, Hazratganj would present an arresting time capsule. It became the site of European and Nawabi regalia, each leaving defining relics in turn. From a posh quiet residential area, it erupted as a wounded battlefield during the first war of independence. The British destroyed many Nawabi monuments after conquest and European institutions emerged in their stead.
A sprawling residence for Queen Malika Ahad, the Begum Kothi was the site of fierce battle in 1858. The bitter destruction of the monument as a result left little credit to its glorious past. The Avanbai Mansions, the Newal Kishore residential estate, Capitol Cinema, the Jhalkari Bai hospital, the DRM office, Nagar Nigam office all stand on its erstwhile grounds.
Thereafter to cater to the demands of the English gentry, European retail outlets and amusement centres sprang up. The imposing white building of GPO was once the imperial ring theatre where splendid balls were held and Indians were disgracefully denied admission. Leisurely tongas formed the gentle traffic. Valerio’s teashop where presently the Gandhi ashram stands was once a popular haunt, a fashionable ballroom as well. Many other eminent European businesses flourished in this posh street modelled after England’s Queens Street. Post independence, however they filed a quite retreat, changing hands, giving way to new businesses, it was the coming of the Halwasiya Market that set off its recent evolution as a commercial hub.
However, this very street chronicling the past, present, memories and admiration of its patrons, quite recently stood in danger of entering an indignant oblivion. Brazen commercial hoardings marred the beautiful façade of the place, the absence of a legitimate parking space in the busy shopping centre held all traffic as an unmanageable menace.
It was then, as Hazratganj neared 200 glorious years of its existence that some zealous Lucknowites decided that it was time to rescue it from ruin. A group of eminent denizens, some associated with the place itself, the Hazratganj Traders Association (HTA), all conscientious concerned heritage lovers, determined to refurbish the invaluable legacy of Ganj for the coming generations to enjoy secured the full support of the state government and got together all the best resources and people. The task that could take years was shrunk into a promising period of five months by the sheer will of the workers, who toiled day and night to restore the street to its place of proud distinction.
Hazratganj stands today elegant and poised, a fruit of their diligence. We all uniformly cursed the construction and continual disruptions during the period of make over but the astounding result had everyone just as equally pleased and proud.
The streets were open to be enjoyed. Janpath was made a no traffic zone, enhancing and securing it.
Now tall Victorian lamps line the broadened footpaths, lighting the benches inviting strollers to respite. All shops bear elegantly identical signage of black and white, elaborate Victorian cornices and columns adorn entrances. The sidewalks have received a new stroke of life, for the luxuriating benefit of the all essential ramblers and shoppers. Beautiful fountains sprinkle relief on the scene, the greenery a pacifier in the mad rush; the green railings, the dustbins all underscoring suavely the modern binge with a quaint and ornate vintage character; the buildings a wistful hue of pink and cream in symphony. So as the evening air wafts across Ganj an exquisite splendour is revived, which not long ago seemed lost.
Though the renovation in 2010 elevated Ganj to a greater model on the whole, it came at the cost of an inextricable part of its heritage, to ordain the traffic mess, the proposed multi-level parking allegedly required the extinction of the 100 years old kotwali and fire station .there was an urgent outcry from heritage lovers but to no avail. However, after the sad event it has been ascertained the foul does not recur.
The morning sun on Hazratganj lights up a beautiful blend of European and Mughal structures aligned in congruous harmony with each other, beaming their bright and resilient presence. Kids ␣ock to schools, missionaries standing on established and reputed grounds, Cathedral, St. Francis, La Martiniere Girls the best in town, turning out celebrated alumni year after year, one brave man in a white uniform holds a bulging mass of traffic at the vigil of his tiny whistle, in possibly the city’s busiest square at GPO crossing. The square of outrage – GPO has become the unsaid protest spot, some discordant group perpetually present at the site, Gandhiji’s tall statue as their abiding guide. The adjoining park , once Prag Narayan park after the illustrious Munshi Newal Kishore’s nephew, whose property it initially was, subsequently Badshah park (after King George) and Mahatma Gandhi park, now stalls in honour of Sardar Vallabhai Patel.
Clock towers chime away the hours of the day or hold still from some past shock, arresting times present and past. These clocks, at Oriental Bank, Central Bank of India and BSNL buildings, regulating Ganj hours remain a peculiar feature, having risen from Victorian and gothic ideas. Ganj branches off as Mahatama Gandhi Marg from the western end, quieter official buildings and parks and as Shah Najaf Road in the midst, towards St. Francis and Cathedral Schools, the modern presence of Sahara Ganj Mall, other eateries and complexes.
Aside from the constant blare of car horns and traffic, many distinct and more pleasant sounds invade the air of Ganj invoking its secular being. Temple bells, the Muslim call for prayer- Azaan, the Christian choir’s hymns refine and heal its soul. Amidst the commercialism, frolic, frivolities religion manages to thrive in the core of Hazratganj. Places of worship propagating different faiths are frequented by the devotees and flourish. The south facing Hanuman temple at the extreme east end is over a hundred years old and for the devotees its small premises house unquestionable divine grace.
Inconspicuous amidst rude encroachments stands a religious as well as a historical gem. Smothered under a demeaning layer of limestone, its significance was realized after an accidental grazing. The precious and only surviving part of the legendary Begum Kothi was revealed. The Shahi Masjid raises its proud head behind the Oriental Bank building, it is reported to have been built during the reign of King Ghiazuddin Haider around 1819-20 fortunately the Husainabad and Allied Trust (HAT) took over the restoration of its valued halls and domes post the startling discovery. The true worth of the mosque lies in the fact that both Shia and Sunni sects defer to its holiness wholly.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral stands in the centre of Hazratganj with Jesus Christ’s pristine white idol welcoming his followers with open arms. The Cathedral built to resemble an angel with outstretched wings was founded in 1977 by the Right Reverend Dr. Albert De Conrad in place of a former, humble structure of St. Joseph’s church that had a great devout following. The present Cathedral has embraced a modern structure, is more well equipped. It is the heart of city’s Christmas celebrations and the whole of Hazratganj rises and gleams in festive fever with it during the holy week.
The essence of a place is its people for Hazratganj they form an illustrious, admired, humbling circle. In its streets and lustrous bungalows reside these charming souls, inspiring, stimulating, regal and exalted. Ganj hosts these stately mansions, reminders, priceless remainders of former grandiose. The Habibullah estate one such place, houses the inimitable begum Hamida Habibullah, a social activist, a former Member of Parliament and a pioneer in education in the city .The Habibullah state some time ago lay in a state of dismaying decrepit. However, the ingenuity of the current generation of Habibullahs has led to an amazing transformation. The building with personal quarters secured was restored to house two eminent fashion brands and these now flourish in the elegant, royal regalia, the premises restored to their past beauty.
Late Rani Lila Ramkumar Bhargava , Padma Shri, the great granddaughter-in- law of the late Munshi Newal Kishore of the world famous Newal Kishore press, resided in the esteemed quarters of the area. Her compassion reflected in her contribution to the society, unwavering efforts to serve the poor and downtrodden. She was also a freedom fighter and had worked alongside Indira Gandhi and other Congressmen. Her contribution to the society and the nation in its grave struggle is a matter of great pride for all Lucknowites.
So much character, courage and class contained in these oft visited streets, Hazratganj did borne quite another interesting character in bygone times – that of an entertainer. Balls, dance floors, the novelty of cinema and theaters, excellent food and an even better crowd, these were its irresistible offerings. The prince of Wales cinema, now the prince shopping complex, Filmistaan now Sahu cinema hall were much frequented places, but Mayfair theatre with its Kwality restaurant, was the most popular and it is from these places that the previous generation’s fondest, most carefree and happy memories emerge. Mayfair screened English flicks, so did the others but there were live performances too. It was a venture of Mr. Ram Chand Gurnani who created the theatre in 1939, when it instantly became a huge success but sadly all of these treasures faded into obscurity and the once alive and jostling portico of the theatre are what remains of the original bereft of its lure. The trademark signage still stands opposite halwasiya court neglected. Its rivals have met similar fate; Tulsi theatre is a shopping complex now, the name remains, Capitol cinema is a forgotten ‘all purpose’ hall.
In the Ganj of today, towards the western end which was mostly wide expanse and extensive structures, now stand some modern edifices. K. D. Singh Babu Stadium is one of them, the best sports faculty in town, energizing the landscape with bright young athletes. Opposite the District Magistrate’s house, the Noor Baksh Kothi, stands Sarojini Naidu park in honour of its erstwhile renowned poetess Governor. It is also now home to another multi level parking lot to suit the area’s needs. Beyond that another relief stands proclaiming the christening of the city, the origin of its name, Lakshman park houses the only statute of Lord Lakshman in the city. Another part of this park, aptly opposite the park dedicated to Begum Hazrat Mahal, the wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah who showed extraordinary courage by taking on her husband’s state against the British after he fied, is dedicated to her valiant army general Raja Jai Lal Singh who was hanged in this very park on a tamarind tree by the British after conquest on 1st October 1859. Some sense of the cruel death still pervades the place, a monument solemnly portrays his plight and courage.
At the far end beyond the sombre Saadat Ali Maqbara, stands the Oudh Gymkhana Club, a high point for fruitful exercise and leisure in its beginning, now also employed in other activities. The gymkhana arose as a rebellious outgrowth from the popular Rifaah-e-Aam Club. Mr. T.N.Srivastava an eminent lawyer at that time, after an effrontery aimed at him at Rifaah-e-Aam started his own club in 1933 with six of his colleagues. It only catered to tennis players, later billiards and table tennis were also introduced.
Though the government and zealous citizens managed to transform a dilapidated Ganj to a breathing, lively spectacle, the sheer lack of civic sense has already begin to scar the beaming picture. Litter, offhand treatment of the property, all smear the common etiquette of the people in bad taste and dampen the spirit of Ganj.
The government’s active role in preserving the heritage of Ganj is laudable. For tackling traffic a matter which always threatens to mar the efficacy of this area, it has been instrumental in regulating it with constant patrolling, under another vigilance act, cameras all across that stretch monitor the state in each nook and corner, though the effectiveness of this last addition remains to be seen. Another sad deficiency on the people’s part.
The appalling disparity that thrives unacknowledged or not so beyond observation and a sigh on the much loved and celebrated streets deeply impinges upon any happy derivative one may draw of the situation. Beggars, destitute, starving children lining greedily in front of the lavish stores and joints, unnoticed in the extravagances of the town, forms a painful picture.
Writer is a student and a passionate painter.
(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 1 Issue 9, Dated 05 December 2015)