The smells, sights and music of Lucknow that make it more than just a Nawabi cliche. Muskaraiye ki Aap Lucknow mein hain
When other think of Lucknow, they see Nawabs and Kababs and Dussehri Mangoes everywhere. But to My Big Red Bag, Lucknow is a reminder of overly indulgent grandparents, a convent school that tried too hard to turn her into a ‘lady'; and of evenings spent devising amateur theatric productions. Lucknow also reminds us of unseasonable summer storms the likes of which we’ve never seen elsewhere and winter angithis warming the monkey-capped strangers on the road. It is a city overburdened by the expectation of it’s past – that wants to be known for its mehfil, its culture, its poetry and decay, but which cannot help be attracted to the glimpses of new money and excess from nearby Delhi.
To experience our Lucknow from the confines of your house, we suggest you sample the following:
How could we select anything but Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari as the quintessential Lucknow movie? The unending meandering conversations, the thumris, the gorgeous brocades, the impending sense of doom, the begums too smart for their huzoors (just look at Shabana Azmi in that poster- that’s who we want to be someday), and most of all a masterful Amjad Khan as the dithering, in-over-his-head Wajid Ali Shah. It’s almost a shame that it took a Kolkata resident to make the movie about Lucknow that it deserves, but it’s Ray, and Lucknow deserves nothing but the best.
We would be remiss to not even mention Umrao Jaan, each of whose songs is a work of genius, but for this feature we’ve decided to go with something more modern- this lovely ‘party’ song from Main, Meri Patni Aur Woh
Sung by a pre-Rockstar fame Mohit Chauhan, the song represents the kind of Lucknow evenings we remember- impossibly well dressed women with incongruous shawls or woollen ‘blouses’, a veneer of bemused politeness, and Kay Kay Menon (who with his effortless transitions from dangerous to delightful deserves a honorary Lucknow citizenship himself) crooning for the ladies with his Mills and Boons eyes. And the word “guncha” is just the kind of nearly-Urdu word that someone in Lucknow will casually toss into a conversation assuming that the Dilliwaalas will understand. And when they don’t? That frisson of elitist delight- that’s 100% Lucknow.
You’ve eaten the Food Court Tunde Kababs and an approximation of Kapoor’s famous Basket Chat. But this North Indian will contend that the true gift of Lucknow to the culinary world is a 100 different ways to prepare the humble potato. Broken down into tiny pieces in a watery curry tarkari, or filled into a crispy samosa with tangy chutney, added to give bulk to the humble beans or cabbage or cauliflower, or turned into dried papads of a thousand shapes in the sun – no Lucknow meal is complete without a hefty portion of potatoes. The children in our favourite books waited for the ring of the ice-cream truck. We waited for the clang of the tikki- walas’ spoon on his sizzling pan, the swishing of smoke as he threw a smattering of water drops on it for show, and that smell of burning potato skins that had us running to the porch. Our favourite recipe for a similar aloo tikki is here. Eat in true Lucknowiyya style with a dollop of curd, imli chutney and chat masala
Ab iskey baad subah hai aur subah-e-nau Majaz, Hum Par hai khatam Sham-e-Gariban-e-Lucknow.
(There may be many more new mornings after this, but the evenings of traditional Lucknow end with me)
It is poetic, and not in the least surprising that Lucknow lost its heart to an impossibly good looking, sardonic poet with a drinking problem and a legion of enabling fans. But we request you to time travel a bit further back from Majaz Lucknawi
The poet Mir Taqi Mir, second (arguably) only to Ghalib in the annals of Urdu poetry, spent a significant portion of his later life in Lucknow- by turns being patronized and rebelling against the Nawabocracy. You’ve already heard some of his verses in the form of “patta patta boota boota” and “Dikhayin Diyein Yun“ from Bazaar. Mehdi Hassan has sung some of his loveliest ghazals to beautiful effect.
From the last couple of decades, we urge you to seek out the writings of Rukun Advani- (yes, he’s the son of that Ram Advani- the one who owns the best book shop in Lucknow), or Vinod Mehta’s biography Lucknow Boy , tinged as they are with a historian’s curiosity and the sense of sepia-tinted nostalgia that defines the city.