Sunday, July 3, 2011

Pens that scripted wonders go dry

Published in The Times of India Lucknow edition dated June 26, 2011

Vijay Chopra | tnn

The striking beauty of jewel-like alphabets and designs inscribed on a sheet of paper grabs the immediate attention of the eyes. As Syed Azeem Haider Jafri, wielding two modest tools – a reed pen and ink -- begins to write, alphabets transform into gems.

Jafri is the master of calligraphy or Khattati, the Islamic art of fancy handwriting. This unique and decorative style has been admired for centuries for its beauty, and skill and creativity of the artist. Rajput princess Jodha Bai is believed to have mastered it to perfection. But now, this exquisite handwriting style is on the verge of extinction. Reason: it could not withstand the onslaught of modern technologies like computers and printers.

Jafri, who has scripted wonders on papers and stones, leads a non-descript life in the bylanes of Muftiganj in Old Lucknow. He, in fact, excels as a Tughra artist, considered a notch above calligraphers. Tughra are calligraphic logos or designs depicting the names of the Almighty, the Prophet or the Imams revered by the Muslims. This talented penman knows that calligraphy’s demise is imminent, but that has not diminished his passion for the craft. He carries his treasure trove in a bag that dangles on his bicycle and unzips it to reveal a rare collection of calligraphic and Tughra designs.

The impressions of Jafri’s crafty hands are visible on various imambaras and mosques in the city. Prominent among them being the Zainul Abidin Imambara in Thakurganj, Shahnajaf Imambara and Rauza Hazrat Muslim in Raees Manzil. When goaded, Jafri shares having gifted Tughra to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and film stars Farooque Shaikh and Raza Murad among others.

It may take a week to three months to complete a single specimen of calligraphy or Tughra. Given the toil and artist’s skills, one masterpiece could be priced between Rs 2000 and Rs 5000. Though these penmen still have many admirers, the number of buyers has plummeted.

Historian Saiyed Anwar Abbas says there are more than 180 styles in calligraphy. “Lucknow, Delhi and Hyderabad were the three prominent centres of calligraphy in India. This style of writing flourished in the Mughal courts and was used in the farmaans, coins and other documents,” says Abbas. “In Lucknow, there was a tradition of putting up wasli on the walls of drawing rooms. These were like decorative wall hangings wherein calligraphers would inscribe the couplets and sayings of famous poets and writers,” he adds.

“Calligraphy has lost out to economics and technology,” moans Agha Mohammed Hasan, one of the last surviving calligraphers in Lucknow. “Till computers came into vogue, several Urdu dailies and magazines used the services of Kitabis (calligraphers). Penmen like us were also sought after to write on the wedding cards. Since computers are time-saving and can produce calligraphy-like designs at much lower rates, the handwriting business drifted away from us,” he says. But Hasan quickly adds: “Computers are of no match for the lively and stylish words that flow from the qalam of calligraphers.”

Seeing the dwindling fortunes, Hasan brought about an innovation. “From 2001, I started doing calligraphy on stones that are used in houses. This has helped me to preserve the art and also generate some money,” says the veteran Kitabi. Hasan continues to move ‘kilik’ (calligrapher’s pen) with his frail fingers at his shop, Al-Khattat, in Old Lucknow’s Victoriaganj.

The breed of gifted men like Jafri and Hasan has fast disappeared from Avadh. Abbas says there would not be more than three or four Tughra artists left now in the city. Hasan recalls that till early 90s, Lucknow was home to several hundred calligraphers. However, the number must have come down to 10-15 now, he adds.

These penmen have engraved many epitaphs on the tombstones. Ironically, they now have a realization that soon an obituary might be penned for the art that beautified alphabets. They wonder if the letters used in this epitaph would be as beautiful as the ones that came out from their qalam.

Tongas Galloping Into Sunset

Published in The Times of India Lucknow edition dated June 5, 2011

Vijay Chopra | tnn

Lucknow: Shareefjaat stands listlessly under a blazing sun, unmoved by the honking vehicles passing by. In between it raises head and stares with longing eyes at the tourists coming out of the Asafi Imambara, hoping to take them on a jaunt. But the fast-paced visitors, perhaps lacking the patience and temperament for a lazy ride, opt for a faster mode.

This is the sad tale of tongas on the Avadhi soil. Once a majestic mode of transport, tongas today stand in abject poverty. About 50-odd tongas left in Lucknow are fast galloping towards the sunset.

Till a decade ago, more than 500 tongas plied on the roads of Lucknow. But now they exist only at three spots --- zoo, Cantonment and Bada Imambara – and with no facilities of a stand. The last route where tongas plied was Kaiserbagh to Sadar. “The route was shut for tongas in 2003 and that accelerated our economic decline,” says tongawallah Shakeel Ahmed.

“We barely manage to earn Rs 200-300 per day. The expense on the horse is Rs 150. So, you can imagine the meager income we earn,” Shamsher, another tongawallah, said. “Now we are mainly confined to taking tourists on the Imambara circuit which includes Bada and Chhota Imambaras, Picture Gallery, Clock Tower and maximum till Chowk,” said Shakeel, signs of fiscal strains writ large on his face.

In its heyday, however, tonga was a prized mode of travel and tongawallahs were known for their etiquette, refined language and quick wit. While ekka was a smaller and cheaper mode, tonga was more spacious, decorated and a little costlier. A parallel example could be the difference between present day buses and autos. But the advent of cycle-rickshaw in mid 60s blew the bugle of decline.

City-based litterateur KP Saxena recalls that tongas stood out for their decoration. “Two brass-coated rods, called ‘bum’, tied the horse to the cart. The horses were decorated with velvet flowers while seats were made of shining leather. To produce the sound of a horn, tongawallahs would touch the horsewhip to the moving wheels. The horses were trained in two types of speed – ‘dulki’ (slower) and ‘sarpat’ (galloping). Dulki produced a rhythmic sound of “tap tap” while in sarpat it was “jhanak jhanak”, mainly because of the ghungroos tied to horses,” Saxena reminiscences. Though tongawallahs wielded horsewhip, it was never used on the animal. “They only moved the whip in air to stir the horses but never hurt them with it,” says the prolific writer. “Tongawallahs were a major attraction for tourists as they would converse in chaste Urdu and crack witty jokes, he says.

When thespian actor Ashok Kumar visited Lucknow in 1940s, he expressed a desire to go round the city in a tonga. Kumar along with writer Amrit Lal Nagar went past the city and was almost mobbed at various spots,” says Saxena, who has penned dialogues for Bollywood blockbusters Lagaan and Jodha Akbar.

But today, problems galore for horses and their masters. “We no longer have the facility of charai (an artificial small pond where horses drink water. Earlier, there was a charai at every short distance but now there are hardly 2-3 in Hussainabad. If we take horses to charai, then we lose out further on money and if we don’t, then the animal remains thirsty,” Shamsher, a tongawallah, said. “The only tonga stand left was in Daliganj, but a few years back that too was removed to make space for a power station,” rues Shakeel. Tongawallahs say that until they plied on Kaiserbagh-Sadar route, they managed to earn Rs 700-800 per day. “Lucknow has abandoned us; we are surviving only because of tourists. But they too don’t want to go beyond a short distance in a tonga and so fail we fail to earn more money,” said Shakeel. They claim getting no help either from the government or any organization.

Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah, a descendant of Avadh nawabs, terms the decline of tonga culture as “inevitable”. “Tongas are a slow mode of transport that cannot keep pace with modern times. When a distance can be covered in 10 minutes, why would anyone prefer a tonga which would take 30 minutes,” he says.

Tongawallahs may soon have to explore greener pastures, since the revival of this travel mode appears bleak. But even if they slip into the pages of history, the musical gait of tongas would continue to resonate on the streets of Lucknow.


This article was carried in The Crest Edition of The Times Of India, dated June 18, 2011

Avadhis will graciously hear you praise mangoes from other parts of the country but they are firm on one thing — the king of mangoes is the delicately flavoured Malihabadi Dussehri


Lucknow does not have a problem with being called an ‘aam shaher’ (a common city). And why would it? The city of graces is home to what it considers the mango royalty — Dussehri, Chausa, Safeda — even Langda from the neighbouring Varanasi.

So addictive, say Avadhis, are the Dussehris, that they would rather go mango-less than eat any other variety . TV actress Aarti Singh, who works in Mumbai, craves for the Lucknow mangoes. “I miss the Malihabadi Dussehri. Ever since i shifted to Mumbai, I stopped eating mangoes as I don’t find that sweet taste here,” she says.

Vishal Anand, a businessman who travels across the country, has tasted every region’s produce. But nothing, he says, matches the delicate smell and blush of a ripened Dussehri. “I’ve eaten Alphonso, Malda, Himsagar — but they are nowhere near Dussehri in taste,” he says.

Avadh takes mango worship to a different level. For the rest of the country, mango eating maybe a hearty ritual with no time to spare for refinement. But in Avadh enjoying a mango is very much a part of the Nawabi culture.

“Mango eating is about nazakat (delicacy) and nafasat (refinement),” says citybased writer KP Saxena. “In some families, mangoes were served to guests on a tashtari (tray), decorated with roses. It was considered improper to present cut slices of the fruit to the guests.”

How to eat mangoes best is the subject of much polemics among old-time Avadhis. Jafar Mir Abdullah, a descendant of Avadh Nawabs, says that it is a delicate fruit and should be eaten with the zabaan (tongue) and not the teeth. “We used to have mango-eating contests, and to the sheer bewilderment of the audience, some would consume dozens within minutes,” recalls Jafar.

Urdu poets, when they were not bemoaning the infidelity of their lovers, often waxed eloquent about mangoes. Mirza Ghalib was an avid mango lover and would even miss mushairas to remain in the company of the fruits. It is said that once Ghalib was savouring mangoes just outside his home when a donkey came by. The animal smelt the discarded mango peels lying around on the ground and walked away without tasting them. Seeing this, a passerby remarked: “Huzur, donkeys don’t eat mangoes.” The poet immediately quipped: “Yes, only donkeys don’t eat mangoes.” Poet Nida Fazli too sings paeans to the majestic fruit: “Acchi sangat baith kar sangi badle roop, jaise milkar aam se meethi ho gayi dhoop (good company transforms a man just as sunlight sweetens as it glances off a mango).”

Malihabad, about 30 km from Lucknow, is known for producing the best Dussehris in the country. Padma Shri Kalimullah Khan, who is known for having grafted new varieties of mango — some named after celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan — is the town’s most famous resident. “Malihabadi mangoes are high on demand; even foreign countries have become addicted to them and place bulk orders every season,” says Kalimullah.

Among the mangoes grown in the north, loyalties are divided between Dussehri, Langda and Chausa. Saxena prefers Chuswa over Dussehri. “Chuswa is sweeter and one gets great satisfaction in consuming it. We would sit in the orchards of Malihabad in 1960s and end up eating a dozen chuswa mangoes. It is full of pulp and hence cannot be cut into slices. You have to press it softly from all sides and savour it directly,” says the writer who has penned dialogues for Bollywood.

Avadhis are a gracious lot but their pehle aap culture does not quite extend to ceding territory to mangoes from elsewhere.