Notes on Culture & Antique Art, Ethnic Decor & Vintage Fashion | Wovensouls Art Gallery
The Naabob – the completely mispronounced mutilation of the word Navwaab …a word that represents a fine old gentleman, I met in Lucknow in 2005.
Lucknow they say is an eclectic mix of the old awadh culture and the new commercial wave that has gripped India. But having stubbornly cultivated the habit of selective perception, I am unable to see the beauty of the new world. The malls and the glass and concrete building complex do add value but they don’t add beauty or the charm of the old world that I was in search of.
The amazing Imaambadas, the markets, the tundey kabab, the making of ‘varakh’ – silver sheets to garnish sweets, the area reminiscent of lost glory of the tawaaifs or the ‘nautch’ girls – all of these were revealed to me by the local guide. Amidst all of these interesting explorations, the one that stands out is my interation with the Nawab.
We had spent the sultry April afternoon, sitting on the steps of the chota imaambada, a little gem of architecture, that still lives and breathes, with religious caretakers spending their workday chatting with each other and with tourists, looking after the religious artefacts and a few dozen charming colored glass chandeliers that once were lit with flames on wick. I had emptied my mind of all thoughts and had just focused on breathing in the atmosphere of the place, peeping into the lives of these interesting but simple people and weaving tales about the parts that I could not peep into. An hour after we had crossed the discomfort point – that usually occurs in a group of strangers when they have run out of the safe things to say o each other – we left to go see the nawab.
The Nawab had quite likely seen better days financially. But he seemed to be in the golden age of his life in other ways. He was surrounded by his grown up children, all yet to be married off and despatched into their individual nests. I now know the blessing it is to have the company of fledgling adults, who are no longer a burden on energy resources of the parents and on the contrary not only contribute mental energy to sharing the burdens of life, but also bring with them the contagious freshness and enthusiasm in every thing they do. The Nawab, when I met him was in that stage of life. Grey hair combed back with fragrant oil, and thick grey moustache twirled just a bit at the ends – a signature of the barber’s art. With a starched white kurta paayjama, spouting elegant urdu from his paan dyed mouth.
He was a collector / dealer of antique articles – and his guestroom – diwan-khana – had a crowded display of a mixed group of objects. He sat across me, and asked me to indulge in ‘chaay-naush’ words that I had only heard in exotic movies…..a word for ‘tea & snacks’ and a servant was ordered to fetch us tea. This practice is standard in any Indian household but the ceremony and the exotic language with which the straight backed nawab conducted it , made it seem like some royal ceremony in which I was being conferred with some great award!
All the wonderful words and style could not camouflage the dust on the objects – a sign of the scarcity of servants or the general unkemptness that seemed totally out of place in the grand personality’s surroundings.
He showed me the finest Lucknowi embroidery I have ever seen, dating back to 1800 – which for textiles – particularly mulmul is remarkable. That calibre of work is no longer conducted and had I had enough money at that time I would have bought a few pieces…
We got talking and I was introduced to his daughter who was engaged to be married in a few months. He then took me to the living quarters upstairs and introduced me to his wife who lay sprawled out on the day bed. And then he repeated the story that he had probably enjoyed telling several times over:
He and his wife were engaged to be married – before they were born…
His mother and a relative/friend were pregnant at the same time – and so they had a pact. That if one had a boy and the other had a girl , these two children would be married to each other. No other terms and conditions would apply.
And so, when the babies were born their marital destiny was sealed.
My initial reaction at the discrepancy between the high life he embodied and the shabbiness of his current circumstance had faded by now and only the illumination of the glimpse into a past glory remained.
I was invited to witness their niece’s wedding or nikaah the next day, my first experience of the beautiful islamic ceremony. I left the following day but we continued our acquaintance for months after.
The pre-birth arranged marriage arrangement fascinated me. The fact that he had used an urdu term to describe it, fascinated me even more – because it meant that the construct existed even before his story occured! If only I could remember the words he had used, I could ask the google-god, satisfy my curiosity lay the thoughts to rest!
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