Friday, December 14, 2007

Lihaaf ki Baat

Of the many sights announcing the onset of an Indian winter, one that is particularly heartwarming is the annual lihaaf or razaai sunning. It is no easy task maintaining these five kilo warmers.

Prahlad, whose quilt shop in Sadar bazaar is over forty years old says, “It is advisable to have your razaai aired and the cotton beaten every year because germs collect inside cotton very easily. Cotton also has a tendency to clot and the razaai becomes lumpy making it less effective if it isn’t beaten”.

Most lihaafs have a history, wedding presents and ‘first’ razaais are stored by many loyals. “This maroon velvet one is what was given to me for my wedding”, smiles octogenarian Nirmal Kaur running her hand over the once rich maroon quilt. But she is no longer loyal to her sixty year old favourite lihaaf, she has taken to using her bright new Jaipuri razaai over a Chinese blanket this winter. “Well it’s softer and not as heavy as my lihaaf! Though this new arrangement isn’t quite as warm.” Young Rizwana and her mother in law Hamida are in sadar bazaar looking for soft yet sturdy cloth for Rizwana’s year old daughter’s first lihaaf. “I think this one with red flowers will suit your purpose”, says Prahlad as Hamida inspects the cloth carefully.

At his ‘cotton center’, customers usually arrive with bundles of old quilts while others come to order new quilts. “A kilo of cotton costs anywhere between sixty and eighty rupees whereas the fiber is just fifty rupees a kilo. Besides, fiber is washable”, explains Prahlad. A fiber lihaaf sounds appealing to Rizwana but Hamida insists on a good old cotton one. “At least it will last!” she says.

Prahlad had also designed a handmade catalogue of various stitching styles for quilts. “The more ornate, floral or circular sort is Bengali silai while the one with squares is dibbedar silai and then the barfi design is called kishti silai”, he explains. “The most popular is the Bengali silai but few people have the time to choose or pay as much now. They prefer simple and fast products!” laughs Prahlad. His workers live around sadar bazaar and some come to his center to work. “We keep them on a monthly salary and then there are commissions too. They have only three months of work though”, he says.

Outside the cotton center sit Nazneen and Prem who are veterans of this winter tradition, they stuff close to four quilts a day quickly stitching double and single sized cotton and more recently “fiber” quilts. “It is easier to stitch through the fiber quilts, but it’s not the same thing”, says Nazneen as she calls out to the chotu in the tiny paan shop a couple of feet away.

“We used to put pieces of capoor into the shaneel razaais in the olden days. It used to help in keeping the germs out and giving a fresh scent too”, remembers Prem threading her finger sized needle with a thick brown thread. “Some of our old customers still ask us to put ittar and capoor into their lihaafs while we stuff them with cotton”, adds Nazneen who is smoothing out the cotton in the quilt with a short cane stick.

On asking both how long they’ve been making quilts since, both say “Umar beet gayi” and smile. Their own lihaafs are old and precious, “Mine has cotton in it, very very old cotton” says Prem. “Cotton is too expensive today, besides it takes four to five kilos of cotton to make a good lihaaf but you need at least six kilos or more of fiber for a lihaaf”, mutters Nazneen. She learnt the art from her mother and father who used to make quilts at home, her children don’t know how to stitch.

“The lihaafs that used to be made in Maulviganj were famous but their quality went down and now the shopkeepers only sell mattresses etc”, says Prahlad who is helping Baba, his old assistant weigh cotton. “This comes from Ganganagar, Harayana and Punjab and that comes from China”, he says pointing at the fiber. In place of the old wooden contraption which Prahlad calls a “behna” that used to beat cotton for as few as three quilts, sits a metal machine that beats out cotton worth over twenty. And this cotton beating green metal machine is made in India.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

From Narhara

Aslam had visited the primary school he lived next door to in the past ten years only once, to enroll his sons and daughter there. But that was till he became a member of the school management committee in his village, Narhara. “I come to the school for an hour everyday and I also see to it that the children don’t loiter about outside during class hours!” says Aslam, who presses oil for a living. He, Nathulal, Munni Devi and others were selected by the village to be part of this new committee of parents and guardians that intend to provide voluntary assistance to their local primary school.

Bringing the Pradhan, teachers, parents and guardians together was not easy. It involved no less than three to four meetings before a final ‘big meeting’. Anil, who is a twenty five year old post graduate from a village close by has been motivating the locals to participate in school management. “Many villagers were skeptical when I met them first. They used to say we have had enough of these programs and would turn away but we managed to convince them eventually!” he says with a grin.

Supporting Anil in his endeavours have been an equally young post graduate Anuj and veteran development worker Dinesh of Sarvodaya Asharam. For the past three months, they have been camping in a school in Sitapur, directing nine other motivators like Anil to form school management committees in villages around the area. “We are implementing a project that aims to involve local villagers in managing primary schools,” explains Anuj who with his team has worked on every Sunday and festival in the past few months. “We have only till December to see the results!” adds Dinesh.

The results are encouraging, not only are the children benefiting from the extra attention being paid but the committee members too, have found new confidence and awareness because of their new responsibilities.

Munnidevi is a widow with two children who study in the primary school. She has never participated in anything ‘important’ earlier and is one of the three female members in the group of seven. “I come and clean the classes every other day”, she quips. Mrs. Verma, the young primary school teacher looks after five different classes with approximately fifty children each and is assisted the school Shiksha Mitr. “It is a big help now that the parents are coming to school and volunteering to help in cleaning the classes or to cook the midday meal. Earlier, my voice used to go hoarse screaming at children and supervising the cooking!” she says.

Nathulal, the president of the committee talks about their progress, “We have had four meetings till now and have collected five hundred and ninety rupees from villagers as well. We have also requested the pradhan to build a toilet for the school as well”. Local contributions range from rupees ten to rupees fifty, two pink chart hang from the primary school walls, one states the aims of the committee and the other is a list of donors. Anuj points at the area in front of the school, “These furrows in the earth have been made by the members of the committee so that the children stand in straight lines during PT and their morning assembly. These are small innovations made by the locals”, he smiles.

The school management committees elsewhere have been actively involved in maintaining the school property by peeling weeds and wild grass, cleaning school toilets and repairing doors. “It has been observed that teachers are suddenly becoming more active because of the parents involvement and school visits. But it is explained, during the training period to the committee members that they are not to fight or argue, all disputes are to be settled amicably”, says Dinesh. The members understand this and ask the head master or mistress of each school in what way they can be of assistance before they begin work.

Before one leaves the little primary school at Narhara, Aslam, Nathulal and Munnidevi walk across to the small patch of land behind the school and Nathulal says, “We intend to clean this area and cultivate green vegetables here so that the children can eat an extra sabzi with their midday meal. They are all our children after all”.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Buddh Bazaar

It is not unusual to find yourself helplessly stranded in the middle of Mahanagar on a Wednesday afternoon or evening. You will either be wondering aloud why you forgot it’s Buddh Bazaar today or you will be sitting on your haunches haggling with the chinhat tea-cup and saucer selling man who looks suitably surprised when you show him the chip on his twelve rupees a dozen china cups which are glazed a caramel brown.

“We don’t come every week,” says an indignant young Samiyah from Indranagar but her mother Arshia is a Buddh Bazaar veteran. “You have to know how to deal with these shopkeepers, they are very clever. The minute you like something they multiply the price by five!” says the mother, trudging off to buy Samiyah a denim jacket.

The long stretch of the bazaar seems to get longer by the week. Traffic is closed on one of the roads where potters and bangle sellers vie for space. It is on one of these roads Bihari the tea seller shares quick words with his customers, a lump of tobacco strategically tucked in a corner of his mouth. “I only sell to the shopkeepers!” announces the most popular young man at the bazaar. He flits about in all four directions with his brass tea carrier and basket of kulads, stopping only to offer a free kulad to an occasional Hawaldar sahib.

While the sweater, jacket, purse and shoe sellers have their shops at the best spots, the cloth bag and plastic flower sellers are pushed onto the dividers. Arjun and his wife Mamta have been selling bright plastic flowers from the divider for over seven years, “Yeh toh 12 maah ka product hai,” quips Arjun who sports a trendy Lee cap he bought at the bazaar while Mamta busies herself arranging the fluorescent, orange, red, pink and yellow bouquets. “We used to sell Delhi-flowers first, now we sell China-flowers. See the China flowers have more petals and the combinations are brighter”, beams Arjun who makes an average of seven hundred rupees on a good Buddh market day.

But one gets used to hearing about Chinese products here. Next to Arjun and Mamta is the omniscient toy seller, he has a new toy this week. A hairy brown mouse with wheels and a chaabi. “This is from Cheen, the mice I used to sell earlier were plastic ones for ten rupees each. This one is for seven rupees and it has hair”, he squeaks with delight. An on looking father immediately buys two.

Mohammad Idries has been selling sweaters at this bazaar for over twenty five years. “This bazaar was nothing! There were only four other shops including Sharma babu’s and Khan’s. Even the quality wasn’t so fancy, now women and men want shiny clothes for daily wear too”, he yawns. Looking out of his makeshift shop he calls for Bihari, before he continues “I now get my sweaters from Ludhiana too.” On asking if anyone from the Buddh Bazaar has managed to set up a permanent shop he shakes his gray head and frowns, “Not enough profits!”

By the roadside you will find the occasional enterprising young man who will be hawking glucose bottles filled with seven colourful blue fry and one water weed for the flexible price of fifteen to thirty rupees for the same bottle. Or maybe you will meet the old woman who’s spectacles are tied behind her head in order to reduce the chances of them falling down while she polishes shoes she can barely see. Sitting by her father might be a little girl like Rampyari who is chiseling a sil-bhatta busily, her chin tucked between her knees as she sits on her haunches. Her father sells new green marble chaklas for making rotis, “One fifty rupees madam, new piece” he says in English.

And on another divider stands young Arvind Singh. He is selling bags which are hanging from the telephone pole and a quarter of the length of the divider’s entire fence. “I am a potter! I sell bags only during this season”, he says quickly and without provocation. “I also sell my products in Barabanki” he adds before telling one what he does for the rest of the week. “Well, on Wednesdays we are here in Mahanagar, Thursdays Aminabad, Fridays Barananki, Saturdays Sadar, Sundays Nakkhas and Mondays there is no bazaar while on Tuesdays we are in Alambagh!” He then resumes his calls for customers, his “Tees rupyaih ka ek” merging with the clamor of “Dus ke chaar”, “ Woolen bhi, garam bhi”, “Samosa, pakora, chai…”, “Ice cream” and others.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Aur aap sun rahein hai Radio Sheetal!

10:00 a.m., another bright morning at the Sahbaghi Shiksha Kendra on Sitapur Road. It is the first day of a five day workshop to train radio jockeys. They will be learning the basics of mass communication, audience research, scriptwriting, voice modulation and how to make a program that makes their audience go “waah-waah” as their guru Manish of Dynamic Tarang puts it. In the next five days, they will be recording fifteen minute broadcasts in a makeshift studio at the Kendra where mattresses are used to cover the doors for soundproofing and magazines are kept under microphone bases to reduce static.

A little nervous, all forty students wait for the class to begin. They come from three districts, Rae Bareli, Barabanki and Hardoi. Most have never seen microphones in their lives, others have never been away from home. They come from villages that don’t have schools or basic medical facilities. Some are veteran development project facilitators and field workers and each has a story to tell.

Like twenty four year old Apala Mishra from Rae Bareli who financed her education by tutoring little girls since she was in eighth grade. “My father couldn’t afford to send me to high school or college, he’s a poor farmer and we have little land. I give tuition to around twenty young girls so I can pay for my expenses”, she says. The workshop to her is an opportunity to showcase her singing and make some money as a community radio jockey. Fifty year old Rudrapal Gupta ‘Saras’ introduces himself as a poet. He is also a teacher at a primary school in Hardoi and he’s managed to have two of his anthologies published at the local press. “I never quote anyone but myself!” he claims.

“My name is Ankit Srivastav, I am from district Barabanki!” sings a tall young man, Anthony style. He has been nicknamed Big B by his new friends. “I can mimic any actor, villain and comedian, but Amitabh Bachan is my favourite!” he quips during their tea break. Sanjay Sharma sings at weddings for a living, he has a couplet for every occasion but he can’t help but express disappointment when asked about his village, “Nobody encourages talents such as singing where I come from. At least in the big city each child is encouraged even by his neighbor!”

The workshop has been oraganized by PATH, Population Services International (PSI) and the Dynamic Tarang team. All forty students will be trained to become community radio jockeys or CRJs to help spread awareness about the essentials of the PATH funded “Sure start project” which intends to promote the basic elements of newborn and maternal healthcare. Ajay Patel of PSI says, “They will become resource persons for information in villages while building their own careers and becoming good ambassadors for development”.

Ram Leela actors, anganwadi workers, girl scouts, wedding singers, teacher, graduate students, nukkad directors and writers, they introduce themselves with eloquent fervour which leaves the organizers stumped. “If this is how you are before the training, I don’t know what we’ll be seeing after the next five days!” says an excited Shilpa Nair, from PATH.

Promptly divided into groups of ten, the CRJs are escorted to nearby villages Sarni and Nandgaon to practice audience research. At Nandgaon, housewife Saraswati from Rae Bareli talks to an anganwadi worker with new confidence, her notepad and pen in hand “Do women in the village listen to the radio much? What time do they listen to the radio? What is the biggest problem your village faces?” The worker answers all her questions which she diligently notes and proceeds to some houses to meet the village women. Others follow suit and fan through the village, talking to surprised villagers about their tastes in music, movies and their knowledge of good health and family practices.

Over the next five days, Manish and his team guide them through a crash course in the basics of scriptwriting and make them practice impromptu talk shows and interviews. “What we are trying to do here is to light their latent creative energies,” says Manish who manages to involve all forty in the various exercises he sets for them.

On the last day of the workshop they analyze the voice and content quality of each of the four programs recorded. They are given assignments and scripts to write for when they go back to their villages. “The group will meet again in December to record programs which will be aired January onwards”, explains Manish who while parting with the group encourages them to be as creative as they like.

While leaving for their villages, the poet ‘Saras’, Apala, Saraswati, Sanjay, Ankit and the others feel responsible, confident and enthusiastic. They have forged new friendships and learnt new skills. The organizers hope they will ignite their fellow villagers with the same fervor of newfound awareness. ‘This’, pointing at a microphone Manish smiles, ‘is power’.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Dr. Madhukar Kapoor

The register says 59 patients came today. The last was Rakesh Kumar who didn’t know what to do first, touch Doctor Sahib’s feet or show him his pulse. It’s Dr. Madhukar Kapoor’s last Saturday at the cardiology department in Balrampur Hospital. He’s smiling when tells Rakesh “I’m not going forever!” and turns around to tell the others who are watching him from the door, “There’s only one date you can be sure of as a government servant, the date of your retirement. You don’t know when you will be promoted or transferred, but you know from the date which you join, when you will retire.”

He tells Rakesh to continue his prescribed dosage for another week and to smile. Kumar can’t help but wipe a tear, everyone’s hearts are heavy here today and Jagdish, Dr. Kapoor’s peon is having a hard time trying to keep everyone out. Before he shuts the door as the doctor finally leaves his office, Jagdish surveys the empty chamber, “It’s very hard to see old doctors retire, especially ones as popular as Doctor Sahib.” His popularity is evident, a crowd of comprising close to a hundred people has gathered right outside the cardiology department. “This is the first time a government doctor has been given a farewell by his patients,” says Salim, an old patient of the doctor’s.

As one steps out of the department, an air of melancholy touches one. Octogenarians Badri Prasad Shukla and Yashoda Devi are sitting opposite the little stage that has been built for Dr. Kapoor’s farewell. Yashoda Devi has come from Pratapgarh with her son Captain Pramod to wish her doctor farewell, as the feeble old lady climbs the stage to garland Dr. Kapoor she breaks into tears and blesses him with all her heart. Badri Prasad ji says, “I have been his patient for twenty five years and he has saved my life” before he completes his sentence another patient Uma Shanker pitches in, “He has saved my life twice!” and then he points to a lady sitting in another corner, “that’s my wife Urmila Devi and that’s my son Manoj, they too had heart attacks and doctor sahib saved them!”

Manoj is sitting at Dr. Kapoor’s feet and the doctor is visibly moved and embarrassed by all the attention, he talks quietly to each patient as he hugs them.Uma Shanker continues loudly, in a husky voice “I went to doctor sahib in Barabanki, when he was posted there, I still have the prescription he wrote me!” and this was no less than four years ago. But he lightens up when he remembers, “When I used to get medicines from the counter, the compounders used to tease us because all three of us, my wife, my son and I had suffered heart attacks!” Numerous supporters and well wishers crowd around the doctor bidding him adieu, while others petition to the government to give him a two year extension.

Ashish, Dr. Kapoor’s son is overwhelmed with the affection of the people, he stands between the patients watching his father who’s eyes are now red from far. “My retirement does not mean I’m retiring from you, this is my karam bhoomi, I will come three days a week for two hours to give free consultations, this is my promise.” The crowd cheers him and he continues, “ I am only leaving the hospital, not my patients hearts”. Saying this, he shakes hands with the doctors who have gathered to invite him to Vigyan Bhavan, for his official farewell.

Even as he walks away from the cardiology department, his patients follow him. Ajrunisha watches him walk past as her sister Zeenat remembers vividly the day she was brought here. “Ajrunisha was dying, we took her to the emergency ward and they sent us here. Doctor sahib admitted her immediately and saved my sister’s life”. Zeenat too was treated by the doctor, both sisters who are observing their rozaas felt that it was “important to be here today, for our doctor”. Ajrunisha breaks down and says, “Doctor sahib dil se dekhte the mareezon ko… mohabbat se,” and showers blessings upon him with a heavy heart.

But it is the young intern Dr. Shahnawaz who claims that, “My master is Dr. MK Kapoor, I have learnt everything from him… everything I am is because of him”. He remembers how the doctor taught him to “follow his heart” while making tough decisions. “There was a patient in front me, he was dying and I had just passed out of my MBBS and joined here, I turned to Doctor Sahib but he just stood next to me and said do whatever you think is right, don’t worry I’m here,” reminisces the young man. He adds “The patient survived and I learnt one of the most important lessons in medicine and life from Dr. Kapoor that day, to trust myself and my instinct no matter what is happening around me.” He quickly catches up with the doctor and the patients watch as their doctor waves out to them one last time, reminding them to be strong in their hearts.

In the Express--

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Surfin' Shravasti

The drive from Lucknow to Shravasti is scattered with peaceful sights for the weary traveler. This town, located near the Rapti river in northeastern Uttar Pradesh is of religious significance not only to Buddhists but to Jains as well. The Buddha is said to have spent 24 monsoons in Shravasti while the 'Sobhanath' temple is believed to be the birthplace of Jain Tirthankar 'Sambhavanath'.

Being 150 km from Lucknow, Shravasti has a steady stream of pilgrims through the year. The Lotus Nikko Hotel is a ten minute walk from “Sahet Mahet”. This twin name is applied to two distinct groups of remains, Sahet and Mahet. Raj Pratap, who has been serving as a guard and often guide at the site since for over ten years elaborates, “Sahet is the site of the famous Buddhist monastery known as Jetavana Vihar, which lay outside the limits of the Shravasti city. While Mahet situated at about 500 m from here and it denotes the actual ancient city .” The ruins at Sahet consist mainly of plinths and foundations of monasteries and stupas, all Buddhist.

Buddhists pilgrims from Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Korea and other South East Asian countries visit the age-old stupas, majestic monasteries and several temples near the village of Sahet-Mahet. Nemo Wong and his wife Kieko and their friends are about to end their pilgrimage, “ The tour takes us to all the places of significance to our religion around India, we will end our pilgrimage at Kushinagar” they beam.

The heavy scent of incense comes from under the Anandabodhi tree. “It said to be an offspring of the original Bodhi tree and was planted here by Buddha’s disciple Anand,” explains Raj Pratap. It is awe inspiring to stand in the shade of this sacred tree that has been an eternal witness to the vicissitudes of history. The numerous flags around the tree have been hung by “international pilgrims” he says. “The two main attractions here are the Pakki Kuti and the Kachchi Kuti and it is in Sahet, that Anathpindak, a wealthy merchant, constructed the Jetavana Vihar,” continues the guide who shoos away a platoon of monkeys vying for tidbits thrown by the pilgrims

At Shravasti, the huge “World Peace Bell” or what is commonly known as the “Shanti Ghanti” is another attraction. This bell was donated by the Japanese. The motive was to convey the message of humanity of the Buddha through the bell's toll. The local villagers however visit it every Tuesday and Thursday and consider it no less than a temple. A five foot long log, clasped with iron chains is used to ring this bell!

Apart from the Thai, Sri Lankan, Burmese, Chinese and Korean Buddhist Temples, Aunglimal’s cave is worth a visit for a three sixty degree view of Shravasti! Today a great rampart of earth and brick surrounds this city which has a rich historical and spiritual significance. During excavations in Sahet-Mahet, many ancient idols and inscriptions have been found. They are now kept in museums at Mathura and Lucknow.

It is common to find yourself being blessed by smiling monks clad in orange and maroon, they’re from all over the world.. Thai, Sri Lankan, Korean, Japanese and Indian. Shravasti is a melting pot for Buddhists from all over the world a weekend visit can be most refreshing and often, enlightening.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Short Putt!

Everyday between 5:30 and 8:00 p.m., standing behind the counter at the kiwi sport’s wear store on Gokhlae marg will be Ashok Bambi, chatting up one of his satisfied customers. You will find him there, laughing his hearty laugh as he bustles about finding his customer a golf club, tees, balls and anything that might have caught the golfer’s fancy. “He sells golf clubs at one third their price, it’s tough to find that kind of bargain anywhere”, muses Eshanvir who is looking for the perfect putter, a surprise birthday gift for his father. Bambi pulls out five putters and lists the merits of each, adding information about the previous owner.

The store sells second hand golf equipment which is imported from the US. “Americans generally play golf twice a week and for six months a year because of the climate. Their clubs are in really good condition and it’s easy to sell them at one third their original price”, says Ashok. He is quick to add that his cousin, Raja who is a single handicap golfer and in the US was the driving force behind his interest and this enterprise, afterall Bambi wasn’t always a golfer.

“I was the captain the state cricket team in 1982,” he states matter of factly. The first cricketer from UP to score a century in the Ranjii Trophy, he has also played a season of cricket for Middlesex, England and is one of the few coaches in UP to have a second level certificate in coaching from the BCCI. “I was trained in Bangalore by the legendary Frank Tyson”, says this middle order batsman who used to play two or three down. He laughs while calling himself a “ Good club level bowler” and continues about his favourite game, cricket.

“I grew up in Narhai and enjoyed the privilege of playing cricket with fourteen to eighteen year olds whilst I was eight! In college I was spotted by some senior players and within two months was selected for the Lucknow 11,” reminisces this accomplished cricketer. He claims that it used to be tougher to get into the UP cricket team than it was to get into the IAS or IPS. “It was rigorous, I remember the trials!” he laughs. Bambi has coached the UP Ranjii team for four years and been on the selection board for seven years. “There is so much talent in UP and it is finally being tapped, earlier, the national team had boys from Delhi, Bombay, Chennai and other big towns. But today Kaif, Raina and others have done us proud”, he adds on a serious note. Eagerly citing an article he read in the papers a few days ago he says “The person to watch out for is Praveen Kumar, he’s going to beat them all to it!”

It was Ashok Bambi who introduced the cricket helmet and Aussie cloth to India. “I worked on making helmets for over eight months! And after selling them for a while got bored and decided to continue with the family business of garments” he laughs when he remembers how t-shirts weren’t used in cricket till 1979. “We played in full sleeves terracotta or cotton shirts and pants! I felt the need to introduce something lighter and more casual, then we started manufacturing Aussie cloth t-shirts” he says.

A good friend of Suneil Gavaskar’s, Ashok has named his elder son after him and his younger one after Suneil’s son “Rohan”. “Both my sons play cricket too, not professionally though”, he laughs when he says that none of them took to golf. “There are around 250 golfers in Lucknow, I noticed the trend and set up this shop two years back,” says Ashok who took to golf in 1999. He believes that in the next ten years golf will be an extremely popular sport in India. Today, Kiwi sports is increasing it’s customer base across North India, all it took was an observation, some good advice and a passion for sports.

While Eshanvir settles for a “No compromise” putter and leaves the store beaming at his “steal”, Bambi promises not to breathe a word about the buy to the young customer’s father and smiling to himself he welcomes his next customer.

Friday, August 10, 2007

This Independence Day

It is a rainy day in Barabanki, but everyone seems busier than usual at the Gandhi Gram Udyog which sits nestled in a grove of neem and banana trees. A stream of a familiar green colour is flowing in the drain that runs outside the various departments in the Udyog. Following the trail, one reaches a dark room, heavy with the acrid smell of dye. Two men, Brajesh and Sunderlal are busy at their table dyeing yards of khaadi with the familiar green colour. “We make over five thousand national flags a year,” says Sunderlal matter of factly, while wiping the sweat off his brow with his angocha, gingerly avoiding the dye on his hands from leaving a stain on his face. The rest of his and Brajesh’s bodies are a riot of colours from the dyeing process. They, alongwith over two hundred others have worked at the Udyog in Barabanki since 1980.

Peeping into the dark room is Dudhnath, “He is our chief designer” Chaggu ji, a head of one of the many departments at the Udyog and one’s guide says. Dressed in a plain khaadi kurta and
pajama, the diminutive and shy Dudhnath shows us his designs. “I was trained in Bombay”, he smiles. The intricately designed traditional motifs are spaced out on tracing paper. Spreading his charts out on a glass table with two tube lights under it he looks at Chaggu ji for approval. “It is his duty to see that the proportions of the charkha in the center of the flag are perfect”, says the friendly Chaggu. Folding his hands before a picture of Goddess Saraswati, Dudhnath gets back to work, reminding the supervisor that one of the tubelights is fused.

Back in the dark dyeing room, Sunderlal and Brajesh continue explaining their role in the making of the Tiranga. “We press the white cloth in this wooden frame and let the ink soak in, one has to be extremely careful”says Brajesh, demonstrating on a piece of white khaadi. Sunderlal who continues dyeing the khaadi adds, “The flags cannot have a defect, it’s easier to dye and print motifs on bedcovers and saris”! Brajesh nods his head, he says that nothing can pass the watchful eye of Mataprasad Sharma ji, who checks all the flags.

Mataprasad ji is busy overseeing the washing and drying of khaadi in the next department. Extremely proud of his “big machines”, which “fall sick every two years” he points out at a large roller being manually turned by two other men, “We use a binder for making the cotton stronger and after dipping it in the binder we roll it into thaans”.

Mataprasad ji is one of the most enthusiastic workers at the Udyog, he lives with his family on the campus and insists that nobody celebrates Independence Day the way the workers here do. “We have three special days every year, one is Independence Day, the other Gandhi Jayanti and the last Republic Day. This year we will march five kilometers with the national flag and sing vande mataram! Then we will collect under the national flag and mantri ji will deliver a speech, after which everyone will get mithai” his face lights up while relating the details of their plan. A day in the life of these workers begins as early as 5:00 a.m., after an hour of mandatory shramdaan, in which they weed the gardens or clean the departments they proceed for the 9:00 a.m. assembly. “After singing vande matram together, we sit at our charkhas for an hour”, smiles Chaggu guiding one to the next department.

“This here is an important department! And that is Ramkripal, he has been working here for seven years” Chaggu points at a harried young man with spots of green paint all over him. “I mix the colours here,” Ramkripal says while picking up blue cans of dry paint powder. “First, I put the powder in this can and then slowly add kerosene, the fixer, glycerin and finally urea. Then I switch on the highpowered machine!” he says in an officious tone, everyone else in the room looks at him with respect as he demonstrates the entire procedure, concentrating on the compositions “The most important thing is, you must add the kerosene slowly, otherwise everything will go wrong!” two young students from a nearby high school observe him carefully as he turns his “highpowered machine” in the can, churning out a consistent paste of white colour.

Guiding one back to the center head office, Chaggu ji continues “We start making the national flags two months in advance before Independence Day and Republic Day. The stitching is done by local women, khaadi is made in the surrounding villages and everything else is done here”, he concludes with a smile.

When one asks Mataprasad ji who is walking alongside us, which teaching of the Mahatama’s he finds most significant personally and especially on the eve of Independence Day, he says “I like Gandhi ji’s charkha. While I work on it for an hour every morning, it teaches me two things one is to control my anger and frustration whenever the yarn breaks and the second to never give up, because each time the thread breaks you have to attach it and start spinning all over again.” He believes that these are the two qualities that helped Mahatma Gandhi win us independence.

But to Ramkripal Independence Day isn’t just another day, “All these colours I make go into making our flag every year. I feel the spirit of freedom while mixing the colours here for the flag that waves in Lucknow.” Mataprasad ji, Ramkripal, Suderlal and Brajesh may have never seen the Vidhan Sabha but it is from their labour that the Tiranga we salute flutters…in freedom.

Friday, August 03, 2007


In the Newsline--

On walking up the stairs to Kalbe Abed Plaza, Chowk and asking a bystander where one might find Hashim Akhtar Naqvi, the bystander’s face immediately lights up. “Hashim bhai!” he beams and without much ado guides you to Iqbal Manzil. “Is this the house of the famous calligrapher, Hashim Akhtar Naqvi?” one asks, nodding his head the guide confirms the obvious and takes you into a courtyard with pomegranate trees and henna bushes.

Just back from office, Mr. Naqi smiles as his wife Shehna points at a large creeper painted on the purple wall, “He painted that creeper and he shaded that wall too”. The large leaves of the creeper look life like while the tri-shaded wall, which is in lemon, green and yellow lights up their dining room. “It needs a touch up”, says Hashim modestly.

This architect, who studied architecture at the government college of arts and crafts Lucknow is listed in the Limca Book of Records for writing a single verse from The Koran “Bismillah-ir-Rehman-ir-Rahim”over five thousand times in different designs. “No two designs have been repeated,” he says with a sparkle in his eye, “Many people ask me how I remember whether I’ve made a design before or not. I have no answer to that question, when I sit down to write it is a form of prayer to me”.

Hashim Akhtar Naqvi was inspired by the calligraphy of his father, the Late Hasan Akhtar, who died when Hashim was barely two years old. In school, Hashim was fond of writing names in English and Hindi in different styles, “I started writing in Urdu much later” he laughs, remembering how his friends would coax him to write their ‘notes of love’ because his of his beautiful handwriting.

A painting of his most innovative design, a house designed in such a way that each letter of the Bismillah inscription forms a part of it, is mounted on one of his walls. There is another painting of a tree with 170 leaves, each of which is different from the other reads as Bismillah. “I was reading The Koran one day and thought of writing the verse 786 times, since the Arabic equivalent of Bismillah is 786”, he adds.

His first exhibition was in 1986 and he has had three since, “It is difficult to find sponsors for my work but it is Shamsi & Sons who have always encouraged me to continue with my passion for calligraphy” he says. In 1989 Hashim was awarded the first prize for “Innovative Calligraphy” at the All India competition of calligraphy organized by the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Arts in Srinagar. He has received no official recognition from the state or the Urdu Academies at Lucknow so far. Hashim believes that such an art has no future in the era of graphic design. But with glee he adds, “I have been invited to Iran to exhibit my works this year!”

But Shehna quickly quips“Very few people in our own neighborhood know he is a calligrapher”. Shehna is an extremely creative lady herself, “She is known to make dolls from vegetables” laughs her husband. Their daughters, Mansha, Kisa and Eema enjoy art as a hobby while Naqi’s mother’s hand made dolls are on exhibit at a museum in Delhi.

Hashim is also credited for making efforts to ‘Indianise’ Bismillah’s inscription, “I have written Bishmillah in every regional language and some foreign scripts such as Chinese and Hebrew as well” he muses. While out of the 113 Bismillah inscriptions used by the Dar-ul-Quran publishers, Bombay for their “Al Quran” 52 designs used are Naqi’s.

As he gathers his designs and puts them back into their shelf, he softly says that the verse means “In the name of God the merciful and compassionate” and so is his art.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Raj Kumar Mahmudabad

If you happen to be at the city station wazirganj, the dry little lane that snakes right will lead you to the gates of the grand Iqbal Manzil. A palace built in 1928 by Sir Mohammad Ali Mohammad Khan, the first Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University. As you drive into the Mahal, the chatter of young children surprises you, as do the peeping smiling faces from the old windows of what appear to be classrooms. “The ground floor of the Mahal is used for a school run by the Raj Kumar Mahmudabad”, explains his personal assistant, ushering one into the director’s cabin.

A warm smile lighting up his face, Raj Kumar Amir Naqi Khan the grandson of Sir Mohd. Ali Mohd. Khan welcomes you to his home. With quick and agile steps, he ascends the staircase to his chambers. While walking across the wide, open-air second floor which seems to be a courtyard of sorts, he mentions, “This was a tennis court for the ladies.” Motioning left and right with a swerve of his arm he adds with a chuckle, “This area around the court used to be covered with purdahs so the ball wouldn’t fall to the other side”. He pauses before a little platform, “and that was for the band”.

Following the kind faced and charming Raj Kumar Mahmudabad through a hall lined with black and white pictures that capture some of the most important moments in Indian history, we enter his living room. An air of antiquity shrouds his chambers as we settle down before a fireplace which he says is still “in working condition”. The sweltering heat outside seems a distant memory within the cool environs of these walls.

The Prince is a celebrated connoisseur on Mughal cuisine, “We organized our first Mughal food festival back in 1992 and have had twelve such festivals since” he says. He credits his elegant wife Kunwarrani Kulsum Begum, a culinary consultant at the Maurya Sheraton hotel Delhi with the idea, “She belongs to the Hyderabad family and we often argue and defend our own cuisines as the best!” he laughs.

The kitchen of Iqbal Palace, the bawarchikhana, was known for its unique “riddle” dinners. “My father, Mahraj Kumar Mohd. Mahmoud Hasan Khan was particularly fond of puzzling our guests with these dinners. What appeared to be an egg would generally be a mithai made of saffron and khoya”, he remembers with a twinkle in his eye. This tradition continues and with new innovations such as the heavenly “Hari-manbhari” green kheer, which the Raj Kumar describes as “Something that delights even Hari or God”. This rich concoction of pistachios, khoya and other secret ingredients is one of his newest recipes. “Our cook was recently awarded at a ceremony at the Gomti Hotel”, he adds. Carrying on with a vivid description of Lab-e-maashook, or “lips of the beloved”, an old creation from the kitchens of the palace the Raj Kumar almost leaves one with the taste of this kheer. It consists of bits of almond, khoya and beetroot for the lip-red colour. “Originally, rubies were used as they soothed the nerves”, he smiles.

A typical day in the life of an erstwhile Nawab would begin with a breakfast at the palace with his begum. Breakfast consisted of a menu as diverse as puris, parathas, kliageena and tarkari better known as bhujia and sabzi. Lunch and dinner were far more elaborate with Qurma, chicken, fish, kababs, pulao, tarkari and tarkari salan or vegetable curry, roti, sheermal, pickle and muraba being the necessary basics along with desserts. At around 5:00 p.m., sharbats would be served. “For daawats, a variety of qurmas, kababs, pulaos and the rest were prepared”, explains the Prince. At any given time, the palace usually had fifteen to twenty guests that dined with the Nawab. Kababs such as the shaami, gola, pateeli, koftai-mulla-ajami, ghutvan, nargissi and zamin-dost kabab which was cooked inside the earth amongst many others were cooked. Most of these kababs simply melted in the mouth. “There were special chickens, fed on saffron, chameli, pineapple and other foods just to add aroma to their flesh when cooked”!

A bawarchikhana generally had fifteen different bawarchis, each one entrusted with different duty and skill, a particular bawarchi would make kababs, another dissect the meat, a third make sharbats and so on.“A hakeem was in charge of the kitchens, everything including the tobacco for the Nawab’s hookah was prepared under his guidance.” The hakeem would prepare the next day’s menu and send the list to the Begum for corrections.

The Raj Kumar remembers the aroma of his father’s hookah which wafted through these very rooms years ago. “Seasonal fruits such a pomegranate, were mashed into the tobacco for the aroma and the smoke passed through a brew of milk and keora, not water. This sucked away the nicotine… it was heavenly” he trails off.

We walk to a musty chamber, the door of which he throws open and beams, “We are renovating this area for heritage tourism. We intend to invite exclusive guests every winter to enjoy with us authentic Mughal food”. As we walk down the stairs to the classrooms, he reminisces how he grew up playing in these rooms. The fishbone design on the pillars and the tiny chandeliers hang from the roof like they did seventy nine years ago.

The story in the Newsline---

Friday, June 08, 2007

Savitri Devi..of the slums

At 12:00 p.m. everyday, if you happen to turn left from the Rahimnagar Chauraha, it is hard to miss the group of little children running towards a particular shanty. “Namaste Madam ji!” each one says as you descend the slope into the slum these sixty families call home. It is time for school at this “basti”, where no mother comes to drop off her little one, none of the students have school bags and often not even pencils and notebooks. But what they do have is an urge to sit in class.

Outside the school stands Savitri Devi and her daughters sixteen year old Mona and the fifteen year old Komal. Smiling and folding their hands in a namaste they invite visitors to participate in their classes. “We have thirty children present today,” says Savitri as her daughters begin class with a small prayer. The class is decorated with strings of tiny colourful flags. The cane chappar-walls have small paintings of the Mickey Mouse series character Goofy, posters with A,B,C and a crayon drawing of the Indian flag. While in a small cage lying in a corner of the room is a white rabbit called Chun-Mun. Pointing at a rusty old board hanging outside the door, Savitri says “Because of this board we have had visitors to our basti, people see the school and come to meet us”.

Savitri, though informally educated she has pledged to educate all the women and children in her basti. “I want my daughters to be able to put their problems and their issues forward, they should have the confidence to talk to anyone,” says this forty year old mother whose sons work for a caterer. Her daughters Komal and Mona are avid sports girls, “I used to watch Mona play hockey at Karamad girls and my elder sister Soni was a very good kabbadi player, no one could beat her!”, gushes Komal. Soni is now married with two children but Komal and Mona have taken it upon themselves to use hockey as a stepping stone towards a better life. “Look at Sania Mirza!” pitches in Mona who reads news from a second hand newspaper that her mother occasionally gets from the principal of a school opposite the basti. “I have always taught my children that knowledge never decreases by sharing, but I wish adults would understand that too”, says Savitri who has faced opposition from many of the residents at the basti regarding the school. “They threatened to break the roof and I challenged them to just try,” she remembers.

It is not uncommon to see some women attending these classes as well, Alisha Begum is having her name added to the list as she settles down to study. “When I wanted to have my eyes checked and get these spectacles, I had to take Savitri with me to the doctor. I felt shy because I couldn’t read the alphabets on the chart. Tomorrow I can get lost in the city because I can’t read directions and I don’t like to ask people to read for me!” she says as the women sitting around her concur. Savitri, who’s husband died due to a respiratory problem during last year’s monsoon remembers how each family spent three days without food sitting on the roofs of their shanties covering themselves with plastic sheets to protect themselves against the rain. “The day after my husband died, I had to distribute rations donated by an organization to everyone in this basti. It took all the strength I had in me, but I did it”, Savitri says.

Komal and Mona dream of being selected in their school hockey team, something they have strived for over three years “If I make it this time, I will get a six hundred rupee scholarship and then I can try out for the state team”, beams Komal. Mona is looking forward to wearing her very own hockey team kit and playing for her country is her only dream. Their mother wants them to learn “computer”, because it’s the call of the day. She seeks advice on her daughters futures and their “service” prospects from “kind visitors”.

Sitting at her little shop next to the school, where she has stocked two rupee notebooks and 50 paise pencils which her son bought from Aminabad, Savitri calls Mamta, an eight year old girl washing her hands after cooking food to attend school. The girl joins the class and Savitri looks around for other children that might be bunking class, “If they study and learn something, no one can take advantage of them,” she says before settling down to eat her only meal during the day.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


Predictably, the railway crossing is shut and the perfect drive from the city to the village suddenly seems like any drive through the city after all. Except of course, for the ultra pink pipe shaped papads hanging perilously from the roof of a tumbledown paan shop, a bullock cart parked next to you, a bunch of punctual milkmen somehow managing to slide under the poles and the dying engine of a vikram. The papads do look less delectable than the butter bhuttas with extra lemon but the express train chugs past before one can make eye contact with the little boy running about selling snacks.

It’s a smooth drive all the way to Phulwari, you may even spot the occasional herd of blue bulls feasting in the fields that line the Sultanpur road. You will also cross two bazaars and the ‘Gajaria’ farm before reaching village Khurdai and asking the most seemingly intelligent onlooker where the “Phoolon wala farm” is. All fingers point straight down the road. The drive to destination “Phulwari” is especially exciting for anyone who loves their plants. This nursery nestled in the outskirts of Lucknow, is a haven for those who enjoy variety and quality in their flora.

As you drive into the gates of the nursery, which is also called ‘Mansarovar’, rows of poplar and eucalyptus trees welcome you .The greenhouse to your left looks inviting with its rows of neatly potted plants, each one of them ready to be carried away while the farmhouse opposite it looks straight out of the movies. Sixty eight year old Jagdish Hansraj smiles saying, “Any problems finding the way?” not today one beams! His better half, Sharda is busy supervising the cleaning up of the nursery. “It’s not easy looking after over five hundred plants!” she laughs, nodding her head in disapproval as one of the gardeners attempts to align her pots of gerberas.

A quick walk around the nursery with Sharda, who lovingly points at each plant tracing it’s origins “Those are my adeniums, they’ve come all the way from Kalimpong”. The wooden benches housing the pots are a riot of bright pink tropical flowers. “Who says you can’t have flowers in summer?” Jagdish wonders as he admires a thumbergia creeper with tiny orange and blue flowers. Sitting next to a line of bonsais, he says “Now this here is a pomegranate bonsai and that is Brazilian rain tree”. Each looks more exotic than the other, however what catches one’s eye are the fuchsias. They look magical with their fairy like velvety flowers, drooping like bell dresses in shades of purple, red, pink and fuchsias. “Those are from Kashmir, you must look at the purple and red fuchsia”, says Sharda, walking towards the farmhouse. Sitting pretty on a wooden table is her favourite fuchsia. Another interesting little shrub growing in the garden is a “Rose Tree”, one of the special plants offered at the Phulwari.

“I wanted to make Phulwari a one stop shop in gardening,” says Jagdish, who is considered a pioneer and visionary amongst floriculturists. He is known to bring something unique to every flower show, one of the few who make an effort to travel across the country to collect new varieties.

While walking through the nursery and the rows of large pots filled with lotuses, he laments the lack of an organized flower culture in Lucknow, “In South India, flowers are a part of life, the man of the house buys jasmine and offers half at the temple and brings back half for his wife. The entire business of selling and buying flowers is an organized and an all year round affair, people aren’t averse to buying and experimenting with new varieties.” He says that but in Lucknow there are few people who want a plant that costs more than twenty five rupees.

Settling at the table under a lime tree, he continues “Lucknow’s plant business is in a poor state, there is no concrete market or designated space to sell plants, in stead they are reduced to selling by the roadside and that too on a temporary basis”. Kaiser, their five year old black Labrador barks as Sharda returns with special atta biscuits and talks about their four daughters, “ Our eldest, Anita is a teacher at Muscat, Deepa is currently helping us with the nursery while she is posted as a professor at a central university here, while Neelu and Parul are married and working.”

Life at a farm after the years spent in the middle of city, running the “Mansarovar Study Circle”, is a welcome change. The Hansrajs spend their days tending to the individual needs of every plant in their nursery and running a poultry farm, with their daughters visiting every week the farm is abuzz with activity, especially in summer when Sharda makes ice-cream for the village market. As one leaves the farm with a pomegranate bonsai the warm couple wave goodbye while Kaiser bounds after white herons in a field full of gladioli.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Raza Library

Just when you begin wondering aloud whether this muddy and squelchy excuse for a road is the ‘only way’ to a heritage site which houses over 17,000 rare manuscripts, 80,000 printed books, 5000 miniature paintings and so much more… you are confronted by it’s scholastic silence and without completing your question, you shut up.

It is right in the heart of Rampur, you can’t miss the Rampur Raza Library which stands in all its magnificence in the Rampur Fort. Nawab Faizullah Khan who ruled the state from 1774 to 1794, established this library with his personal collection at the Tosha Khana in the fort. But it was Nawab Hamid Ali Khan who constructed ‘Hamid Manzil’ an Indo-European style palace in Rampur fort which has housed the Raza library since 1957.

Hamid Manzil, which was constructed by a one Mr. Wright, has interiors that are said to match those of Buckingham Palace. “These chandeliers, which are around a century old, have never had a fused bulb”, says Zubair Ahmad who’s face lights up as he shows you precious manuscripts that lie open in glass cases. Zubair has worked at the library for over eleven years and has volunteered to guide one around the library. With pride he points at the canopies that line the pillars, “All gold. This was the darbar hall where the Nawab invited his foreign guests and that was where his throne stood”, he says while standing right in front of a painting of the grand Nawab Faizullah Khan.

The Arabaic, Persian, Urdu, Turkish , Pushto, Hindi etc manuscripts stare at you in silence, challenging you to read only their labels and admire the craftsmanship of each calligrapher and artist. In of the cases the gold borders of an 1860 AD nikaah nama catches your eye. It declares a mehar of twenty lakh for Jahan Ara Begum’s wedding with Qasim Ali Khan Bahadur in Lucknow. A blown up photograph of the Bhagwad Gita in Arabic which the library stores is on display as well. There are seventh and eight century AD Korans written on parchment paper in early kufic script. The unique “Shahrul Kafia of Raiz ud-Din” which bears notes by Emperor Shah Jahan in his own hand as well as the signature and seal of Aurangzeb lies amongst the many treasures in the library.

“Many Turkish and other foreign scholars visit the library for research work. There is a hostel for them in Rang Mahal,” hurries Zubair who is constantly checking his watch as the library closes at 5 p.m. “We’re open every day of the week from 10 to 5 except on Fridays”, he says before explaining what each of the Greek figures that surround us signify. “This here is bravery,” he points at a soldier trudging forth in white marble. “Each figure is made of one single slab of marble and has no joints”, he declares. We bid the line of miniature portraits of the Rampur Nawabs farewell as we leave the Darbar Hall and proceed to the restoration laboratory, a proposition that Zubair is most excited about.

While ascending the stairs to ‘the laboratory’, one expects stacks of brown withering books lying about and gnomes with large spectacles at work, but the laboratory has three neat desks with cheerful young workers carefully poring over what seems like some extremely delicate specimen. “This is a Diwan –i-Hafis which is over a century old”, says Lalit Pathak. A statement you’re used to hearing when you’re at the library where nothing except the latest editions of the TIME and other magazines in the general reading room are new.

“These pages have been eaten away by the strong animal fat based binding substance. I’m using acetate to wipe the last traces of it away,” says Pathak. Quickly he produces ‘before and after’ pictures of a much damaged Koran that he restored. “Once I restored it for the Nawab, it was buried in the graveyard,” he remembers. The bottles of chemicals that line the neat shelf are all new, not a speck of dust anywhere. Zubair, who ushers around the lab says “This painting here, look again”. Looking through a magnifying glass it all becomes clear. The tall painting of what looked like a Mughal plant is full of over a thousand verses from the Koran, beautifully fitted in each corner of its stalk, leaf and tendril.

The restoration laboratory was developed by Dr. WH Siddiqui the Director of Rampur Raza Library. A distinguished archaeologist, art historian, epigraphist and numismatist the unassuming and smiling gentleman has been restoring and computerizing the library since he joined in 1993. “Have you seen the restoration laboratory?” he questions before anything else. Satisfied with the positive affirmation, he continues “Only people who are proficient in Persian, Arabic and Urdu can do justice to the translation of these texts”.

While leaving the library one remembers reading what a scholar once said of the library, “…I have also seen the libraries of Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Europe. And I can say that this library is richer than any one”. The richness rubs off on you and suddenly the muddy and squelchy road lined with meat shops seems like a faraway memory.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Kuch Gadbad Hai!

In the heart of bustling Aminabad sits a market that found its beginnings from Bade Miyan’s chaadar on which he’d sell everything from pins to bangles, all for a paltry dhaiye annas. Gadbad jhala, home to over a 107 shops is Lucknow’s oldest bangle market, “It’s been here since 1922. The sheer number of people who visited the area for the monkey shows led to its notorious christening!” claims Mohammad Ahmed who runs five bangle shops in the sparkling bauble market.

The new gadbad jhala as we know it, replaced a disorganized glass bangle selling market with a pucca market with shop numbers. “There was a school here initially and on bazaar days we’d come and lay our goods on the floor like the pioneer, Bade Miyan. Wooden planks replaced the floor market and now it’s these cement stalls that the Nagar Palika built”, says Mohammad Ahmed, sitting in a spotless white kurta pajama on a small stool at the very end of the market. Behind him is a well that was covered up when it dried, “This well as old as the market!” he laughs.

The stores at gadbad jhala sell everything from wigs to Umrao Jaan jewelry. Cheap fake kundan jewelry that shines under the glare of 200 W bulbs. So blinding is the light and the heat that it takes at least five minutes to get accustomed to the surroundings and understand which lane you’re in!

Gayatri Shukla is scouring the market with her daughter Naina for purple bangles, “Look at the variety! There must be ten types of purple bangles here” her husband Naresh grumbles. But Naina immediately places on the counter a georgette mauve kurta, asking for bangles with kangans a la carte the latest Bollywood hit Vivah. The bangle man immediately procures the correct match from the stacks of bangles. Naresh is amused and Naina satisfied, they file out of the shop looking for bindis in the next shop while the bangle man continues business.

He’s covered in cheap shiny sparkle powder, “It’s all from the bangles!”he laughs. ‘Sardar’ as he is fondly called, has sold bangles here for over forty years and knows his customers by name. He jokes with the women and helps them choose the usual dozen glass bangles for every occasion. Alambagh wali Pooja is here for cut glass bangles, “My mother likes the older designs, I of course prefer the metal ones with beads… these last longer”! she quips. Sardar hands Pooja a 2X8 size of bangles, “There are generally five sizes of bangles. They start from 2X4 to 2X14, all in even numbers”. He’s one of the few bangle sellers who has kept his exclusive bangle selling identity, “The others have started selling all kinds of women’s items, I only know about bangles!”

Next to Sardar’s shop is the sindoor daan seller, these wooden hand made sindoor daans and the packets of batna, ittar as well as cheap lipstick are all for welcoming the new bahu. “For nikaahs and engagements, we make traditional baskets that go in the sunnat or shagun”, says a harried Suresh. It’s the wedding season and his shop is abuzz with activity. In fact, the only other shop with a madder rush is the sitara shop. Colourful sitaras and gottas line the walls of the shop, burqa clad women jostle around looking for sequins to add to their dupattas. “This is a poor man’s and a karigar’s shop! You’ll find everything under the sun to decorate your suits, saris and burqas with here”, says Rahim.

It’s only the bangle stall owners who’re complaining about quality at Gadbad jhala. They are unimpressed by how bangles have now become a ‘fancy’ item. “They last only seven days! And cost thirty rupees… the quality is nothing compared to what we used to sell twenty years ago. Those bangles were washed with real gold water and stayed in tact for months. Red, blue and green were the only colours we sold!” says Mukhtar, whose dusty shelves house the now unpopular Jaipuri bangles. “These plastic ones are popular too, but our best sellers are the nag bangles with colourful stones,” he adds.

Gadbad jhala has something for every woman. The eclectic, heavy and one of a kind Firozabadi glass kada for the bohemian woman, sparkly and delicate bright bijli bangles for a marriage and the simple kareli green bangle that sell at ten rupees. Visiting the jhala is not for the weak at heart. Clutch your bag to your chest, fight for a discount, also watch out for the twenty year old fans that line the centre lane for ventilation! Carry a tissue along to wipe off that sweat, don’t forget to carry your outfit along for the perfect colour match and look out for the ‘Made in China’ golden bangles. They’re a huge hit at the Gadbad jhala.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Curio Corner

A thick cloud of incense beckons you towards the corner shop, the hare-rama hare-krishna chant rings in your ears as you tap the backs of wooden benches standing in a neat row overlooking a manicured garden in Carlton Hotel Lucknow. The man behind the counter smiles warmly, he expects you to know what you want…but you are awed by the sheer variety. Onyx bangles, jade Buddhas, wooden necklaces with amulets bearing obscure designs and inscriptions… numerous silver earrings, that trace their history back to over forty years, an eighty year old silk blouse for a young girl, the gramophone, large silver rings which sit in blue velvet all stare back at you.

Rajnigandha jewelers are more than just another corner shop, with a 150 year old heritage that traces its origins back to a shop in Chowk, the Kapoor brothers are proud of being collectors and sellers of indigenous arts and crafts amongst many a old bric- a- brac. “We’ve had this shop at Carlton for over 35 years now. Our shop in Chowk, Gaya Prasad Gauri Shankar is 150 years old,” says Manoj Kapoor, one of the four brothers who own the little haunt where you can find anything from a Tibetan meditation bowl to a pair of kundan ear rings.

“My grandfather, Gaya Prasad was very fond of coins, he learnt all about them from magazines and books and even in that era, he realized the worth of antique currency,” remembers Sanjay Kapoor. The brothers relate a story about the case of ‘many coins’, “Years ago, we had over five different people and jewelers come to us to sell coins, all these coins belonged a certain age, eventually we traced the origins of this sudden coin selling spree to a village near Lucknow where a man had found a buried treasure under hit hut, now this man was slowly selling handfuls of his treasure!” says Manoj, who carries in his left pocket a silver box for elaichi and in his right, another for sweet silver supari. “Making the customer family is what matters in our business, with a reputation as old as ours, we have served Rajbaras for years!” adds Manoj.

“We have to visit interiors of villages and meet tribals to purchase our goods, this is where we need to preempt the worth of each item,” says Sanjay. Manoj remembers how a goldsmith “ruthlessly” melted an old Rolex for gold, “I explained the worth of a Rolex and compared it to the small amount of gold he extracted! But this is how we lose precious antiques!”

Ardent collectors of currency, their collection of Indian notes includes a precious two and a half rupee note, a one rupee note from 1917, “Re 1” from 1935. “All these hundred rupee, one rupee and other notes are popular buys, but the Awadh five coin collection is our bestseller! It contains coins from all five Nawabs eras, one from Mohammad Ali, Wajad Ali, Gazad-ul-Haider and others” says Manoj, pulling out a brass bowl full of coins from Arabia, France, England and Awadh. Other bestsellers include paandaans and tambacoo daans.

“School children often visit us for a coin every now and then… it’s a popular hobby since so many years now”, adds Sanjay, pouring out a piping hot cup of “masala chai”. While Manoj points to a shallow and dark looking bowl, “That’s made of three metals, it has Arabic inscriptions on it and was used by people who have nightmares and feel afraid of the paranormal. You fill water in it and keep it overnight, and drink from it the next day”.

The brothers enjoy entertaining their tourist customers, “tourists visiting the shop are often interested in learning more about Lucknow and frankly, Lucknow isn’t really a tourist spot! We aren’t on the tourist map really…but the cultural and historical significance of the city attract people from around the world,” says Manoj.

In walks a Roamanian lady, sporting a kundan pendant and rings she bought from the shop yesterday, she explains through signs what she’d like to see today and Sanjay pulls out Indian paintings while Manoj dusts two old clowns, setting one on his counter, “All you do is put a coin in his mouth and pull his hand down, he swallows it and it stays in that round belly till you need it again!” he laughs, as the many artifacts from village interiors of India sit silently in their shelves, only to travel to the many corners of the world once they’re bought.