Monday 21 October 2019

Lucknow - tradition in the Chowk

Lucknow is perhaps best known today for the many Islamic monuments dating from the time of the Nawabs, Muslim royalty who ruled over the city until they were deposed by the British in 1856. The city was the capital of Avadh a princely state that broke away from the Mughal Empire in the mid eighteenth century. It became a centre for the arts with many poets, singers and dancers gaining fame there. It also became an important centre for Shi'a Islam, something that continues until today and which can be seen in the annual Muharram processions and events. Today it is the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state and home to about 4 million people, although a range of figures can be found for its population.

Ejad Emaz, kitewallah
A busy, bustling place, in 2015, Lucknow was named as India's second happiest city. Residents gave numerous reasons for this, including improvements to the infrastructure, cultural activity, parks, great food and most of all, the helpful and friendly people.  I spent a few days there earlier this year and can attest to much of this but the place I most enjoyed was a long, narrow street known as Chowk.  There are more than 5000 businesses in this street and the narrow lanes leading off it and you can find just about anything here. Hundreds of small food outlets sell the city's famous kebabs, and there are countless chai stalls and some excellent sweet shops. The Chowk is also home to businesses dealing in traditional crafts including the famous Chikan (embroidery), jewellery, wooden items and attar - essential oils and perfumes made from flowers. In addition to this, some of India's disappearing arts and traditions can be seen in the Chowk but mass production, foreign imports and changing social attitudes are inevitably placing pressure on a number of small, mainly family run businesses. 

Ejad Emaz' family have had a kite shop in the Chowk for more than 100 years. He is 60 years old and has worked in the shop since he was 20. His colourful kites are made by homeworkers who then bring their work to him for sale. He has both male and female workers but says that the women are more efficient. All of the kites are made in the traditional way, from paper rather than the modern plastic versions imported from China. Kite flying is still popular in India, both throughout the year and at special times such as Independence Day and during religious festivals. Ejad told me that although business is rather less than in the old days, it is still enough to survive at least for the time being. 

Mohammed Ibrahim Warsi, surmawallah
Mohammed Ibrahim Warsi is 65 years old. His family have sold surma in the Chowk for more than a century. Surma, sometimes called kohl, is a traditional cosmetic used as a type of eyeliner by both men and women. Made from various ingredients, it generally includes sandalwood paste, castor oil, ghee and soot. Some communities believe it to have medicinal properties whilst there is also a belief that it prevents children from being cursed by the evil eye. In the 1990's health concerns were raised about surma when high concentrations of lead content were found in some products. This can  cause lead poisoning and a range of other symptoms. Ibrahim assured me his products were healthy and beneficial. His shop was not in good physical shape and it seemed that business was not good. Despite this he was eager to talk and insisted I drink chai with him. He proudly told me that he had six children, three boys and three girls. As well as Hindi and Urdu he speaks some English learned some years ago at Hussainabad Intermediate College. 

Haji Sahib Sikkewale, coin seller
72 years old native Lucknawi Haji Sahib Sikkewale (real name Abdul Khalid) sells antique coins. He saw me before I saw him and he waved me over. He wanted to show me a newspaper article that included a photograph of him and more importantly that identified him as having a bit part in the next Amitabh Bhachchan film. Not only this, the Bollywood superstar had also bought 20 coins from him, result happiness. As well as coins, Haji Sahib sells rings and small metal objects. I noticed that like many of  the  neighbouring shopkeepers, he chews paan whilst waiting for customers. Paan, a combination of betel leaf and areca nut is chewed for its stimulant effect and is popular throughout Southeast Asia and the India subcontinent. It is often mixed with a lime cream and tobacco. Regular users are easily identifiable from the red stains on their lips, teeth and tongue caused by the red liquid released when chewing. Depending on the mixture, it can have a serious impact on health,  destroying teeth and being linked to cancer. Some reports say that use is now decreasing but it can still be found almost everywhere including in the Chowk. In some countries the sale of paan is now banned. Many people depend on the industry for their living, including Mohammed Ali, a paanwallah who has a small stall outside one of the street's mosques.  It is hard to know how people like Mohammed would survive if this happened in India.

Mohammed Ali, paanwallah
Faizan, spinner
Lucknow is famous for its textiles and brightly coloured garments can be seen throughout the Chowk.   In the past the bright yellows, reds and oranges were achieved through using only natural dyes. Today there is significantly more use of chemicals to achieve these colours but there is still enough demand to support a few shops selling natural dyes. Mohammed Shami has a shop selling only natural  products and at the time of my visit was so busy that he had to continually break off talking to serve customers. His neighbour, a young man called Faizan also as a traditional business - spinning.  

Mohammed Shami serving customers in his dye shop
I have already mentioned Mohammed Ali the paanwallah. He has a namesake aged 58 who sells wooden printing blocks for use in hand printing designs on the Chikan garments. He has managed this small business, established 75 years ago, since his father died. He has two sons one of whom will eventually take over the business and another one who will study for a profession. This Mohammed Ali is a talented self-taught artist. Between serving customers and managing the business he produces designs for clothing, draws pictures of the city's architecture from memory and practises Islamic calligraphy. He only studied until the end of elementary school and has no formal training. A little shy at first he was very happy to show his work to me and like several of his colleagues, sent for tea so that we could sit and talk. He produces art only for his own satisfaction and does not use it commercially.

The Chowk has many delights, treasures and secrets. Some of them are being lost as traditional methods are overtaken by rapid modernisation, mass production and changing tastes. A number of shops have already fallen victim to the wreckers' ball as older buildings are demolished to make way for new developments which often lack character despite the advantages of air conditioning and other technologies. Change is inevitable but at least for the moment, Lucknow is managing to sustain many of its traditional businesses too. Maintaining this balance might well help the city retain its status as a "happy city" and to attract new visitors.

Mohammed Ali, artist and seller of printing blocks

You might also like Chawri bazaar - a Delhi delight and Sidhpur's Bohra havelis

You can see more pictures from India here.

Tuesday 8 October 2019

Mystery in Mumbai's Camera House

Mumbai's Chor Bazar is a much loved part of the city, well known for its antiques, vintage items and memorabilia. It is currently undergoing "re-development" with most of the commercial and residential units being demolished and replaced by modern buildings. There are mixed feelings about this with concerns about losing the character of the Bazar coupled with the positivity of being rehoused in better quality homes. I was there recently and spent some time in the Camera House in Mutton Lane, one of the Bazar's main streets. I'd read about there being piles of discarded photographs there, many of them from Parsi families and was curious to come and see them. The shop is tiny and so full of old cameras, photographic equipment and piled up photographs that the owner and his assistant stood outside so that I could enter and browse.

I spent some time browsing through discarded family albums and loose individual photographs, many in poor condition and most of them clearly once the property of Parsi families. I wondered how the pictures came to be there, arranged haphazardly with few clues to help in identifying these faces from the past. It is unlikely that any of the people in these pictures is still alive but surely there are surviving friends and relatives somewhere? I worried that the next and final home for these pictures might be the dustbin, especially given the changes in the Bazar and so decided to purchase a few that particularly interested me. That evening I met a friend for coffee. I took the pictures with me. We spread them out on our table and spent some time talking about them. My friend shared my fascination as did the two young women at the next table, one of whom having seen them asked me where I'd got them from, did I know who the people were and what was I going to do with the photographs. At the time she asked I could only answer the first of her questions.

The photographs provide few clues about the people in them or where and when they were taken. Some are set in cardboard frames, a couple of which bear the names of photographic studios. Online searches for these companies have provided fruitless and it seems that B. Adey and Co. who had branches at More Gate in Delhi and in the then Bombay, and Eduljee Sorabjee of Park Lane, Secunderbad are no more. Portraits of two men have the name A. N. Kapoor written on them, one bearing a signature, and the year 1939. The other is addressed to Mister Kapoor with a message of best wishes. Who were these men? What was their connection? As with all of the men in the photographs I purchased they are dressed in formal, western style jackets perhaps indicating a professional career and middle class status. All of them are dapper and one sports a jaunty dickie-bow.

"Parsi" is a Persian word meaning "Persian" It identifies the origins of this community that fled Persia (modern day Iran) during the seventh century in order to avoid persecution. They are one of two groups in India that follow the Zoroastrian religion. The other  group, the Iranis came during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, again as religious refugees. Over the years the community has made significant contributions to Indian society especially in the fields of science, industry, sport and the arts. The community in India has produced many famous people including rock star Freddie Mercury, actress Nina Wadia, conductor Zubin Mehta, cricketer Farokh Engineer, and India's first female photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla. Award winning author Rohinton Mistry has written a series of books featuring characters from his now Mumbai Parsi community. Several community members have served with distinction in the military.

The community has particularly made its mark in Mumbai where they funded many public buildings and where they established a particular style of cafe, several of which survive until today including Cafe Leopold, Jimmy Boy, the iconic Britannia cafe and the wonderful Parsi Dairy Farm where I like to stock up on peda and other Indian sweets, drinking a glass of lassi whilst my purchases are packed.
The community is now is rapid numerical decline due to a declining birthrate and large scale emigration. In turn this has produced an ageing population with more than 30% of the community being aged over 60 and less than 5% below 6. The 2011 census showed just 57,000 Parsis living in India a figure expected to reduce to a mere 23,000 by next year. Sadly, it seems that the once lively bhags, housing blocks in Mumbai's Colaba and Byculla neighbourhoods, catering only for this community will one day stand empty.

Other pictures are of important lifetime occasions, not all of them of Parsis. One seems to be of a young Catholic boy holding a huge candle and standing beside a picture of Christ surrounded by children. Perhaps he is about to take his first Holy Communion. I have only half of the picture bearing the Adey studio logo. It shows a mother holding a young baby. What happened to the other half of the picture? Was it deliberately torn in two by one of it's subjects or has it been broken during its time in the Camera House? I searched the pile of pictures for the missing piece but couldn't find it. There is also a formal picture of a young couple, the woman holding a book as she looks directly at the camera. Perhaps most interesting of all is the badly damaged group photograph at the top of this post featuring a large gathering in a formal setting.

The question the young woman asked me in the cafe was a very good one and one I've been considering since leaving the Camera House. As well as writing about them here, I plan to share some of them on social media. Perhaps someone will know who these people are or remember something about the Adey and Co or the Eduljee Sorabjee studios. All information is welcome.

Thursday 3 October 2019

Sidhpur's Bohra Havelis - A Gujarat Secret

Sidhpur in Gujarat is home to about 60,000 people. It has a long history. The Rudra Mahalaya temple dates from the tenth century, whilst in 1140, Jayasimha Siddharaja, declared the town capital of his kingdom. He also changed its name from the original Sristhai to Sidhpur, meaning Siddharaja's town. Today it is a bustling place with a busy bazaar, a famous sweet shop and as I recently discovered, a fantastic collection of mansions known as havelis built by and for the Bohra Muslim community between 100 and 150 years ago.

The Bohra are an affluent merchant community. Adherents to the Shia form of Islam, they can be found in significant numbers in India, Pakistan, the Middle East and East Africa. Women members of the community are easily distinguishable through their wearing of a brightly coloured burkha, sometimes decorated with patterns and lace. Well educated, Bohra women today include many successful business owners, doctors, lawyers and teachers, particularly in the United States. About 250 Bohra families remain in Sidhpur but many now live in other, larger Indian cities, particularly Mumbai, as well as overseas.

The havelis are clustered in a number of streets in the centre of the town. I have visited havelis before, notably in Churu, Rajasthan, but Sidhpur's buildings are something very different and perhaps unique in India. Numerous commentators describe the architectural style as British and although that influence is obvious, the approach to design is more complicated than this suggests. The facades display several late 19th and early 20th century influences including elements of the Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Gothic styles. The brightly coloured facades are more redolent of mainland Europe than of London where the yellows, greens, pinks and oranges of Sidhpur are rarely seen. However, the steep steps rising from the street to the main entrance are a classic London townhouse feature. These elements are combined with more local features including, extensive use of wood, Islamic geometric patterns and those wonderful raised platforms on the front of the buildings. In years gone by, residents would have used these platforms in the early morning or evening to take the air, read the newspaper and watch the activity in the street.

Today, these streets are very quiet, almost deserted and most of the buildings stand empty other than for a few weeks of the year when family members return to check on their property and other interests. Almost inevitably this unique heritage is being placed at risk as developers purchase some of the homes, demolish them and replace them with, for the most part, ugly unappealing yet expensive "modern" structures.

A short step from the haveli neighbourhood, there is another magnificent, empty building. The House of 365 Windows built in 1938 with strong Art Deco features. It dominates its corner site and is ripe for bringing back into use, perhaps for cultural activity, as the city begins to attract more visitors. Sidhpur barely rates a mention in most of the mainstream English language travel guides but numerous bloggers have written about the town particularly about the havelis and I doubt this  little treasure will remain secret much longer.

The House of 365 Windows
Chanasmawala monogram on haveli facade
Art Deco motif on haveli facade
Monogram on haveli facade
I spent a couple of hours in Sidhpur en route from Bajana to Ahmedabad but could easily have spent a couple of days there. The bazaar warrants a good couple of hours and there are numerous temples and mosques worth visiting. At the beginning of this post I mentioned a famous sweet shop. Regular followers of this blog will not be surprised to know that 20 minutes or so of my visit were spent in  Nafees Farsan and Sweet Mart where I was generously invited to sample several of the delicious sweets and baked items on offer. They will also not be surprised to learn that I left the shop with a box of peda - my favourite Indian sweet. A town with a bazaar, unique architecture and a fabulous sweet shop - how could I not want to return?

More information

Sebastian Cortes  photographed the havelis for National Geographic magazine.

Nafees Farsan and Sweet Mart, Zamplipole Bazaar, Sidhpur, Tel 384151

You might also like Churu - A Rajasthani Secret

See more pictures from India here