Letters to and from Lucknow


Published on 23 May, 2014 in Mint

A reading of letters that offer snapshots of life in the city from 1903

Lucknow, the administrative and cultural hub of the nawabs of Awadh at the time of the British Raj, is today an amalgamation of the medieval and the modern. The centuries-old city and its past will be brought to life by Saman Habib and Sanjay Muttoo through an illustrated reading session of handwritten letters written to, or by, people living in Lucknow, in the Capital on Sunday and Tuesday.

Habib is a research scientist at the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow, and Muttoo is a freelance media professional.
Their performance, titled “Lucknow In Letters: Endeavours, Achievements, And Tragedies”, is structured around a historical timeline, with a commentary that contextualizes the letters. It is accompanied by photographs of the people who wrote and received them, images of original manuscripts, and a minimal soundtrack to enhance the sensory experience.

Drawn from far and near in India and abroad, each letter provides an authentic narrative of events as they happened—from M.K. Gandhi appreciating Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in the protests against the Simon Commission, appointed by the British in 1927 to look at governance reform, in Lucknow, to Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi’s letters to his close friend S.M. Mehdi; from sundry exchanges between cousins about the kitchen being repaired, to ones that talk about how secular Lucknow was till the mid-1950s. Among these, a few published and publicly available letters—the exchange between Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan, involved in the Kakori Conspiracy, a train robbery during the independence movement, for instance—will be featured too.

SamanA letter written in 1903, by Hilda Seebohm from Lucknow to her home in London, describing the plague in the city, is the oldest of the lot.

This reading is one of Habib and Muttoo’s many endeavours to trace their cultural roots to Lucknow. “At the Mahindra Sanatkada Festival in February, our session on ‘Feminists Of Awadh’ elicited huge response. I read out pages from Ismat Chughtai’s autobiography Kaghazi Hai Pairahan and Sanjay read about Begum Akhtar. The crowd’s appreciation of the language and content got us thinking, and hence began our search for letters,” says Habib.

A host of humorous and poignant letters within her family served as starting material but a much larger and diverse set was needed for a more real representation of Lucknow. More letters from Habib’s cousins in Pakistan, and scanned published material, came in. “The most poignant line in the entire collection is in a letter from a person in Pakistan writing to his cousin in Lucknow saying, ‘My body may be in Pakistan but my soul lives on in Lucknow’,” says Muttoo.

“Lucknow In Letters: Endeavours, Achievements, And Tragedies” will be held on 25 May, 7pm, at Studio Safdar, 2254/2A, New Ranjit Nagar, Shadipur, New Delhi; and on 27 May, 4pm, at the National Institute of Immunology, Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, New Delhi. For details, call 25709456/26717121.

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