Published on 3 October, 2015 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line
A dramatised reading of old letters conjures up a cosmopolitan city that once was
Most people no longer take the time to sit and write a letter. Not when modernity, more specifically technology, is rife with alluring alternatives. That hasn’t deterred the duo of Saman Habib and Sanjay Muttoo from making an earnest attempt to help people relive the charms of not just letter-writing but also a city as old and steeped in culture as Lucknow, through their dramatised reading of ‘Lucknow in Letters: endeavours, achievements and tragedies’.
While in one letter Mahatma Gandhi appeals to a father in Lucknow to financially support his nationalist son, who is helping set up the Jamia Millia, in others there are exchanges between siblings and cousins who were separated by Partition. There are several classics as well — letters exchanged between writers, socialists, and close friends such as SM Mehdi, Munish Narain Saxena and Kaifi Azmi. As also the last letters written by Ramprasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan, before their execution, in which they express deep concern for Hindu-Muslim unity.
The readings — in English/Hindi/Urdu — are informed by a commentary in Hindustani that takes the audience through post-1857 British-ruled Lucknow, the efforts to preserve the city’s heritage at that time, the national movement, the Partition and its impact on families and relationships, progressive writers, social movements, and so on. Reflecting varied moods, some of the letters are humorous, others desolate.
Habib had moved to Lucknow for work about 15 years ago. Before that she had visited the city for family weddings and short summer breaks during her schooldays. Lucknow also formed a part of her grandmother’s reminiscences, as the city she married into. Habib, currently a senior scientist at the city’s Central Drug Research Institute, and Muttoo, a sixth-generation Lakhnavi currently teaching journalism at Kamla Nehru College, Delhi University, recently performed their 11th show at Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA), New Delhis.
We caught up with Habib. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us about your association with, and love for Lucknow.
My engagement with Lucknow is layered. It wasn’t love at first sight. I found attitudes in the city casteist and saw gender discrimination. Much that I saw around me initially was at odds with the impression I had of its cultural and social heritage. I am not sure if I like to put it like this, but this search for letters that reflect the city’s experiences over the last 150 years or so is also an effort to retrieve what we are losing at such a rapid pace.
What has the city lost?
Lucknow was a cosmopolitan city and evolved a syncretic culture, which was threatened and continues to be threatened by the parochialism and insularity that seem to be spreading everywhere. We wanted to retrieve the idea of Lucknow from the debris of this ‘destruction’ and try to bring to our audience the beauty of relationships and language as well as the city’s past achievements and tragedies, as reflected in the lived experience of its inhabitants.
The concept of ‘Lucknow in Letters’ — when did it first come to you?
Sanjay and I were part of a reading on ‘Feminists of Awadh’ at the Mahindra-Sanatkada Lucknow Festival in early 2014, and the idea of doing a reading of letters began to take form just after that. I knew of letters in the family that had been cherished and preserved, and thought that it would be worthwhile to look for more in other homes as well as from published sources.
We wanted it to be a complete experience for the listener, which is why there’s music together with images of people, buildings, manuscripts, and the letters itself accompany the reading. This also reinforces authenticity and makes it more real.
How did the performance with Sanjay Muttoo first come about?
Sanjay is a friend. He is also a filmmaker and storyteller with a long experience in broadcasting. I think both of us have learnt immensely from this project, and our understanding of the city and its experiences continues to grow. One can’t ask for more.
Not many write letters these days. Is that true of traditional families in Lucknow too?
Reading letters from close family and friends used to be a shared experience. With email and messaging taking over, letter-writing is becoming a lost art. Only some people of my parents’ generation write letters now, and that’s also true in Lucknow. We need to preserve old letters.
What was the process of retrieving the original letters, manuscripts and photographs like?
We looked at old family papers and asked friends, friends of friends, academicians and historians to dig for us. People pointed out possible sources and helped us connect. I was moved by the immense trust placed in us and the openness with which family papers and photographs were shared. I am deeply conscious of this trust and we have tried to handle the reading with the sensitivity it demands.
Which of these letters are closest to your heart?
I love them all… but since you ask, my favourites are the Maleeha-Arif exchange (two gifted cousins separated by Partition, who wrote long letters to each other for over 50 years), and Kaifi’s letter to Zehra Mehdi on her father’s death.
Any plans to take the reading to Pakistan?
We would love to take it there. The reading has a very important contribution from Karachi, from where my cousins, whom I have never met, searched and sent old letters and photographs to us.
Sanjay’s family, too, has old Lahore links. Perhaps Lucknow will spin its charm again and help everyone heal.