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Courtesans and Kebabs in Lucknow

Batches of delicious kebabs are cooked on a coal fire in Chowk Batches of delicious kebabs are cooked on a coal fire in Chowk

Given my fantasies of dancing courtesans and opulent princely courts stoked by a steady diet of Hindi cinema, I didn’t know what to expect when I went to Lucknow last winter. Clearly, there was no blast from the past in sight; I didn’t expect I’d encounter relics from a culture that was at its zenith more than a century ago. The Lucknow of today is the capital of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, a growing city that is continually expanding outwards, notorious for a chief minister who is very fascinated by self-portraiture. But, step into the old city, which is a labyrinth of narrow winding lanes hemmed in by the cold concrete of the other Lucknow, and you are in a different world altogether.

Chowk, as it is called, was the heart of Lucknow, its refined centre. By day it was a busy market, but the nights were when it truly came alive. The itr (perfume) that had been sold during the day left a cloud of lingering, heady fragrance while myriad strains of music and the sound of jingling anklets jostled for attention.

Bollywood captured the colors of Lucknow’s old city in its epic courtesan film Pakeezah (1972).Bollywood captured the colors of Lucknow’s old city in its epic courtesan film Pakeezah (1972).It is said that patronizing the establishments of courtesans was an important part of a Lakhnavi aristocrat’s upbringing. It was here that these men were schooled in the finer points of tehzeeb (etiquette). The courtesans were some of the best educated women of their times, receiving instruction in various subjects, including music, dance and poetry. Many of them were composers in their own right, regaling evening gatherings by performing their own poetry.

The Chowk I visualized thus in my dreams is now bereft of its courtesans, but if you scratch the surface, their traces linger around every corner. Walking into one of the numerous cubbyhole sized shops that have been dealing in itr for generations, I admired a display of rose-tinted glass decanters that were used to store perfumes in another age. The shopkeeper was not anxious to conclude a sale; he brought out a few and let me gawk at them. As their delicate tops trembled in the winter air, he pointed to one and spoke of its rich history – it had once belonged to a courtesan, he explained.

After soaking in this aromatic memory of a courtesan immortalized in a rose-tinted decanter with flowers etched on its surface, I walked ahead, stopping to watch an old man carefully fashion paste jewelry in elaborate patterns. Not looking up to acknowledge his audience, he grunted out answers to our eager questions as he fitted shiny baubles in silver and green into their metal receptacles. His jewelry was larger-than-life; it did not let itself be ignored, every sparkling gem evoked the grandeur of the kothas (courtesan’s establishments) and the regal air of palaces.

The charms of old Lucknow

The galouti kebab (gelatinous minced meat cutlet), an inextricable part of the city’s culinary heritage, is easily Lucknow’s piece-de-resistance. Served straight out of the frying pan with roomali roti (hand-tossed bread named for its handkerchief-like thinness), it melts in your mouth before you register its delicious presence. The best kebab houses in Chowk are devoid of any glamorous trappings; visitors can watch their food being prepared on the open fire as they wait at rickety tables. Above them, the ceiling has been rendered black by the onslaught of kebab-scented soot. But there is hardly any time to dwell on your surroundings, for your kebabs arrive soon and leave you lost to the world. Despite the changes that modernity has brought, the Chowk in Lucknow remains a place of elegant manner and fragrant interludes, continuing its romantic dalliance with the past.

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Last modified on Thursday, 04 November 2010 19:45

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