Babool mora

Wajid Ali Shah wrote the words of the famous thumri, Babul mora, in Kolkata, after the British East India Company, then an empire in all but name, exiled him from Awadh. It has been sung by all the luminaries of classical music since. I heard Bhimsen Joshi singing it in the usual Raag Bhairavi when he was considered a future star, but since then I’ve also heard a rare recording of Ustad Faiyaz Khan singing it. The version by Kundan Lal Sehgal is so famous that Google’s AI concludes that the song is due to him. But Kishori Amonkar, Kesarbai Kerkar, Begum Akhtar, Rajan and Sajan Mishra, and even Jagjit and Chitra Singh have wonderful versions available on the net. But it is not that song of loss and parting that this post is about.

I wanted to show you a couple of varieties of babool (Acacia) among the many I saw in Bera. Babool is the typical dry land plant: often a short tree, just over three meters tall, sometimes a mere bush. Of the many that I saw, I seem to have taken many photos of the babool (Vachellia nilotica indica). That extremely widespread plant is what you see in the featured photo. The other is the white babool (Vachellia leucophloea, also called white-bark Acacia). There were numerous other plants of the Mimosacaea family, even the Acacias, but I seem to have missed photographing them. Loss and regret, just as in Wajid Ali Shah’s thumri.

The Lucknow Residency

A palace complex which may have belonged to the sons of the Nawab of Lucknow was given over for the use of the British Resident of Lucknow in 1800. The buildings are made of lakhauri brick and lime mortar, and still show signs of external decoration. In 1856 the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, was deposed by the British East India Company and exiled to Kolkata. The next year, the residency came under siege during the War of Independence. Although the siege was eventually lifted, Lucknow was abandoned until the end of the War.

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The Residency was left as a memorial to the war, and never reoccupied. Even today one can see the marks of cannonball and shot in the brick and plaster. The Archaeological Survey of India has had the complex in its care since 1920. In recent years there have been archaeological digs at one end of the site. Some of the artifacts which have been recovered are on display in the museum on the grounds. The extensive grounds are now well-manicured gardens. There are more lovers than tourists in the gardens: history has a way of forgetting wars.

Meditation in a Lucknowi Kothi

General Kothi: the northern gallery.

The building now known as General Kothi was constructed in Nawab Saadat Ali Khan’s time (1798 to 1814). The first resident was Shas-ud-Daulah, the Nawab’s eldest son and the general of his army. It seems to have got its present name during the time of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1847 to 1856). His chief of the army, Hashmat Ali, who lived in this building, liked to be known as a General, giving rise to this name, and its variant, Jarnail Kothi.

General Kothi: central hall
General Kothi: central hall

The General Kothi is now undergoing restoration and the museum at the Residency will be moved here once the work is completed. This is being called an example of a new idea called adaptive re-use of ancient monuments. When you think about it, the first example of this idea which comes to mind is the building right next door: the palace complex called the Chhattar Manzil which used to belong to the Nawab.

General Kothi: arched doorways leading from the central hall to the northern gallery
General Kothi: arched doorways leading from the central hall to the northern gallery

In the days immediately after independence, the complex was given over to the Central Drug Research Institute. In retrospect one wonders whether it is wise to re-purpose an important historical space, without providing an adequate budget for conservation. The CDRI gets its funding through the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, under the Ministry of Science and Technology. However, conservation funding is usually channeled through the Ministry of Culture. Looking at the delapidated state of the Chhattar Mazil today, one wonders whether its conservation has fallen foul of the usual turf lines between ministries: Culture does not own it, and Science and Technology budgets cannot be used for conservation.

General Kothi: arches leading from the central hall to the southern gallery
General Kothi: arches leading from the central hall to the southern gallery

The restoration work in the General Kothi brings up questions of its own. The inside looks beautiful. The surkhi colour of the walls looks authentic, the details on the arches are lovingly done. But the bricks stacked up for the work are modern. A building of this age may have been originally done in lakhauri brick. I walked around to the back and found an exposed part of the exterior which still has older plasterwork. In the parts where the plaster has fallen away, the bricks visible are modern. How can this building then be as old as the early 19th century? Was there an earlier restoration which I could not trace?

The facade of Jarnail Kothi (aka General Kothi)
The facade of Jarnail Kothi (aka General Kothi)

I’ll love to come back here when the work is complete and the museum of the 1857 war has moved here. I hope that by then there will also be a small exhibit on the history of this building which answers the questions I now have.

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