(A truncated version of this article appeared in The Lucknow Tribune on 22nd August 2013)
The Colonial Period (Huzrutgunge)
Officially called Queensway, perhaps this period was the heyday of Hazratganj, when it became a centre of fashion, much merry-making, and a true commercial hub. The Prince of Wales Theatre (later Prince Cinema) was the first cinema hall of Hazratganj, which traced its origin from the Prince of Wales’ visit in 1876. In 1934, the Plaza (then Regal, then Filmistan, and present-day Sahu), came up in the parking space in front of Prince cinema. Capitol opened in 1937, all three halls serving the purpose of cinema as well as theatre performances. 1939 saw the inauguration of the Mayfair building, with the Mayfair cinema, a bar and a ballroom. The Ambassador Restaurant and Dance Hall came up subsequently In the ‘30s; Royal Café, then situated in the Halwasiya Court was famous for its live band. Valerio’s Tea Room and dance floor functioned from the present premises of the Gandhi Ashram!! An English departmental store, Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co. existed where the present LIC building now stands. Other prominent British shops included AN James & Co. (pharmacy), Murray & Co. (general merchants), SH Clarke & Co. (photographers) and Anderson’s (tailors). Among the Parsee outlets, Sohrabjee (wine merchants), Minoo & Dinshaw (watches, cutlery) and Taraporewala (sewing machines) were the most well known.
Drinking, dancing, seeing risqué live shows, enjoying (authentic) Chinese dinners, buying the latest trousseaus imported from London – colonial Huzrutgunge had it all. It was truly the place to be at that point of time. Perhaps Hazratganj will never see such Bohemian, carefree days again.
Independence and Afterwards
World War II and India’s subsequent Independence had a sobering effect on Hazratganj. From drinking, dancing and dining, people gravitated to coffee shops, confectioneries and sedate dinners. Stricter rules of censorship ensured that risqué shows like The Hotcha Girls faded into oblivion. Prohibition ensured strict control of liquor sales, use of electricity for commercial purposes was restricted, and construction of non-essential buildings (a Nehruvian concept) had a telling effect on Hazratganj’s carefree days. Who says that freedom doesn’t come at a price? For Lucknowites, freedom came, perhaps at the cost of another kind of freedom – the freedom to be carefree and enjoy life.
Novelty cinema opened in Lalbagh in 1947, followed by Basant in 1948. Restaurants like Kwality’s (Mayfair building), Ranjana, Annapurna and New India Coffee House (Prince building), Kay’s Kozy Korner (Jehanagirabad Mansion) and Chinese restaurants like Jone Hing and Simson continued to draw crowds of the indigenous kind. The most unique of them all was the India Coffee House, started in 1938, in the premises of the Jehangirabad Mansion, which became a center for the gathering of city intellectuals after independence. Post-partition, the influx of refugees from Pakistan created a drastic change in the market dynamics of Hazratganj. The customers’ profiles also changed. Kiosks, shanties and encroachments came up, changing the look of the market forever. An agglomeration of such kiosks before the regular shops in the Beg building (opposite the DRM’s office), created the now defunct, yet famous Lovers’ Lane, where the space between shops was so narrow that jostling and body-brushing became inevitable. Over time, Lovers’ Lane acquired an USP of its own, and people went ‘ganjing’ or loitering in the market, for the sole reason of crossing Lovers’ Lane, not once, but several times over.
Over successive decades, Hazratganj continued to evolve as a market, although it remained confined between the Vidhan Sabha Crossing and the Halwasiya Court – further development of shops being hampered for the obvious reason that there was no space for expansion. For some curious reason, contiguous Lalbagh could never acquire the touch of glamour and heritage value that Hazratganj had. Several landmarks of Hazratganj, like the Kazim & Co., Mayfair, Ranjana restaurant, the British Council Library, Benbow’s, New India Coffee House and Modern Novelties disappeared into oblivion; others like Mullicks, Cheap House, Rupani Bros, Whorra’s and Devi Radiogram survived, despite changing customer profiles and tastes. More recently, Saharaganj Mall proved to be stiff competition to ageing Hazratganj, but could not quite replace it. After all, there are malls and malls, but only one Hazratganj.
As a survival strategy, Hazratganj had two drastic make-overs, first in the late ‘70s and then in 2010-11. The latter needs no elaboration, since it is still fresh in the memory of Lucknow’s citizens. The earlier make-over, however, was no less drastic, under the leadership of Rajiv Ratan Shah, the then City Administrator. By the ’70s, Hazratganj had become crowded, unplanned and chocked with encroachments. It needed a fresh lease of life to survive as a modern market in the coming decades. Accordingly, the old-style manual traffic signals were replaced by automatic traffic lights, the pavements were uprooted, rationalized and laid with tiles with safety grills; all illegal shanties, kiosks, and assorted commercial establishments were demolished and most shop-owners were rehabilitated in the under-construction Janpath Market in the Begum Kothi area.
Two administrative decisions of far-reaching consequence were also taken during the make-over of 1975. The first was the complete demolition of the Lovers’ Lane in the Beg Building, and secondly, the adoption of the universal color scheme, in which all buildings of a particular area would be similarly colored. After many hiccups and protests, the pink and beige scheme was implemented in Hazratganj. It survives till today – thankfully no one has tried to create any controversy over this, as some people are wont to do.
It is heartening to note that the future Lucknow Metro Project has recognized the heritage value of Hazratganj and accordingly, will have underground lines in the area. The Metro line will surely improve connectivity, just like it has done for Connaught Place and Chandni Chowk in Delhi, giving a fresh lease of life to these perennially crowded markets.
Incidentally, for the citizens of Lucknow, the make-over of the ‘70s resulted in demolition of a heritage building, the venerable Begum Kothi (amidst much public outcry); the second make-over resulted in the demolition of the colonial Hazratganj Kotwali (again amidst much protest), which had celebrated its centenary year in 2009.
Evolution is indeed a continuous process, and the old must make way for the new. While looking forward eagerly to the future, we can but pause for a while in our busy lives, and shed a tear over the times gone by, good or bad.