A title with two cryptic terms, really? I am sorry, but it has to be that way: "phenomenology" is in essence what anthropologists do, while "Tehzeeb" is an Urdu word for "culture", which in turn marks the discipline's pinnacle (or obstacle, depending on your perspective).12 No flexibility in titling, thus...

More to the point, however, Tehzeeb is also the pinnacle (and maybe obstacle?) of popular and academic imaginaries of Lucknow, where I am about to enter the third month of my fieldwork. Two major events just passed which inspired today's reflection: the culmination of Muharram in Ashura, and the last day of the Lucknow Mahotsav (pictured, in all its dusty beauty, to the right). The latter is marketed by UP tourism as the definite "festival of Awadh culture", while many a signboard in town in contrast celebrates Muharram as the "essence of Tehzeeb". I am not just interested in these events, though: in fact ever since I arrived in Lucknow, the city's famed "lost culture" seems both omnipresent and elusive. Everybody here talks about it (or rather: about its absence). But what's behind it - that proves surprisingly hard to come by.

In today's post, I would thus like to float a surprisingly simple answer: that the key to the "lost culture of Lucknow" might in fact not lie in the rather elusive notion of "Tehzeeb" at all, but rather in the process of mourning the same, a process which bonds (some) Lucknowites together. In other words, my argument posits Tehzeeb as an empty signifier of belonging. The assumption of emptiness might of course stem from ignorance, I am willing to acknowledge as much. But then, people got it right by keeping things simple more often than not. Or rather: got it right by staying close to the phenomena under observation. What are the phenomena which lead me to believe that "Lucknowi Tehzeeb" is an empty signifier, then?

For instance the following encounter: soon after settling down in Lucknow, I ran into Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah, a highly visible if slightly controversial figure in Lucknow (for the controversy look here). I am not interested here to comment on the veracity of his title or on his role in contemporary Lucknow high society - both is of little relevance to my argument. What I found interesting were his comments on "Tehzeeb" in our conversation - and the museum room attached to his house, in which we met (for a visual impression consult YouTube). There he elaborated in stylized Urdu that "Tehzeeb" can only be revived if parents teach it to their children - alas those only want to learn about computers. He opined about the bad effects of modernization which make you forget your roots. He mourned the influx of Bollywood-Hindi into town. And to cite a more concrete example, he blamed the first Lucknow Slut Walk in August as the most blatant attack on "Tehzeeb" ever. In between, we had tea, admired ancient christmas balls, and discussed recent news such as the meeting between a Shia cleric and a former RSS supremo (see here).

It was an interesting afternoon in many ways, but most interesting was the absence of any positive definition of "Tehzeeb". It emerged that the same is not computers, not modernization, not Hindi, and not women fighting sexual harrassment. Similarly, conversations with other people over the last weeks revealed that "Tehzeeb" is not to be found among migrants, not among Sunnis, and, according to some, not at all (anymore). Only what it is remained elusive...

For sure: there was the Nawab's museum, his elaborate Urdu, his mannerism. There are also the posters mentioned above which praise Muharram as the pinnacle of "Tehzeeb" (a notion seconded strongly by the Nawab, too). There is the Mahotsav. But what would link these disparate examples together? Whenever my conversations turned concrete, definitions ex negativo emerged - which made me formulate the hypothesis that "Tehzeeb" might indeed be a rather empty signifier around which people can rally to constitute belongings and non-belongings in/to Lucknow. The most important phenomenon associated with "Tehzeeb", to return to this post's title, might be the fact that people mourn its absence.

Through which concrete practices this mourning manifests itself is something I will continue to unearth. But my explorations so far led me to the simple working assumption that "Lucknowi Tehzeeb" takes on its least concrete forms the closer you look. So that in the end, the mourning itself, and its associated phenomenology, become the key element of "Tehzeeb". I will let you know how this counter-intuitive line of enquiry turns out - and I am very curious to hear your opinion on the "lost culture of Lucknow"...

  • 1. Clifford J, Marcus GE (Eds.). (1986). Writing culture. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
  • 2. Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing against culture. In R.G. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.