When I introduced the Rifah-e-Aam Club as my first field discovery in Lucknow back in October, I briefly mentioned its significance for Lucknow Literati circles. It is high time, I feel, to follow-up by looking at two circles in particular - the Progressive Writers Association, which was founded in the Rifah-e-Aam in 1936,1 and the poetic project of the Club's contemporary inhabitant - Sri Cakrapani Pandit. One could add to that list the Jalsah-e-Tehzeeb as the first stage of the Club's relation with literature - but I shall save this for a later post...

Let me first turn to Zaheer's seminal Roshnai,2 in which he reflects upon the convention in which the movement for progressive literature was founded:

We put all our efforts into acquiring the Rifah-e-Aam Hall for our conference. This attractive building had been bequeathed to the nation to serve as a venue for public meetings and conferences, by an eccentric potentate of Lucknow. This progressive-minded gentleman had been dead for several years, and after his departure from the scene, city lawyers and barristers had appropriated the building and set up their club there. The hall now served as a biliard and bridge room and location for a bar (55)

I shall add that the very same bar room is still proudly shown to visitors like me - though nothing than memory reminds one that it had been a bar once. And the billiard table must have been an impressive one, too - all neighbours know of it, and its the first thing mentioned when asking about the Club. On goes Zaheer:

There was a time when historic meetings and conferences used to take place in the Rifah-e-Aam Hall. It was here that, during the First World War, the meeting of the Home Rule League, called by nationalists to protest the arrest of Mrs Anne Besant, was organized. But the British government designated it illegal, and in the first incident of its kind in Lucknow, armed policemen took over the Rifah-e-Aam, sending a wave of terror through the city.

Today, of course, policemen again reign supreme there - though without the terror waves: they just play Badminton, often terribly good badminton (pun intended)... Back to Zaheer:

In 1920, Rifah-e-Aam was the venue for the Khilafat Conference, in which the Ali brothers and all the other big leaders of the coutnry participated. maulana Mohammed Ali spoke continously for six hours on that occasion. Large heaps of British-made cloth were burnt in the Rifah-e-Aam compound. Then, in connection with the Non-cooperation Movement, members of the Congress and Khilafat parties rioted and occupied the hall during a conference of the Liberal party, from whose very platfrom they managed to pass resolutions against the Liberals (55)

It was in this tumultous setting that the Progressive Writers Movement began. Its goal was to transform Indian literature from a stylized, often devotional, and certainly upper-class and -caste affair into a modernist, realistic, socialist, progressive engagement with the challenges faced by the poor.3 It was only fitting, therefore, that the progressive writers declined the luxurious amenities which came with their chosen locality, and rather put up with the following:

The dais was a humble contraption, made of unpolished planks, a foot high, six yards long, and four yards wide, on which a wooden table of indifferent quality had been placed. There were four armchairs too on the dais, but their wood had lost its varnish. The rest of the chairs in the hall had no arms. There was no carpet or rug either on the dais or in the hall. (60)

Ironically, this state of affairs is the contemporary setup in the Rifah-e-Aam still: tattered armchairs, unpolished wood planks, and not even a blanket, let alone a carpet. Yet while the Progressive Writers set out to bring awareness of poverty into a world of upper-class luxury,4 it would be wrong to assume that the current appearance of the Club would speak of a successful lowe-class politicization through literature.5 Quite to the contrary, I should say...

Best proof for this assertion is the kind of literature promoted there today - stylized love poetry, hailed by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpai (not quite a socialist) as "a collection of poems without flaws", which "was so heart-touching that the body rose in excitement". An example - for those readers capable to read (Sanskritized) Hindi 6 - from Pandit-Ji's last selection:7

प्यार से महकी हुई अहसास वाली भोर |
आ गैइ फिर किरन की भुजपाश वाली भोर |

फूल मुरझाए नवेढा रात रानी के,
चुके किस्से दीप की लौ, की कहानी के,
मलय से गंधिल चपल वातास वाली भोर |
आ गैइ फिर किरन की भुजपाश वाली भोर |

चहक कर खोले विहगों ने परों के पाल,
स्वर्ण केशी ने बिखेरा कुन्तलों का जाल,
अंक में ऊषा लिए आकाश वाली भोर |
आ गई फिर किरन की भुजपाश वाली भोर |

सांझ का निर्मित तिमिर का गढ लगा ढहने,
फूट कर सोता उजाले का लगा बहने,
चांदनी की ज्योति का उपहास वाली भोर |
आ गई फिर किरन की भुजपाश वाली भोर |

Who would have thought that a place which started of as the meeting place of the Jalsah-e-Tehzeeb, initially a cultural association of Urdu poets, which then gave birth to the progressive writers and their agenda of socialist literature, now harbours shudh Hindi poetry endorsed by former BJP leader Vajpayee? One more mystery connected to the Rifah-e-Aam indeed!

  • 1. Though my colleage and Lucknowi friend Emily Durham-Shapiro would undoubtedly have a lot more to say on this, since she writes her PhD about it...
  • 2. Zaheer, S. (2006). The light. Oxford: Univ. Press.
  • 3. Emily, correct me here - I acknowledge this is a rather rough summary. Rather rough indeed...
  • 4. In a way enacting Gandhi's famous remark - in 1916 - that he does not want to see luxury, but rather poverty in Lucknow, made as some sources have it, on its way from the railway station to Farangi Mahal, while passing the Rifah-e-Aam Club - but that's another story...
  • 5. More likely it is just the material result of the Taluqedari funds drying up with Zamindari abolishion in the 1970s - another story again...
  • 6. I hope to get around to a translation soon, promise!
  • 7. Pandit, C. (2003). Sudhi Gita. Lucknow.