Publication Type:

Conference papers


Raphael Susewind


Mitteldeutscher Südasientag, June 3, Leipzig (2016)




Today, the Rifah-e-Aam Club in Lucknow is the place where the neighbourhood of Wazirganj casts its votes at election times and celebrates its marriages, where political rallies take place and Ifthar dinners are arranged, where I played Badminton with local goons and policemen during 17 months of ethnographic fieldwork – or just spent evenings with young men from the neighbourhood in “timepass”. But it turned out that the Club, which initially appeared to be little more than a picturesque if increasingly deprecit structure from the local past and a fun place to hang out for kite-flying and cricketeering was also the very place where “civil society” in a modern sense emerged in the late 19th century; befittingly, “Rifah-e-Aam” even literally translates as “the public good”. Here, nationalist demands began to flourish before spreading across Awadh. Here, Gandhi and Nehru met for the first time in 1916 according to local folklore (and the former famously proclaimed, in shock at the splendour of the Club’s great hall, that he “wants to see poverty in Lucknow”). Here, the contemporary politics of class, caste and community are played out in all their divisiveness. But not just politics, poetics, too, crystallize in this building. The Club was the place where the Jalsah-e-Tehzeeb formed, an influential Urdu literary circle in the 19th century, where the Progressive Writers’ Movement later held its very first meeting under the auspices of Munshi Premchand, and where today’s caretaker spends his time writing alternative versions of the Ramayana and kitsch Hindi love poetry. Since any club is at its core a game of belonging and non-belonging, it is therefore through the prism of this building, its entangled histories and contemporary significance that this paper explores the changing composition of North India’s public sphere since 1857 – changes which link Wazirganj to much wider landscapes.