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Muharram in Gwalior
As one grows old one tends to look back into the past. Any event or festival or ceremony takes the mind years back and associated memories come flooding back before the mind’s eyes in the shape of lifelike moving images, almost like the present-day videos. As one views them one gets enthralled, losing all sense of time in watching something that actually takes place only in the cerebrum.
Something like that happened to me the other day. It was Muharram, the day of mourning for Muslims for the martyrdom of Husain ibn Ali, who is revered by all Shia for fighting tyranny. My mind effortlessly travelled back in time and started retrieving images from early 1940s of Muharram of my childhood in Gwalior, a princely Indian State in Central India, ruled by the then young, barely-in-his-twenties, Jiwajirao Scindia, grandfather of Jyotiraditya Scindia, currently a Minister in the Government of India.
Truly secular, Gwalior State, now at this distance of time, seems to have been the epitome of the famed Indian “composite culture”. Life mostly revolved around the Maharaja, a benign feudal, who used to actively participate in most of the religious festivals. A major festival, whether of Hindus, Muslims or any other community, was nothing unless he was a part of it. Every year on the occasion of Muharram he would come out in procession to the local Karbala. Perched on a black and white horse dressed in his ceremonial richly worked-on angarkha, laden with assorted jewels and with his trademark Maratha pagri placed on his head with just a hint of a tilt to its left he would ride down the city roads. His numerous ministers (locally known as sardars) and important officials dressed likewise would be in tow on horses more or less of similar kind.
Like on Dussehra, it was carnival time of sorts – of those innocent days. Roads would be blocked for hours – more for ensuring a clear passage than for security – as the Maharaja would come out among his people. None would mind the inconvenience. Those were unhurried times. People would go about their businesses through the mass of humanity consisting of rural folk assembled on the pavements. Villagers in large numbers from the hinterland visiting for the occasion would camp overnight on the footpaths. For them witnessing the procession was incidental; they would mostly come to see their loved and revered Maharaja during one of his rare public appearances.
Gwalior, seemingly, bursting at its seams, would see frenetic activity. I remember my siblings and I would thread our way with my parents through the milling crowds to reach the house of an acquaintance of my father in the Kampoo area that had a veranda that offered a ringside view of the proceedings.
As the hour of the procession approached the villagers would change into their best in honour of the Maharaja. Generally, the fresh whites of their dresses would be topped by huge colourful turbans with flowing tails. Their women, veiling their faces with their flamboyant saris, would remain in their men’s shadows. As soon as the Maharaja came into view the crowd would burst into a huge roar and the people on the pavements would jostle to get a better view of him. Some would be up on their legs, others would crane their necks from behind, holding their children high above them on their shoulders or climb on trees or any vantage point just to see the Maharaja. As their revered one passed by, they would shout in unison “Maharaja Jiwajirao Scindia ki jai ” .
The crowds used to be thickest near Kampoo, which once used to be the camp of the Scindias and where the Imambara was located. It was also the point of origin of the procession. The Imambara, now much more than a century old, was truly impressive. Of Islamic architectural design, its what seemed to be frightfully high ceiling and mammoth dimensions accommodated the several-storied tazia of the Scindias as it was assembled inside it bit by bit. A decade or so later, I recall, the Imambara became the venue of the national badminton championships in 1952. It had enough space for stands on all sides of the courts for spectators. It was in this Imambara that Nandu Natekar dethroned TN Seth, the then reigning national badminton champion.
I still remember the huge shiny golden multi-storied tazia made on behalf of the Maharaja (the like of which I am yet to see again) leading numerous other smaller shiny and richly-coloured ones of lesser dignitaries, Muslim organisations and individuals along with several tall bright and colourful alams in a seemingly unending stream. They would slowly wend their way down the streets followed by hundreds of mourners, a few with blood on their backs from the iron chains that they lashed themselves with uttering the anguished “ya Husain, hum na hue”.
In Bhopal, too, Muharram is observed with ritualised fervour. It is, however, gradually acquiring a celebratory character. Living as I do, close to Bhopal’s Karbala, I find the place lit up and illuminated with myriad lamps. A Ferris wheel is installed near it and numerous temporary food stalls are erected selling mouth-watering meat preparations and sweets, including the inevitable jalebies. Though loud-speakers broadcast wailing music there is, generally, an air of festivity around the place, giving it the ambience of an amusement park. Processions with numerous tazias and alams come from various parts of the city and converge around Karbala in a huge mass blocking all traffic. One cannot negotiate even the recently constructed VIP Road, the main artery between the north and the south of the town.
But for me, somehow, it is not the same thing. There is a general air of disorder and boisterousness with ear-splitting noise; the tazias are far smaller and the alams pale and pedestrian. Besides, the gilt, the pomp and pageantry seem to be missing.
Or is it that I am deluded by my nostalgia for those good old bygone days?