My mother, Jahanara Habibullah, was born in the princely state of Rampur in 1915. She wrote her first book, a memoir of Rampur, in her last years and was 84 when it was published. Initially, it appeared as an English translation. Subsequently, her publisher, OUP, began its Urdu programme and brought out the original as Zindagi Ki Yaadein: Riyasat Rampur Ka Nawabi Daur in 2003. My mother died in her sleep shortly before her book launch, which became a memorial instead. The crowded Karachi audience clearly knew and loved the poetry interspersed throughout her narrative, ranging from lines by Amir Khusro, Mir and Shibli Naumani to Ameer Meenai and Ghalib. The last two were famously associated with the Rampur court and Nawab Yousuf Ali Khan was Ghalib’s pupil.
The princes of Rampur had a vast personal collection of manuscripts, which they gifted to the nation. This has become the Raza Library, housed within the royal fort (Qila-i-Mualla, my mother called it) in Hamid Manzil, a building centred around a gilt and marble Darbar Hall dominated by a brilliant chandelier. According to Kutub Khana by Raza Ali Abidi, the Raza Library is the largest in India; it includes thousands of texts in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and some in Pashto and Turkish. My mother mentions a leather copy of the Quran in kufic script dating back to the first century AH and Tarikh-i-Muhammadi by Mirza Muhammed Badakshahi from Aurangzeb’s time. This collection was initiated by Rampur’s first ruler but it grew and developed after 1857: Nawab Yousuf Ali Khan welcomed to his court the many artists, writers and scholars who fled from Delhi and Lucknow during the ghaddar. Recently the collection of the rulers of Loharu has been added to the Raza Library (my mother’s book has much about Loharu, her maternal family).
The Rampur gharana of music is famous and the Rampur rulers were great connoisseurs. My mother mentions that Nawab Raza Ali Khan (he was married to her eldest sister) gathered “superb performers at his court” and “was an accomplished musician himself”. He wrote books on music “with sangit sagar notations”, he composed ragas, wrote and “set songs to dhrupad, sadhra, hori, khayal” and other forms and “arranged nohas and soz to … special ragas.” He played the pakhawaj and the kher taal (castanets) too. In Rampur music was central to every occasion: on Eid the ceremonial naubat (drum, shehnai, trumpet and flute) was played and, at the Qila, amid notes of mubarak baadi and raag darbari there was also a mardana and zenana darbar, the latter attended by begums in farshi pyjama and spectacular jewellery.
Rampur was renowned for its cuisine. There were different chefs for each speciality. My mother explains that various qaliyas included the Mughal version of shab degh; then there were pulaos, kebabs and halwas; the varieties of sweet rice included muttanjan which “contains sugar which is four times the weight of the uncooked rice and is garnished with tiny, round, sweet gulab jamuns and tiny round spicy mutton koftas.”
The ruling family of Rampur originally spoke Pashto. They were Rohilla Pathans who migrated to a region between the Ganges and Kumaon Hills, once known as Rohilkhand. They included eminent generals and statesmen, such as Ahmed Shah Abdali’s ally at Panipat, and vice-regent, Nawab Najib-ud-Daula, my mother’s ancestor; and Nawab Faizullah Khan, the founder of Rampur State. He built the Qila in 1774 and was a key figure in the Rohilla Wars which became a cause celebre in the impeachment of Warren Hastings.
In the ghaddar (the Nawabs of Najibabad, my mother’s forbears, were executed by the British for mutiny. After great hardship, the survivors were given refuge by Nawab Kalb-i-Ali Khan, the new ruler of Rampur; they were closely related because the Najibabad, Rampur (and Loharu) families had intermarried. Subsequently, my mother’s family included a Commander-in-Chief and a Regent of Rampur; her father Sahibzada Sir Abdus Samad Khan became the Chief Minister and her eldest sister married the Walihaid — the future Nawab Raza Ali Khan. She was 12 years older than my mother who called her Apa Jan. She had a profound love and knowledge of Urdu literature; she created wondrous fables in the dastaan tradition and composed poems, including wedding sehras for her brothers. Her vivid article “Jab Mein Dulhan Bani” about her marriage, is included in my mother’s book, as is her description of her “Sawani Ceremony” in 1921 in the fabled Benazir Gardens where servant girls in colourful lehngas and silver ornaments distributed mehndi and multicoloured chunrees to guests; “from every tree you could hear people singing a different malhar”. She sat with her bridegroom, the Walihaid, on a swing with a gold and silver plank tied by multicoloured threads. The rituals began with the recitation of Bismillah and a nichhawar of ashrafis by Nawab Hamid Ali Khan, followed by songs and dance, culminating with raag bhairavi at dawn.
My mother has included in her book photographs of Nawab Hamid Ali Khan at the Prince of Wales’s visit in 1905 and the 1911 Coronation Durbar. These events belong to a public world inhabited by men, which filters into my mother’ narrative, but hers is the comparatively little-photographed world of women.
In 1930, Nawab Raza Ali Khan became the ruler of Rampur. My mother saw his investiture ceremony in the darbar hall “from the upstairs gallery... where arrangements had been made for Apa Jan and the purdah observing ladies”. The royal procession included infantry, heralds, golden horse-drawn carriages, elephants carrying the naubat, and performing musicians and singers carried on takhts by sturdy men. The moment the new ruler, in a “tash badla sherwani”, diamond crown and regalia, alighted at Hamid Manzil, rows of elephants laden with “gold and silver ornaments” raised their trunks in salute. Inside the darbar hall, he took his place on a gold chair “with a gold lion’s head carved at the end of each arm and upholstered in red velvet”, under “an awning shot with gold”. The guests, included rulers from other princely states, in formal court dress — turbans, aigrettes, swords.
Both the mardana and zenana ceremonies resounded with raag darbari and my mother witnessed her sister’s investiture as Rafat Zamani Begum of Rampur in the Qila’s palace with the largest mahalsera. Colourful masnads and cushions were scattered on white floor cloths. The new Begum entered in her crown, regalia and karchobi farshi paincha. She was announced and preceded by two chobdarnis (women heralds) and two khwajasaras (eunuchs) followed behind; she took her place on a kalabatun masnad with cushions, under an awning “a namgira of spectacular craftmanship” with gold supports.
Nawab Raza Ali Khan opened out Rampur to new ideas, relaxed the stiflingly strict rules of the Qila and moved his residence from there to Khasbagh Palace alongside leafy avenues outside the old city. In 1931, my mother and her second sister Fakhra (they were very close) discarded purdah, visited Europe and England and returned to a changed Rampur. “There were Englishmen everywhere,” new factories and developments and a new social life with tennis matches, dinners, balls — and summers in Mussoorie.
None of this prepared Rampur, or princely India, for the whirlwind of history, modernity and egalitarianism: inevitably it crumbled with the upheavals of Independence and Partition. But Rampur’s intellectual heritage lives on.
In 2005, I visited the Raza Library in Rampur, headed by Dr W.H. Siddiqi. I found he had acquired the English version of my mother’s book and was delighted with the Urdu edition that I gave. He told me that my mother’s was such a rare record that it was a great service to Rampur. I longed to tell this to my mother, that most unassuming of women. She would have been bowled over. Her eyes would have lit up and she would have said “Acha! Really? Is it true?”