We may have sketched the real coordinates of the world, but the mind still maps places like an imaginative medieval cartographer. Based more on intuition and collective memory than on sextants and satellites. It's this blurring of boundaries between the real and the mythical that lends some places an abiding mystery.
Rampur, famous for its eponymous chaku, falls in that twilight space-time. In fact, when we say Rampuri, it's not the place but Hindi film villain Madan Puri brandishing its most famous (in the dominant social memory, that is) symbol, the knife, that comes to mind.
It isn't easy to make Rampur's acquaintance. Pushed to the fringes of contemporary history and obscure to prominent geography (about four hours and 180 km from Delhi en route to Bareilly, there is nothing inviting in the city's outward expression to pull one off the highway), only serendipity or design can reveal the true personality of this former princely state.
We snake our way through the labyrinthine narrow streets in our quest for the chakuwali gali. It's the month of Ramzan and the streets have an air of solemnity and celebration. It seems we are the only 'tourists' around. Eyes, many peering from behind black amorphous frames, of intrigue and amusement follow us. A finely-crafted but crumbling arched gate called the Idgah Gate ushers us into the old city. From one of its pillars hangs a Coca-Cola hoarding, looking rather triumphant. Hail globalisation! I exclaim. As we explore further, however, we discover a strong continuum with the past—shops selling tobacco, jewellery, hookahs and the unique Rampuri topi abound.
The chakuwali gali is a letdown. Only four shops remain of what once used to be a thriving market. 'Colonel' Khushnood Mian, 58, who has been selling Rampuris since he was 15, is pessimistic about this steely wonder: "Because it's illegal to sell or keep it without a valid licence, there aren't too many buyers. Even Bollywood, which made it a part of popular lore, has lost interest in it." Indeed, makers of Rampuris have switched to making primitive firearms, called kattas or tamanchas, reportedly a thriving business in Rampur. His anger spent, Khushnood Mian poses for us as he whips out his nine-inch Rampuri with the flick of a button. A bystander comments that the colonel could have given Madan Puri a run for his money.
Like M.C. Escher's famous graphic of a city merging into its impression on a canvas, the outer layer of the city peels away to expose its grander interior: the fort built by the nawabs of Rampur. Just outside one of the 12 entrance gates to the fort rises a magnificent double of Delhi's Jama Masjid. Except that the arches have a distinctly European touch, as Sultan Abdul Aziz, a 70-year-old scion of the royal family and a master raconteur with a Rabelaisian sense of humour, lets us know. A biochemist by training, he is an avid dog lover and a charitable homoeopath. Almost everybody we meet in the market acknowledges him. "I'm notorious as the idle, naughty imp," he chuckles.
He is now our guide and philosopher, with all the promise of becoming a good friend. He shepherds us into Rampur's most treasured but lesser-known heritage: the magnificent Rampur Raza library, which houses some of the rarest manuscripts in the world. Among its collection of 1,500 manuscripts: a unique copy of the Holy Quran in early Kufi script attributed to the Prophet's son-in-law, Hazrat Ali, dating back to 661 AD; another by the master calligrapher of the Caliph of Baghdad, dating from the 13th century; a marvellous copy of Valmiki's Ramayana in Persian. Aziz takes us on a tour of the library, flaunting his knowledge of Rampur's nawabs. The exhibition hall has a distinctly European look, with Belgian cutglass and French chandeliers. The ornately filigreed ceiling is decaying. The library, run by a family trust since its inception in 1798, had fallen on bad times after the demise of Raza Ali Khan, the last nawab, in 1964. However, Prof Nurul Hassan, former Union education minister and the last nawab's son-in-law, saved the library from further decline. Thanks to his efforts, it was declared a National Library in 1975.
Interestingly, Rampur's regal blueprint, which includes the mosque and the library, was designed by a French architect. Some distance from the library, his marble statue, covered by a black patina of long neglect, stands looking rather sad and anachronistic. We are about to move on to other attractions of the city. Aziz, still brimming with a professional guide's enthusiasm, suddenly lights up and whispers into my ear: "Wait, I've a surprise for you." I follow his springy steps into an official-looking room. A greying old man sits hunched over a table. Aziz announces with some flair: "Mian Kalshian, meet Mian Imtiaz Ali Khan, a direct descendant of Mian Tansen."
The old man looks up, a little startled by the attention. We exchange pleasantries, after which he regales us with memorable anecdotes about his ancestors and how they founded one of the most accomplished gharanas of Hindustani classical music, the Rampur-Sahaswan gharana. Though not a musician himself, it is gratifying to meet somebody directly related to the most famous name in Indian classical music.
We bid Imtiaz Ali goodbye. Our next halt: the house of Sakhawat Hussain Khan Nishat, the grandson of Mushtaq Hussain Khan, arguably the most famous exponent of the Rampur gharana. Nishat Mian is in his early 40s and a musician of fair accomplishment though not a star yet. He often performs on All India Radio and is about to cut an album of ghazals. He recently wrote a short history of the gharana from which he showcases some interesting nuggets. Its defining metier, he says, was dhrupad dhamar, a style of singing invented by Tansen's sons who adorned the Rampur Nawabi: "In Tansen's time, dhrupad was sung in Sanskrit. But later exponents of the style adopted Urdu as the main language. With time, however, the school embraced another style called the khayal, a freer, more mellifluous style of singing poems." It's this style that now defines the gharana. Nishat demonstrates the difference by singing a composition in both styles. He sings beautifully. Incidentally, Bhatkhande, who wrote the most famous treatise on Indian classical music, based most of his work on the Rampur gharana. Sulochana Brihaspati, the famous singer and disciple of the venerable Mushtaq Hussain Khan, remains perhaps the last surviving star of this school. Nishat fears that if not patronised and nourished, the school may lose its originality.
Aziz, who we discover is also a gourmet of Rampuri cuisine, draws a parallel between Rampuri food and music. "Both fell into decline after the dissolution of the princely state because both were elitist, patronised and nurtured by the nawabs themselves. Now, much of what is Rampuri is either lost or being sold off in its spurious forms," laments Aziz. The famed but lesser known Rampur hound is another such gem. Aziz promises to introduce us to what he thinks is perhaps one of the last surviving specimens of this fabulous breed.
Phizu, 2-years-old, 28 inches tall and almost 6 feet long, is a great looking— though not exactly original according to Aziz—sample of the royal breed. Deceptively innocuous, the Rampur hound is extremely ferocious. It was bred as a multi-purpose dog in the time of Nawab Ahmed Ali Khan in the early 19th century. It, explains Aziz, is a complex cross between six breeds—Irish wolfhound, Scottish greyhound, English greyhound, Afghan hound, Potavin (a French breed) and Chippiparai (a south Indian breed known to hunt even big cats). Today the breed is close to extinction. "If someone can give me the money, I'd love to revive its old glory," says Aziz. But lack of resources is precisely why everything Rampuri the nawabs nourished and refined may end up in the dustbin of history. Nishat sums up his angst: "Kya poochte ho haal mere karobar ka/sheeshe bechta hoon andhon ke shahar mein (Why ask about the state of my business? I sell mirrors in the country of the blind)."
The great poet Ghalib, who following the 1857 mutiny, was rescued from penury by the erstwhile Nawab of Rampur with a generous lifetime pension of Rs 100 per month, wrote: "Shama har rang mein jalti hai sahar hone tak (The flame burns in every hue till the dawn breaks)." Will Ghalib's paean to hope ever ring true for Rampur?