“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.” …Haruki Murakami
I was 9 years old when I was caught red handed watching with interest, pleasure and curiosity a large poster of ‘Pukar’ a film of Kamal Amrohi that was screened in a cinema hall ‘Subhash Talkies’ of my town but generally known as ‘Mandua’ which literally means Bush. It may remind you old sweet lyric – ‘Do badan pyar ki aag men jal gaye, ek chameli ke manduay taley..” My maternal uncle was passing through that street at that very moment and he reported my adventure in all details to my mother. In those days, the kids who were seen around the ‘Lipton Road’ or ‘Thandi Sadak’ in the vicinity of twin theatres were considered potential-rascals or bad characters. Despite being the birth place of three great film personalities Najam Naqvi, Kamal Amrohi and Hayat Amrohvi (writer of famous Indian song – Zindagi ka saaz bhee kiya saaz hai, baj raha hai aour bey awaaz hai) the aristocratic gentry of Amroha didn’t approve the visits of school boys, young kids to theaters. The times of Notanki were almost over and cinema was making fast inroads into the town society.
As a punishment, I was made to coil my ears, forced to acquire the posture of a duck for few minutes and then in a small procession I was carried to a place of worship where I had to take a pledge ‘never to stop at any place to see a film posture or watch a film in my life.’
I was sixteen when I landed at Aligarh as a PUC student of Aligarh Muslim University.
‘Tasveer Mahal’ was the nearest cinema hall to my hostel and now I’d complete freedom to watch the movie – without fear of universe. ‘Ganga Jamuna’ was movie running there. My joy knew no bounds when I entered the darkness of hall. A gatekeeper focused the light of his pencil torch at my seat and advised me to proceed. I don’t know if an emperor would have felt the similar exultation as I felt that day. I can still recall those priced moments. I’ve no count for how many pictures I’d seen in Tasveer Mahal later. It was my favorite hang-out.
But before I proceed further about the history and my connections with Tasveer Mahal it would be appropriate if I share the history of this genre of entertainment that is so dear to me even now in this ripe age.
The cinematography as a medium of entertainment that flourished around the globe in form of movies has its roots in drama or theater in Greece and Roman cultures. In the post Vedic period there is no hint of the matured art of theater even till 1000 BC. Rishi Patanjali had made cursory references of ‘Sanskrit Drama’ in his treatise ‘The Mahabhasya.’ The epic had made its appearance around 140 BC. That is the first milestone in the history of ‘Theater in India.’ Another source of ancient theater history is recorded in ‘Natyasastra’ of Bharat Muni. The treatise encompassed almost all areas of theater sciences and arts like make-up, costuming, architecture, acting, music and dramatic construction. The places where dramas were enacted were considered sacred as only priests with mastery over required skills were allowed to participate. The purpose of theater was philanthropic – education and entertainment.
Sanskrit drama was regarded as the highest achievement of literature of that period. In 4th century Kalidasa is considered to be India’s greatest Sanskrit dramatist. He is attributed for writing the famous romantic plays: ‘Malavikagnimitram’, ‘Vikramuurvashiiya’ and ‘Abhijinanasakuntala.’ In 7th century AD another great Indian dramatist ‘Bhavabhuti’ enriched the world of theater with a set of three plays: Malati-Madhava, Mahaviracharita and Uttar Ramacharita. Emperor Harsha (606-648) was another notable dramatist with having written three plays: the comedy ‘Ratnavali’, ‘Priyadarsika’ and ‘Nagananda’.
Islam doesn’t approve female dancers and gyrating appearance of woman before pubic. Consequently, the art of theater where a female had to be the integral part was either forbidden or discouraged during 10th and 11th centuries. In the 15th century, at the dawn of more liberal era, village theaters made a feeble com-back and included a large number of regional languages.
During the colonial rule, under the British Empire, from mid-19th century to mid-20th century the Indian theater bloomed in its modern form. Lumiere movies of London were first shown in Bombay in 1896. The first Indian film released was ‘Shree Pundalik’ which was a silent Marathi film by Dadasaheb Torne on 18 May 1912 at ‘Coronation Cinematograph’, Bombay. In 1913, Dadasaheb Phalke had produced ‘Raja Harishchandra’ the first full-length motion picture in India. The first silent film in Tamil, ‘Keechaka Vadham’ was produced by R. Nataraja Mudaliar in 1916.
As tickets were affordable to the common man and time that passed in the movie house was pretty long, the cinema as a medium gained fast popularity across India’s population. The entry into a theater was as cheap as an anna (6.25 paisa) in Bombay.
This article is neither concerned about the history of Indian cinema nor the artists. I am recalling the palace of dreams – Tasveer Mahal and its surrounding. So let me return to my original topic.
The ruin of now defunct house of pleasures is located on Anoopshahar Road that passes through my alma mater – Aligarh Muslim University. It was once a throbbing spot of cultured and well dressed students – an essential landmark to dispense with the loads of erudition and books for few hours. It was closer to most of the residential areas of students. If we had no bicycle we could foot the distance without being tired. Today, what is left are the remaining vestiges of a great sanctum sanctorum of Aligarh Entertainment Life – the faded falling walls and columns, a rubble of bricks and mortar. I feel like crying as the place is giving way to an upcoming lifeless mall where entry would be based on consumption and not for aesthetic pleasure.
Soon a symbol of cultural and history of AMU neighborhood would dissolve in dust. Aligarians are robbed of their first sight that was reminder of their entry into the campus for generations – a door step on their ‘Madinatul Elm’ the Town of Knowledge. The first look at Tasveer Mahal was soothing, refreshing, consoling and reassuring as we would return the university after passing our vacations at home. It was always a rich experience.
According to great historian Irfan Habib, Tasver Mahal was built in 1944-45 by Tufail Ahmad, a rich man who did not follow any definite profession as such. The hall showed both new as well as old films in its early years. A Mahal of Tasveer raised by Tofail Ahmad is now fallen at the crack of economics.
There is an Old Christian Cemetery a few hundred meters away, abutting Tasveer Mahal. The two epitaphs that I could still vividly recall, one placed on the small grave of child, it said – ‘This bud faded without bloom.’ It was the grave of British child. The name and years were difficult to decipher. It used to remind me of the Urdu couplet – ‘Hasrat un ghunchon pa hai jo bin khile murjha gaye….”There was another cynic pronouncement seemed to written by person slept there – “At last I’m at rest with this world !” Half a century rolled by. The world is changed. Aligarh is changed. I didn’t check if ‘Mehdi Hasan’ the famous sherwani tailor who had set his shop in 1947 near Tasveer Mahal is still running his shop there. The ‘House of Mehdi Hasan’ was famous for its royal connections. They have been tailor to presidents, prime ministers and Bollywood celebrities. While ‘Mehdi Hasan’ were stitching the sherwanis for big shots, they were within the reach of poor like this humble scribe.
Today the physical structure Tasveer Mahal may give way but the memories of Tasveer Mahal would remain till my memory and senses survive this body. I loved you Tasveer Mahal! You had often given me the best of moments of my life.
By Naim Naqvi