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Their ancestral home ‘Kotwara House’ is nestled within the old quarters of Lucknow
“This house shuts out the noise and sound of the world outside,” says Meera Ali, designer and architect about her husband, filmmaker, and designer Muzzafar Ali’s ancestral home in Lucknow. She is right because as soon as you step into the woven dhurrie-clad floors of this heritage home, you are engulfed by the sense of stillness and quiet that pervades the house. Kotwara house is an oasis of calm in the noisy and chaotic old quarters of Lucknow city known as Qaiserbagh. It is one of the townhouses, which are a part of the Qaiserbagh Palace quadrangle, which was built by the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah for his wives in 1842. Later when it came under the control of the British government in India, it was gifted to the Taluqadars or landowners of Awadh under the Crown Grant Act in 1861. Muzaffar Ali’s great grandfather Raja Raza Hussain of the taluqadari of Kotwara bought it in 1921 from the Raja of Chandrapur.
One of the house rules Meera and Muzzafar Ali follow is that everyone must remove their footwear before you enter their home. It shows how important this family property is to the couple where they almost regard it with reverence. “While it is an uphill task to maintain a heritage property like this, I consider it a privilege and a responsibility to keep this historic home functioning,” says Meera whose formal training in architecture was a big asset in restoring the house when the responsibility to look after the place fell on her husband’s shoulders. “My father-in-law was a man of letters and had become a recluse when he lived here,” she says recalling the first time she visited this house. False partitions had propped up all over the house to carve out smaller rooms, which were rented out to various tenants. This is a common practice among homeowners of heritage properties in Lucknow, to sustain living in these unwieldy old bungalows.
Once they got the property free of tenants Meera and Muzaffar got down to restoring the old house to its former glory. Some of the heavy architectural work required the roof to be completely redone along with extensive waterproofing, and the walls had to be plastered again with the traditional limestone-based mix of surkhi plaster and all the rooms were opened up to their original dimensions. This meant that they have fewer rooms now but all rooms have beautiful vast proportions.
Meera and Muzaffar, the architect and the artist, were the perfect mix of creativity and practicality required to handle a project like this. “We used the classic style of conservation where we tried to be true to the original as much as possible,” she says. To replace the old doors instead of copying them they went scouting in the old markets of Lucknow and found old doors of that period to install. They ordered stain glass windows from Firozabad to repair the windows. Since a part of the old mouldings were still intact, they were carefully replicated on the façade of the house. “Some of the rooms indoors had the original plaster and it still looked so good that we let it be to keep the charm of the place alive,” says Ali.
To keep true to character, the husband-and-wife duo did extensive research on the architecture and design of the period and delved into family albums to study vintage photographs to try and recreate the authentic look of the interiors. “The most important thing while handling heritage properties is to exercise restraint and respect the originality of the building,” says Meera.
However, the house is not completely devoid of contemporary touches. The bathrooms were completely gutted and replaced with modern amenities. Air conditioning was added to the rooms. Lighting was planned keeping practicality in mind. “If you have to live here, basic modern comforts cannot be ignored.”
Old homes like this one are demanding in their own unique way, as Meera has come to realize with the constant challenges the house keeps throwing at her. “These spaces are a work in progress and a daily challenge.” This summer it was the air conditioning pipes that caused seepage in some of the old walls, just after they finished waterproofing one of the terraces. Each day the property throws down the gauntlet, but Meera is more than ready to pick it up. She says, “I am the kind of person who thrives on the challenge of what next is coming my way. I enjoy tackling these minor crises when they come.”
While the couple is happy to preserve their family legacy, a lot of their neighbours are looking for a way out since these properties are very expensive to look after. The property right across the road from them has been sold and a mall now overshadows the look of the palace quadrangle. “Sometimes we feel we are alone in the struggle, when we see neighboring properties selling out to big builders,” says Ali.
However, giving up is not an option for them. Kotwara House enjoyed the reputation of being an intellectual hub where writers, poets and politicians of the time debated and discussed matters that shaped and affected society, over games of chess and cups of tea. Muzaffar’s father Raja Syed Sajid Husain was a member of the Communist party of Scotland and despite being an aristocrat by birth believed in the revolutionary and socialist ideas of the time. In 1948 a historic outreach meeting for Muslim intellectuals was chaired by Maulana Azad in Kotwara House, to maintain the social fabric of Lucknow, which was reeling from the repercussions of the Partition.
Today Meera and Muzaffar have not just restored the structure of the house but are trying to keep the spirit of their home alive. Most of the spaces in the house are being used to promote the arts and the cultural legacy of Awadh. They run a crafts center where people can see local craftsmen use traditional embroidery like chikankari to create designs for the couple’s design label, House of Kotwara. Their khansamas or chefs prepare Lucknowi delicacies for pre-booked meals to promote the culinary heritage of the state. “Living here is not an indulgence for us. We have a purpose to keep this legacy alive,” says Muzzafar.
Stately old homes like Kotwara are then a significant part of what remains of Awadh’s cultural heritage. It is not just its beautiful romantic architecture, but when its walls have witnessed so much history and change, it is essential that it is maintained and lived in, for as long as possible.
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