Ram Advani

Personalities of Hazratganj

In the mid-twenties my parents, along with two other Sindhi families from Karachi, came to Lucknow in search of a new world. I was very young and recall living in Hazratganj. I went to St. Joseph’s school. My father opened the Lucknow Book Shop where the current Kashmir Emporium is, as well as bookshops in Cawnpore and Nainital. My mother died in 1934 and my father decided to return with his young family to Karachi. The two families that had come with him insisted that he stays.

The other two families were those of Seth Gyanchand Thadani and Mr. H. Mansukhani. Mr. Mansukhani was trading in silk from the shop where the current Choudhary Sweet House now stands. His daughter, Shanti Hiranand, later became the first student of Begum Akhtar and continues to perform till today. Mr.Thandani was running four regimental cinemas in the Dilkusha Cantonment and also managing the Prince of Wales Cinema and my father helped him there. Sometimes as children we stood at the gate as ushers and let the British soldiers in and were rewarded with peanuts and chocolates. As children we also got to see every film that was screened at the Prince of Wales cinema. I remember when sound came to the movie in 1934, I saw Rio Rita and what I remember clearly are the signs, lit in red, all around the dark hall, asking for SILENCE. Sometimes I went back again and again to see a particular sequence that I liked. Mr. Thandani wanted to open his own cinema house in civil lines and asked my father to stay on in Lucknow and help him.

After watching films, very often the late show, we used to walk back to our first home in Lucknow, which was close to Wingfield Park. After the Allahabad Bank on Park Road were the Kasmanda House and the residence of the City Magistrate. Beyond Park Lane and up to the crossing of Narhi there was wooded, forest area. Wingfield Park itself stretched right up to Park Road and current Civil Hospital and Information Department buildings were a part of the deer enclosure and you could see deer and rhinos as you walked along Park Road. Across the road from Wingfield Park was just one house, Jackson House. Later it became Thapar House. A road ran through Wingfield Park connecting Jopling Road to Loreto Convent and this was open to vehicular traffic up to the fifties.

My memories of Hazratganj become sharper from 1933 onwards. Perhaps this was because I learnt how to ride a bicycle and began to roam around Hazratganj on it. The roads were cleaner and seemed much wider than now. I clearly remember that between the St. Joseph’s Church and the Post Master General’s office there was just one bungalow. The other prominent buildings that I remember were the District Magistrate’s bungalow, the Jehangirabad Palace, the Allahabad Bank, the Central Bank and the East Indian Railway Building. Halwasiya Court, Halwasiya Market, and the stadium were not there then. Neither were the buildings opposite Halwasiya market on either side of the Maqbara gate. There was open ground with trees there. Mayfair and Basant Cinema were built later, on open ground where people sat around and vendors sold peanuts. Hazratganj was very green with large trees on the pavements on both sides of the road and in the open areas.

I remember the time when there were no electric lights on the street of Hazratganj. Yet it was well lit (by gas) during the night. A man came around in the evening, carrying a ladder on his bicycle, to light the street lamps, and early in the morning to put them out. At some places in Hazratganj there were notices indicating the lighting time. After this designated time, it was mandatory for all bicycles, tongas and other vehicles to carry lights on them. I also recall that there was no street food available in Hazratganj. Ice cream or Ice Sodas were only available in restaurants. There were no carts selling anything. There were hawker selling peanuts and seasonal fruit but they sold these items from baskets, which they carried around on their heads.

There were distractions in Hazratganj apart from the three cinema halls. There were the billiard rooms in the Prince of Wales, the Capitol and in the Lawrie Building (where the Capoor’s Hotel is today), where I went to watch friends play. Or I went skating in the rink opposite Whorras. I still have the roller skates I bought then. I knew the shops well, though I never shopped in Hazratganj, people paid extra for the privilege of shopping in well-managed shops where service standards were European. The floor staff in these shops were Indian while the European managers and owners stayed in the background.

Of the Europeans, I particularly remember Robert Anderson of Anderson Brothers who had a lucrative tailoring business. His shop was where Woodland is today with a portico at the eastern end of the Ganj. His wife ran a tailoring business for women called Nortons, close by. The Andersons were very nice to us because my father had worked with him. Then there was German Jeweller called Rufener in the Lawrie Building. I remember him because he was European and spoke with an accent that was not British. When the war broke out, he was detained as a German national and sent to Dehradun, and the shop was closed. There was also Mr. Lancaster who was associated with the Oriental Motor Company. Mr. Lancaster was from the same family as Percy Lancaster, the author of the well-known book ‘Gardening in India’.

There was Valerio’s tea room where Gandhi Ashram is today but I never went in there except once to buy some cream rolls because they had superb confectionary, but they were very expensive. It had a dance floor too. Benbows opened later. Where Burma bakery is today there used to be very popular Chinese restaurant with cubicles, across which you could draw curtains. Close to it was Mangolia. I loved eating fish and chips and I ate these often at Chinese restaurants all of which served European cuisine. All restaurants used to have liquor licenses.

For a haircut I went to Aktor & Co. run by Akhtar Jan who later opened a successful haircutting salon A.N.John & Sons. He was not only one who changed his name. The owner of Mayfair had also changed his name to Mr. Thad and it was only after independence that he reverted to Thadani.

In 1937 Mr. Thadani decided to lease the vacant land opposite St. Joseph’s Church, from raja sir Mohd. Ejaz Rasul Khan Sahib of Jehangirabad for a paltry amount and decided to build a cinema hall. There were many ups and downs and finally the cinema opened in 1939. Mr. Thadani had decided to name it Matropole but for some reason, when he went to register it, he changed his mind and decided to call it Mayfair. There was also Mayfair Ballroom and a Mayfair Restaurant attached. My father managed all these establishments for Mr. Thadani.

The outbreak of the war and the influx of soldiers invigorated Hazratganj. The cinema halls had two shows a day: at six thirty and nine thirty. The popular notion of having fun was to come to Hazratganj: have a drink, eat at a Chinese restaurant and see a movie or go to one of the ballrooms. Mayfair was the first commercial ballroom but the Ambassador Skating Rink next door was converted in to another ballroom too. There was also the Lucknow Club at Lawrence Terrace for those who found the other two very expensive.

The Mayfair ballroom was on the first floor and would open at 8 PM. It was managed by Bob Lawson and one of its attractions was a crooner named Miss Fanthome. There used to be a live orchestra on Saturday and Sunday and it stayed open till five in the morning on weekends. The entrance charge was too high but the ballrooms made enormous profits from the sale of liquor. Anyone could enter as long as they were properly dressed. Women were mostly dressed in European style though some come in saris. There were more men than ladies and many of the women who came there used to smoke and drink. This ballroom was a great opportunity for many men to learn dancing and to mix with ladies. I myself learnt to dance the Waltz, Fox Trot and Tango from an American lady who was a great Tango dancer. People would go out on to the terrace from the ballroom and later at night the revelry would sometimes spill over into the streets with drunken soldiers and their lady friends dancing on the street. But, by and large discipline was expected and maintained in areas like these. The Mayfair Ballroom used to have the tambola nights and organize music shows.

During the war years other things changed too. Valerio’s closed down and a coffee house opened in its place. Above it, where Soochna Kendra now is, there was a private guest-house called soldiers’ home. Bush-shirts were seen for the first time with the arrival of American soldiers, and increased traffic in Hazratganj saw the appearance of cycle rickshaws.

After independence things naturally changed again. The change in liquor licensing laws meant that most of the popular restaurants, particularly the Chinese ones, closed down. The Mayfair restaurant too closed and the space was leased out to Kwality. The ballrooms closed. Europeans, unsure of the future, began to leave. The establishments owned by them in Hazratganj either closed down or changed hands. Many of the Anglo-Indians who lived around Hazratganj, and who were crucial to its fabric, also began migrating. With the coming of refugees after partition, Hazratganj grew rapidly. The work culture began to change. The migrants were more active, more aggressive and intent on getting on with their jobs. On the other hands, these newcomers to Lucknow couldn’t help but be influenced by the sophisticated, courteous and stylish culture of Lucknow because there was so much to imbibe.

I also got the opportunity to open a branch of J.Ray & sons. The chain of family book shops belonging to my grandfather which until then had existed in Lahore, Peshwar, Rawalpindi, Murree and Simla. The Indian Coffee House Shifted to Jehangirabad Mansion and its space was allotted to Gandhi Ashram. I happened to meet Acharya Kripalani, President of the Gandhi Ashram, who, aware of my family’s long association with the book trade was kind enough to offer me space within the Gandhi Ashram to open a book shop. A 12 X 40 Ft area, to the left as you entered, was cordoned off and allotted to me.

The Gandhi Ashram was supposed to open on February 1, 1948 and on 30 January of that year, Gandhi Ji, was assassinated. The opening was postponed for a fortnight. The book-shop being situated right there was a very lucky break for me. Khadi was in vogue all over the country and this was the place to buy khadi. All the stalwarts, whether it was Pandit Nehru or the Chief Ministers, visited the shop. I was a newcomer to the book trade in Lucknow but I found a clientele immediately. I was eager to do well and therefore did everything to educate myself about books. I also did not treat books like a commodity.

I did well and by 1950 they began to politely hint that they wanted their space back. In 1951, I got this shop in the Mayfair building. I heard from Mr. Larkins, the manager of Lawrence & Mayo, the opticians who were occupying the premises, that they would be vacating it. Mr. Gulu Thadani naturally agreed to rent it to me provided it was allotted to me. I had built up enough good-will for that not to be a problem.

I decided to change the name of the shop. The Right Reverend George Sinker, Bishop of Nagpur, who had been a godfather to me, came and stayed with me around that time. I told him of my plans that I was thinking of calling my new shop ‘The Strand’ or ‘The Globe Book Stall’, and he said “Don’t be silly. Booksellers all over the world are known by their names and not as strand, Globe or Britannia. Call it Ram Advani Booksellers”. My father laughed at the idea but against the advice of my entire family I followed George Sinker’s advice. On July 1, 1951, I opened this shop-and here I am till today.


Article by: Ram Advani / Credits: Times of India (Publisher) & Dr. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones (Editor for the book on Hazratganj)

Tornos’ Victorian Walk…. All days Except Sunday. Victorian Walkers Assembly starts at 1630 hrs. Book your walk on our toll free: 1800-102-28-82. We take only a maximum of 8 walkers at a time.

There are a very few places that have the distinction of rising to an utmost glory, falling and rising again. Hazratganj is one of those places, that was and is looked at with awestruck eyes for its rich history, architecture and so very Victorian style, that till date is considered as the most happening place to be and to be seen at. Often compared to the High Street at Oxford. This place has a charm that is hard to resist and define.

We have re-produce an article by the legendary Ram Advani, that was published in The Times of India’s book Hazrtaganj, edited by Dr. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones. This book is available at Ram Advani’s Book Shop at the Mayfair Building or can be read at The Tornos Studio. We would be pleased to procure a copy and send this book by post to you.