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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Majestic Janmashtami Memories of Old Delhi


Though no longer on the map, Majestic Theatre brings back many memorable incidents

Majestic Cinema is long gone, having become part of Gurdwara Sisganj, but its memories remain. Atop the cinema used to be an idol of Lord Krishna playing the flute and at Janmashtami time people, who generally ignored it throughout the year, made it a point to venerate it. They did not go up to the high point where it stood but flocked near the Northbrook Fountain with joined hands to make their supplications. It was only after that that they went to the Gaurishankar temple to pay ritualistic homage while the dancing girls found their partners at the flower-sellers’ stalls.

Majestic came up in the beginning of the 20th Century as a threatre (with an actors’ gallery) at which the Parsi Theatre group was prominent among the performers. Once, the bhishtis sold their mashaqs (water-skins) and the dhobis their bullocks to buy tickets for a show that was billed as the greatest at that time. Among the performers (if memory serves right) were Prithviraj Kapoor, Zohra Bai, Sohrab Modi and Mehtab. In those days the theatre groups used to come from Bombay and Calcutta to perform in the city which had just regained the status of the Capital of the country. Chandni Chowk was the main business, religious, political and cultural centre and many of note lived in it.

During Janmashtami, after a visit to Jhandewalan temples, women and children particularly visited the jhankis or tableaux depicting the birth of Krishan Kanhiya. While making their way back home to the blowing of conch-shells, they did not forget to cast one last look at the idol that graced Majestic Cinema. Now few remember the Flute Player of Vrindavan perched on high and one often wonders whether the idol was saved or went down when the Majestic fa├žade was demolished?

Haji Zahur, who used to sit every evening at his hotel in Urdu Bazaar with equally old friends 50 years ago(means 1960's), would relate incidents connected with Majestic Theatre. One of the dhobis who had sold his bullock to watch the big show was confronted by his wife with a donkey saying, “From tomorrow you will have to take the clothes for washing to the Yamuna in a cart drawn by this gadha”. The dhobi, who was drunk, embraced the donkey and with tears asked it to get back the bullock. His wife burst out laughing, remarking, “Two of a kind are trying to undo a blunder.” The dhobi, however, got back his bullock by taking a loan which he repaid in instalments. On hearing this, Maulvi Sahib disclosed that a bhishti who had sold his mashaq to hear Zohra Bai Ambalewale sing, was confronted by his father in Saqqe Wali Gali, where the water-carriers lived, with the question: “What will you earn and feed your family from tomorrow?” Bhishti Ramzani was so full of remorse that he bought a new waterskin after pawning his wife’s ring. Arshad, a hotelier who was also a poet, wrote a poem on another theatre bai and took it to her personally at Fort View Hotel in Chandni Chowk where the actors were staying. He got her framed picture in return. Arshad Sahib used to garland it until his infuriated second wife sold the picture to the kabari and got a severe beating for it.

Another friend of Haji Zahur, Ustad Zahooro went to meet his hero Sohrab Modi one evening and found him rehearsing at the hotel with young Mehtab. He had taken Ballimaran’s shammi kababs and roomali roti with him. The actor was pleased with the gift no doubt, as he was a great gourmet and invited the Ustad to attend a free show in the first class the next day. Thus did Delhi continue to be excited about the theatrewallahs until they went back and sanity returned to the city. However, when the theatre became a cinema house it was youngsters like Ahmed Ali’s character Asghar who defied family elders to watch late night shows. While returning from one of them, a barber named Kaley saw a ghost (sic) under the street-lamp in his gali and started getting epileptic fits until he was cured by an exorcist of Matia Mahal. But perhaps the most romantic incident is about Robin Haldar seeing a girl at the evening show, falling in love and finally marrying her. Their son went on to become an actor.

Such are the memories of Majestic days that still enliven the evenings in some Old Delhi homes, more so at Janmashtami time.




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