“It is going to be the best view of any river that you may have seen,” the unflinching faith in Alam’s eyes shone through as he said this. He was speaking of the river Yamuna, the same brackish, foul-smelling body of water that has been the bane of India’s capital city, Delhi. And yet, there was no room for any doubt that the “Hawa Mahal” of Alam’s village in Katha, Uttar Pradesh, provided a view like no other.
The Shikwa Haveli, now converted into a heritage homestay, offers one of the most surprisingly beautiful views of the River Yamuna and its surrounding flatlands. The sun was almost setting by the time by the time I reached the Haveli, and I sped up to the roof as soon as I could to gaze upon the beautiful sight.
The evening saw an interaction with the owners of the Haveli. It was obvious that the name of the Haveli was of paramount interest. Shariq Bin Raza and Alka Raza, owners of the Shikwa Haveli, regaled us with the history of the mansion coupled with a top-of-the-line hospitality. “As a child I would complain a lot. I liked things done perfectly to my liking and that was an uphill task for my mother and elder sisters. My mother would often remark that I was her only ‘regret’ or ‘shikwa’ as I was impossible to please.” The name stuck and Shariq Bin Raza became the beloved Shikwa of his family. “After a sister’s wedding in the 70s’ the family moved away from the Haveli and it slowly and steadily fell apart,” he shares.
It was only a decade after the turn of the century that the family was able to turn its attention to the ancestral home. By then, much of the structure was gone. “Some would have called it an impossible task but I set my mind upon rebuilding and restoring the Haveli to its former glory. I have not kept count of how much the entire process of restoration cost us, there was simply too much from all of us. And it has all been worth it,” he shares.
The imposing Haveli as it stands today is a result of 8 years of masonry and craftsmanship. The Raza family has moved into the Haveli and maintain permanent residence here. “We have set up a portion of the Haveli to be open to guests. This Haveli was built by a community of Qazis,” he adds.
The Shikwa Haveli or Hawa Mahal has always held an important place in the neighbourhood and now, in this decade, it has transformed into a haven for the women of the region seeking independence.
Alka Raza, the lady of the house, has been providing the women of the village a means to spend their afternoon doing basic stitching and embroidery. “We had started out with a beauty salon training which did very well as many women and girls of the village requested repeated sessions,” she shares. After the first few successful months, she was shocked to find a woman from a neighbouring village at the door of Shikwa Haveli one afternoon. She had come asking for a chance to enrol in the salon training programme. “I had not realised how quickly the success stories had spread. One of the girls from our village was married into hers. That is how she heard of the programme and arrived at our door seeking a chance to win her own independence.”
Although in the years that have followed, the beauty salon programme has been set aside and now a group of nearly 200 women from the village and the neighbourhood, spend their afternoon stitching table covers and simple but exquisite furnishings. The girls from the village run the show and Raza is now at a comfortable position of presenting their hard work to the British School in New Delhi as well as other exclusive events in New Delhi.
“The Homework Project” is yet another interesting project that one can witness at the Shikwa Haveli in Katha. Every afternoon, when some of the women assemble at the Haveli to work on the stitching and embroidery, the children of the village turn up at a unique afterschool programme designed to help each child better understand their syllabus and do better at school.
What really sets this programme apart is that it retains all the fun of an afterschool programme and yet ensures that every child is attended to and homework becomes part of the fun!
A small section outside the main Haveli is reserved for these activities and Alka Raza can be often found surrounded by the children and the young girls.
The region, Katha, where the Shikwa Haveli is located, has been the news for several years for all the wrong reasons – including crimes committed against women. The effort made within the walls of the Shikwa Haveli is not centred around breaking away from traditions or shouting slogans in the name of equality. It is a wondrous effort of a group of women, who otherwise do not have any opportunity, to craft their future – one stitch at a time.
— Text & photos by Susmita Mukherjee