Poonam Saxena writes on the true heart of the Indian home, the aangan
Sometimes, all it takes to trigger powerful memories is a song. I was listening (yet again) to one of Gulzar’s most evocative and unforgettable numbers. It’s from his 1975 film Mausam, and it goes Dil dhoondta hai / phir wahi fursat ke raat din. I paused at the lines “Jaadon ki narm dhoop / Aur aangan mein let kar”.
It was as if a switch had flipped and I was immediately transported to the aangan of my nani’s house in Kanpur, where I went for my winter and summer holidays. To the mungaudis drying in the sun on a white sheet, a somnolent cousin getting her hair oiled in one corner, another cousin lying on a khatiya, allegedly reading a magazine but more likely simply dozing in the golden dhoop; a gaggle of gossiping aunts wrapped in shawls eating freshly roasted peanuts or cutting slices of firm green guava and sprinkling them with kaala namak before popping them into their mouths.
The aangan or central courtyard — a paved space, open to the sky, with rooms all around —is as old as the Indus Valley Civilisation and was a fixture in homes in the subcontinent for centuries, till the Western-style modern house took over with the establishment of British rule.
The aangan allowed for air and ventilation and gave the household a private, open-air living area that became the nerve centre of the home, connecting the indoors with the outdoors. The kitchen was attached, along with a storeroom. I remember that room well — it was temptingly lined with containers full of delicious savoury snacks and big jars of pickles.
The cooking process — cutting vegetables, sifting daal and rice — took place in the aangan. There was often a tap in one corner, with a small hauz (water tank) next to it, and you could bathe there in the hot weather. (I remember prolonged hair-washing sessions after we were done playing Holi.) Sometimes, there were flowerbeds along the edges.
People slept in rows under the stars here on summer nights — after the courtyard had been liberally sprinkled with water, to cool the air. Pedestal fans lazily stirred the mosquito nets that swathed each cot. In winter, the courtyard hummed with activity during the day, when it was bathed in comforting sunshine.
The aangan has been the backdrop of countless scenes of family life in movies and books — from the women of the family lovingly tending their tulsi plant (a 1978 film was even called Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki) to the entire household gathering there for some occasion or the other (in the 1972 film Bawarchi, Rajesh Khanna brings everyone together in the courtyard for a climactic song and dance, Aayi Paniya Bharan Ki Bela). Family battles and conflicts were centered here too (just yesterday I revisited a tense faceoff in an aangan, between Dilip Kumar and his villainous grandfather, in the 1968 film Sunghursh, set in Banaras in the 19th century).
Grand homes could have up to five or six courtyards. The outer courtyards were reserved for the menfolk. The inner courtyard was the women’s domain, and the aangan often came to symbolise their confined lives, screened from the outside world. Pakistani writer Khadija Mastur’s 1962 Urdu novel Aangan, set in undivided India in the last years of British rule, focuses on the lives of women within the household; all the political upheavals and outside action take place off-screen, as it were.
And it wasn’t just individual homes. Palaces and forts had sprawling aangans too. Swapna Liddle, loving chronicler of Delhi’s history, sent me a plan of Delhi’s Red Fort for reference, in which you can see courtyards everywhere, like big square pieces in a dazzling mosaic.
There are courtyards in grand havelis all over the country too, from Jaipur to Lucknow. In traditional Maharashtrian wadas, in Kerala nalukettus.
The aangan has all but disappeared from modern urban India. There’s simply no space. It survives in the hinterland, though I’m not sure for how long. We’ve moved on to other, newer ways of living. Gulzar’s fursat ke raat din really are over.
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