51 Kensington Court, and a Memorable Function Hosted by His Highness the Aga Khan III at London’s Savoy

IMAM WRITES VERSE OF HAFIZ ON DINNER MENU

By Ali M. Rajput

A recent portrait of 88 year old, Dr. A. M. Rajput

Editor’s note: Ameer Janmohamed’s piece (1953-1957: Ismailia Social and Residential Club and Jamatkhana at 51 Kensington Court) was read by hundreds of readers around the world, and some offered their own stories and insights of the building. For Dr. A. M. Rajput of Birmingham, a long time resident of the U.K. who is now well into his late eighties, it triggered some extraordinary memories and his enthusiasm for a bygone era is shown in the following piece.

A Blessed Mulaqat, Arrival in London and 51 Kensington Court

It was in September, 1954, that I arrived in the London, England, to do my Ph.D. at the University College London. A few days earlier, I had been granted and blessed with an audience at Yakimour with the Imam of the Time, our beloved 48th Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah. Some time ago, this website posted my memorable account ( please see link below - ed.).

I was well briefed about the meeting place of the Ismailis in the UK, mostly students. Upon my arrival in London, I went straight to 51, Kensington Court. I found it expensive for my pocket, and was able to find affordable accommodation at 8 Fairfax Road, in Swiss Cottage, with a a landlady by the name of Mrs. Key at £2.50 per week, which included bed and breakfast as well as meals at weekends. The place apparently turned out to be very convenient. There were other Ismaili students living there as well. The Pakistan High Commissioner, Mr Akram Ullah, had his official residence at a walking distance at Primrose Hill. We also found out that the residence of Javeri was nearby at 39, Lyncroft Gardens, Hampstead, where Ismailis had been meeting for prayers in the years prior to 51 Kensington Court, as mentioned in Mr. Janmohamed’s fine article.

I must mention something about the personality of Aitmadi Hussain Ali Javery and his brother Hashim. They had a flourishing business in diamond and other precious stones at famous precious stone centres, both in London as well in Brussels and Amsterdam. I knew Aitmadi Hussain Ali Javery from my days in Pakistan, and considered him to be very very near to Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, and hence a very important person for the community.

Now coming back to 51 Kensington Court, it used to be a very charming six-storey building, and was equipped with an efficient lift reaching to the residential quarters upstairs. The ground floor was open to all Ismailis, irrespective of their membership status and we sat on chairs for prayers. The beloved 48th Imam gave us didar on two occasions and we all sat around his sofa in a semi-circle. We were permitted to ask the Imam any sensible question and get a reply from the Imam, what a blessing!!

Most of the Ismaili population was composed of students. There were approximately 40 in number, with half a dozen other families living in UK. I remember the last didar at 51 Kensington Court. The late Imam said that as we had outgrown the place, we should seek a more spacious place; consequently 3-5 Palace Gate became, historically, the second London Jamatkhana in 1957.

Memorable Gala

One memorable event must be mentioned. It was a Grand Ball hosted by Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah and Prince Aly Khan at London’s famous Savoy with Vijaya Laxmi Nehru Pandit, the sister of Pandat Jawahar Lal Nehru, as the chief guest. She was at the time India’s Ambassador to Ireland and also served as the Indian High Commissionar to the United Kingdom.

The dress was to be formal. I, as a student, rented an evening dress for £3.50 for the night from a special shop in London’s famous Bond Street. On the night of the ball, I was an early arrival and took my allocated seat at 8.00 pm. The seating arrangement was made thoughtfully and wisely. Each table was reserved for four persons and the most central table was reserved for Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, with three other chairs for persons who would sit for a few moments with him and return to their designated seating places. Fortunately, my allocated seat had a clear view of the Imam from all angles.

 At 9.00 pm, Prince Aly Khan arrived to receive the celebrated and distinguished guests who included royalties, maharajahs, ambassadors, members of the parliament and many other distinguished personalities. At 9.15, Prince Sadruddin, Prince Karim and Prince Amyn entered the hall and took their seats. At 9.30, there was an announcement, and Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah with the Begum and the chief guest entered the hall and every one present, stood up as a mark of respect. The ball was then opened by Mata Salamat, and Prince Karim and others followed. Throughout the late night my eyes were fixed on the central figure of Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah who was physically not more than two meters from my seat. Very important people, one by one would come to the Imam’s table, sit and converse with him and after a few minutes go back to their original seat.

Charity Auction and the sale of Imam’s Handwritten Verse

I could not hear the Imam’s conversation but it emerged later that when one of the guests, perhaps a member of the organizing committee,  came to the Imam’s table to spend some moments with him, the Imam quoted a verse from Hafiz, and then wrote the verse on the back of the dinner menu, which he then handed over to Vijaya Laxmi Pandit.

Towards the end of the gala, there was a charity auction, at which the auctioner appealed to the public to bid generously. Ordinary items such as a bread bun went quickly for £25. Other items fetched prices far beyond their true value. Then Mrs. Pandit stood up from her seat and addressed the audience as follows:

“I have noticed that you have paid in this auction a hundred fold the price of very ordinary items. It is of course due to the association of His Highness the Aga Khan in this gathering. Now I want to put an extemely rare item for sale which is unique and priceless. It is a verse of Hafiz written by the hand of His Highness and is full of meanings. I open the bid with a £100.”

From a corner a hand was up,  and we heard £1000. The bidding exchange continued before the unique menu item bearing the Imam’s handwritten verse was sold at a very high amount to an Ismaili from Africa. I do not have a recollection of the final figure or the person’s name. It may be noted that the late Ismaili Imam had a deep fondness for the poetry of Hafiz. Almost twenty years before the function at the Savoy, he had delivered the inaugural address before the Iran Society in London in which he noted:

“…Hafiz, by far the greatest singer of the soul of man. In him we can find all the strivings, all the sorrow, all the victories and joys, all the hopes and disappointments of each and every one of us. In him we find contact, direct and immediate, with the outer universe interpreted as an infinite reality of matter, as a mirror of an eternal spirit…It is not for nothing that his “Divan” has become, throughout the East, the supreme fal nama (book of divination) of millions and millions far beyond the confines of Iran.”

As for me, being a murid of the Imam, I recalled a wondeful and inspiring quatrain that Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah had written with his own hands in the diary of Vazir Ali Mahomed Mecklai, the president of the Recreation Club (the forerunner to Ismailia Association or ITREB). The transliteration and translation of the quatrain are:

Transliteration:

Atish Ba jan Afrokhtan,
Az Bahray Janan Sokhtan,
Azman Baist Amakhatan,
In Kar ha Karay Manast

Translation:

How to kindle a fire in the soul
and burn oneself for one’s beloved
should be learnt from me
as this is one of my responsibilities

These were indeed remarkable words for me.

The entire evening at the Savoy was a memory to be cherished for an entire lifetime. It is firmly etched in my mind, and I am glad to be able to share it.

With regard to 51 Kensington Court, it can be said that the short era came to an end with the demise of the 48th Imam. The era of 5 Palace Gate began in 1957, and is really associated with the current 49th Imam, our beloved Mawlana Shah Karim al-Hussaini Hazar Imam. It served the Jamat in the UK until 1985, when the high profile modern Ismaili Centre arose majestically in South Kensington in 1985.

Date article posted: Friday,  March 23, 2012.

Last updated: Sunday, March 25, 2012.

Copyright: A.M. Rajput. 2012.

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Editor’s Note: Tilapia and the Aga Khan

I wrote to Susan Scott, the archivist for the Savoy, seeking a clarification on the Savoy’s website which referred to the late Imam ordering tilapia in 1959 (of course, this date is an oversight). Her reply was quite interesting because she mentioned that  “Filet de Tilapia (Ngege) had been a favourite of the late Aga Khan…and it was requested by his grandson (i.e. the young Aga Khan) for his own banquet in 1959.” She further added that the 1959 banquet was organized by Paolo Contarini, the hotel’s banqueting manager in 1957, who later authored The Savoy: A Century of Taste (1989) and The Savoy is My Oyster(1976). Ms. Scott notes that “both the Aga Khans were good clients of the Savoy over the years.”

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Other contributions by Dr. Rajput on this website:
A Unique Moment in the Life of the Punjab Jamat
Yakimour 1954: A Golden Moment for an Aspiring Student – An Audience with the 48th Ismaili Imam, Aga Khan
My Climb to ‘Sacred’ Alamut, Where Every Stone Tells a Story
A Letter from Badakhshan
The Ismailis: From the Earliest Times to the Fall of the Fatimid Empire
Exchange of Letters Between Sultan Malik Shah and Hasan-i-Sabbah

Speech made by Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah at the Iran Society in 1936:
Hafiz and the Place of Iranian Culture in the World at Amaana

Details about the quatrain by Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah in Vazir Mecklai’s diary:
Voices: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – Eloquent Persian Quatrain by 48th Ismaili Imam Graces a 1923 Invitation For Talk About Imamat

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7 thoughts on “51 Kensington Court, and a Memorable Function Hosted by His Highness the Aga Khan III at London’s Savoy

  1. This article brings back very fond memories of Kensington. I was there in the sixties and one Friday evening after Jamatkhana on the sidewalk we heard about the assasination of President John F Kennedy. I also attended Birmingham University but never had the opportunity to meet Dr Rajput. Keep up the great work, Simerg!

  2. Dr. Ali Mohamed Rajput is an extraordinary person. It has always been joy for us to see him, talk to him, listen to him. We love him very very very much!!!!

  3. Dr Rajput has been a great inspiration to me in Birmingham ever since I came to live here when there were only a handful of Ismailis, 2 other that I know of. This was in 1971 the year before the Exodus of Ismailis among Asians from Uganda.

    Please note, ’tilapia’ is a fresh water fish from Lake Victoria with an African name ‘ngege’ that we from Uganda, cherished as it was one of the common fish and a local product; later it was packed as fillets by some business enterprise. I saw one in a nearby market in West Bromwich and bought it whole but it hardly had much flesh on it for the price I had to pay.

    Mowlana Hazar Imam likes it too, how fortunate! Thank you Dr Rajput for such a colourful description of the Gala, the menu, the people who attended it, indeed, the whole article.

  4. A lovely article, which many of us who were born after the Imam passed away won’t understand or read. The seniors would love to read this – they still
    recollect and adhere to his Farmans since he was their Imam at the time. We should all read articles such as this as well as his farmans to increase our knowledge of recent history and to understand the guidance that our elders received.

  5. Thanks for this nostaligic piece in the history of the Ismaili Jamatkhana and its origins in London. Truly wonderful.

    Shirin Hirji
    London

  6. How fortunate were those early settlers and students in the UK? I am sure many more people will have memories of those days and would it not be wonderful fro them to share these? Alas,those times are now no more and we have to be satisfied by the brief visits of Mawla.

    Perhaps it would be good to read the remembrances of the times when Mawlana Sultan Mahomedshah and Begum Mata Salamat visited Dr es Salaam in the 40′s pre and post Diamond Jubilee and when Mata Salamat, beautifully replendant in her white sari, played rasras with the ladies of our jamat. Do we have photographs and films of those times somewhere?

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