Diwan Deodi

RANI SARMA

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SOME two centuries ago the old city of Hyderabad was dominated by the palaces of the Nizam called mahallas or havelis and the traditional residences of the powerful nobles called deodis (variously spelt deorhis or devdis) built along the main arteries of the city that radiated from Charminar.

Deodis, which in a broad sense means the ‘homes of lords’ were fortified residences built with imposing main entrances high enough to let an elephant with an ambari pass, tall enclosing walls to afford total privacy to the inmates, and a series of inner courtyards which served the public and private needs of the residents. They had attractive pillared pavilions called dalans which were the reception areas, private living quarters for men and women called mardanas and zenanas, and other sundry buildings like a diwan khana where the master held court, a naubat khana, from where auspicious music played on special occasions or indicated the time for prayer, the bawarchi khana, the kitchen from where cooked food was carried, sometimes under armed guard to the living quarters of the residents, a tosha khana, farrash khana, baggi khana and many similar structures.

The deodis of the very wealthy and the influential nobles were like self-contained townships built in close proximity to the Nizam’s palaces. Some of them were so sprawling that they occupied whole blocks, often-times spilling over to the following block as well. Records indicate that there were a few hundreds in the old city at one time, most of which have since been demolished subsequent to the abolition of the jagirdari system in 1949. Today just a handful of them remain in varying degrees of decay.

Prior to its demolition, the Diwan Deodi was one of the most celebrated deodis in the city. Home for generations of diwans it was known for its grandeur and opulence. In a remarkable coincidence unparalleled in history, six members of the same family rose to the position of diwan in the princely state of Hyderabad and all of them lived in the Diwan Deodi. Consequently, for over a century and a half, the Diwan Deodi was the epicentre of power, influence and authority. The location of the deodi itself was a statement of its importance, located as it was on the Charminar High Road, back to back with the Purani Haveli, one of the many palaces of the Nizams.

During that time the deodi saw hectic official activity; officials of all hues and stations like the zamindars, mansabdars, pattedars, vakils, munshis, urzbegees, pairavikars and sycophants besieged it. The Lakkadkot, the baradari of the Salar Jungs, a beautiful multi-floored wooden structure built in the middle of a terraced garden overlooking the Musi river, was the venue of many state receptions and banquets.

In its heyday, the Diwan Deodi was like a city within a city, a microcosm of Hyderabad itself; it stretched a whole block, from the Chatta Bazar on one side to the Mir Alam Mandi on the other. Of the six diwans who lived in the deodi, the most prominent were Mir Alam, Salar Jung I and Salar Jung III. Mir Alam was the first diwan of the family (from 1804-1808) and he set the family’s fortunes on the course to power and fame. His political career, however, was marred by controversy and today he is remembered more for the construction of sarais, tanks and a market that he built in and around Hyderabad.

 

The most illustrious occupant of the Diwan Deodi was the great grandson of Mir Alam and the fourth member of the family to become a diwan, Mukhtar-ul-Mulk Sir Turab Ali Khan Salar Jung I (1829-83). Salar Jung was a statesman par excellence as well as a skilled administrator. Despite inheriting a state steeped in corruption, decadence and anarchy, by the time he was done with it Hyderabad was well on its way to becoming a frontline state in the country. Being a reformer and a man of modern views, Salar Jung borrowed administrative ideas from British India and adapted them to suit the local conditions.

As the co-regent of the child Nizam, the three-year-old Mahaboob Ali Khan, he enjoyed enormous powers and was the de facto ruler of Hyderabad. In that capacity his main concern was to save Hyderabad from decay and financial collapse that it had slipped into through decades of mis-governance. In striving towards that end he had to walk a tightrope of maintaining friendly relations with the British, and at the same time keeping them at an arm’s length to prevent them from interfering in the internal affairs of Hyderabad. He threw his weight behind the British whenever it served the interests of his state; and that was the reason he supported the British during the Revolt of 1857. The British, on their part, realized the importance of having Hyderabad on their side but were wary of the sagacious noble. They held him in respect and treated him with a great deal of deference.

 

The Diwan Deodi was built, extended, furnished and decorated over a period of a century and a half. The family enjoyed immense wealth and was also very refined and cultured in its tastes. The deodi was so luxuriously furnished and so full of rare objects that visitors to the city, both European and Indian, would request permission to visit it. Around 1905, one such European visitor, Claude Campbell, left a detailed account of the deodi’s many attractions, though by that time, we are informed, the deodi was already old and parts of it had fallen into disuse.

Pic from The Dedodis of Hyderbad

The Lakkadkot, the baradari of the Salar Jungs, now demolished.

 

The deodi at its height had many grand reception rooms, an extremely well-stocked library, luxuriously appointed guest suites, a diwankhana, mardanas, zenanas and, at a later point, a movie hall, apart from a host of other sundry structures that a residence of a premier noble ought to have. The showpiece of the deodi, however, was the Aina Khana, which meant, literally, the glass house, which was the reception room of the deodi. The Aina Khana was an open-pillared hall, faced entirely with plate glass. On the ceiling and the columns of this pavilion-like structure, various coloured glasses were arranged in interesting designs in the prevailing Persian style. The Aina Khana was furnished with a number of gilt chairs upholstered in red velvet, which were said to have graced the court of King George III at one time.

The Aina Khana was complemented by another glass house opposite to it, which was smaller in size but was similarly decorated with glass. A grand banquet hall connected the two pavilions. Nestled by the three structures was an elegant courtyard, decorated with a large marble fountain and a hauz, which was, as a member of the family remembers, large enough to ‘row a skiff’. Exquisite European statuary, sculpted in marble and imported from different European countries, stood all around. The reception rooms themselves were screened from public view by red velvet curtains fringed in green and guarded by Borse ke jawan, the Arab guards, dressed in their native uniforms.

 

To the west of the quadrangle and the Aina Khana was the library which was stocked with many rare books. The library with Shah Jahani multi-foliated arches housed eight thousand manuscripts in Persian, Turkish, Arabic and Urdu, apart from 29,000 printed books! The range of topics covered by the collection is a measure of the mind of the Salar Jungs. There were books on history, archaeology, art, literature, travel, religion, social sciences and many other subjects. Though the major part of the collection was made by Salar Jung III, there was quite a collection of manuscripts and books that he inherited from his ancestors, right from 1656 AD. Some of the Arabic manuscripts were very ancient; one of them, a copy of the Quran dating back to 1283, contained the autographs of Emperors Jehangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. This fabulous collection today forms a part of the Salar Jung Museum Library and is open to scholars and researchers.

Close to the Aina Khana to the east was a small room called Chini Khana, which was an unusual and a most interesting apartment. Its walls and columns were covered in antique china plates, saucers and cups, some of them very valuable; they were fitted into the walls and arranged in various fanciful designs. In this quaint room the family silver plate was tastefully displayed in shelves. It was here that the famous statue of Rebecca, an exceedingly artistic sculpture of white marble sculpted by the Italian sculptor Benzoni (in 1876) stood. Beyond the Chini Khana to the east was the treasury.

Adjoining this apartment was the formal diwan khana or the durbar hall, arranged in the traditional style with a gold embroidered musnad, a takhat and canopies on silver poles, where the diwans traditionally held court. Upstairs, above the Chini Khana were the bedrooms built in the days of Sir Salar Jung. One bedroom in particular was exquisitely furnished in white and gold. It had a cut-glass hand basin and toilet fittings.

 

A subtle change overtook the otherwise traditional deodi in the early decades of the nineteenth century. European influence increased at the court and so did the interaction between the Europeans and the Hyderabadi nobility. Prominent citizens began to introduce elements of European lifestyle in their residences, and apartments were fitted to suit western taste. The traditional durbar halls and reception rooms did not suffice; reception rooms fitted with contemporary European furniture had to be added and more western elements like a billiard room, library with English and French literature, guest suites with western toilets and tennis courts came to be introduced. So much so that a European visitor to the Diwan Deodi commented that sections of Sir Salar’s Deodi resembled a wealthy Englishman’s residence!

If the men’s quarters buzzed with official and state activity, the women’s quarters were marked by comfort, leisure and ease. The zenana had its own courtyards open to the sky and was equipped with fountains, flowering bushes and pretty chamans. The atmosphere in the zenanas was restful and slow-paced. Water tinkled in the fountains and flowering trees like mulchari (minusops elengi) and champa sprayed fragrance into the air. Women kept birds like mynas and lal munias for pleasure.

All around the courtyard were rooms, which were skirted with ornamental dalans. The central dalan was generally the largest and was equipped with a takhat and other paraphernalia like a hookah, a silver paandan, ittardan, gulabposh, ugaldan, a khasdan and a water container, which was kept locked when not in use. Guests were welcomed with ittar and rose water.

Surrounded by such opulence, seated on an expensive carpet or a low diwan and leaning on gau takias, the principal begum of the family presided over the affairs of the zenana with the dignity and grandeur so typical of the Hyderabadi nobility. It was customary for the women of the deodi to pay their respects to the senior Begum when she held court. The married daughters of the family were sometimes provided with separate quarters. The women of the Salar Jung family were known for their strong character and dignity.

 

The next diwan to rise to fame after Sir Salar was Nawab Yousaf Ali Khan Salar Jung III. However, it is not as a statesman or a prime minister that Yousaf Ali Khan is remembered today but as a collector of art objects. Ironically, he alone is remembered among the long line of diwans (for his one man collection of art), while the rest of the family members, including the more able Salar Jung I, is consigned to the history books.

Salar Jung III officiated as a diwan precisely for two and a half years; he did not enjoy good relations with his master, Nizam VII. Unable to keep up with his energetic and extremely able ruler, he resigned soon after being appointed as the diwan. Thus, his career was aborted even before it had time to blossom. What Salar Jung III did not realize at the time was that the loss of his position was to result not only in his political oblivion but also in isolation and neglect. Shorn of power and influence, neglected by friends and followers, Salar Jung III remained a lonely and tragic figure for the rest of his life.

Yousaf Ali Khan’s emotional exile had just started. To add to his woes, his private life did not fare much better either despite his famous charm, wealth and social standing. His name was romantically linked with many beautiful women of the time. Daughters of at least two British Residents were said to have been infatuated by the Nawab. Leila Wellinker, who married David Lean in the later years, was even formally engaged to him for a while. But nothing came of such relationships. Yousaf Ali Khan remained a bachelor all his life.

 

Salar Jung III was a man starved for company; he sought people, whether he knew them personally or not. The reception rooms of the deodi were packed with visitors; all were welcome. He never sat down to lunch with less than fifty people at his table. Sportsmen, poets, writers, art collectors and strangers gathered in the deodi and enjoyed his hospitality; the conversation at the table was most lively and highly stimulating. Through all that Salar Jung remained aloof and sad, a lonely and restless figure, his eyes searching for the unknown. He paced the corridors of the sprawling deodi restlessly, his footsteps echoing hollowly in the empty halls, as if haunted by the ghosts of his illustrious ancestors, opening and closing cupboards and examining his art-pieces with unseeing eyes. People who knew him remember his ‘caged animal walk’.

 

It was at this time that he started to indulge in his passion for collecting artifacts. Perhaps it was an obsession that sustained him through the years of loneliness. He was like a man possessed. All his wealth went into the acquisition of beautiful objects. Room after room in the deodi came to be stocked with art objects that arrived from all over the world, some not even opened from their protective packing at the time of his death. His reputation as an art collector spread; catalogues poured in through the mail and art dealers besieged him. He had agents in all the important cities of the country who scoured the markets for valuables. He was also known to frequently purchase from Christy’s and Sotheby’s. He travelled abroad often in pursuit of his beloved artifacts.

The sprawling deodi with its large halls started to look like a warehouse; the art pieces were strewn everywhere, on tables, chairs and in every conceivable corner; he did not let the servants dust or re-arrange his collection, partly for fear of theft and partly for fear of breakage. He had a wonderfully retentive memory; at any point he could recall where a particular object was kept. A time came when the deodi could not take in any more objects; they had to be stored in other palaces. The collection included all the sundry bric-a-brac that crowded the Nawab’s life, from the armies of tin soldiers he played with as a child to a priceless collection of jade; antique bronzes, marble statuary, textiles, Far Eastern art, an eclectic assemblage of paintings, jewellery, ivory and rare illuminated manuscripts, some dating back to the Mughal period. Some of these are of great value, some ordinary and others both childish and idiosyncratic.

 

The Salar Jungs, as a family, were known for their philanthropy. Whenever and wherever the Nawab showed himself, he would be mobbed by hordes of petitioners; he would receive all the petitions with equal courtesy and his secretary would process them. He gave away generously even when he was aware that some petitions were not genuine. He was a lover of music and literature and a keen sportsman; a part of the present airport in Begumpet was the private polo ground of the Salar Jungs. Yousaf Ali Khan was an ace polo player, and among those with whom he played the game were Sir Winston Churchill and the renowned player, Shah Mirza Baig, who was originally from Hyderabad.

He was deeply religious but was no religious bigot. During the month of Moharram, when the Shia community of Hyderabad went into mourning to commemorate the martyrdom of Husain at Karbala, Yousaf Ali Khan would hold mushairas and have famous artists visiting the city render gazals to a private and select gathering in his deodi.

The events that shook Hyderabad to its very core in the turbulent years of 1947-49 did not spare Yousaf Ali Khan either. There were rumours that the jagirs were to be abolished. The Nizam’s rule had already been set aside. He did not know what was to become of his beloved art collection. His desire to set up a museum with his possessions had not yet taken shape. The death of his friend Sarojini Naidu had saddened and depressed him. One day in the month of March in 1949, he went to see Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. What transpired between the two gentlemen is not known. The Nawab shut himself in his room for days, and died soon after, a lonely man.

Immediately after the Nawab’s death, the valuables from the deodi were photographed, documented, sealed and put in the vaults of the Imperial Bank at Sultan Bazaar. Subsequently, over many days, the contents of the deodi were auctioned. Retainers pulled out clothes, suits, shoes, scent bottles, cutlery, crockery, vases, sheets, floor spreads, lights and tents from the tosaha khana, mez khana and the farrash khana. The beautiful deodi was relentlessly stripped. There were four ivory chairs, presented to Tipu Sultan by the French government, which were still in packing at the time of the Nawab’s death. They were purchased at a cost of Rs 80,000. These chairs are now on display in the Salar Jung Museum.

To institutionalize the Nawab’s art collection, the Government of India created the Salar Jung Museum. The bulk of the exhibits for the museum were drawn from the personal collection of Salar Jung III, and the museum initially was housed in the deodi itself. In 1968, the museum shifted to a new building specially built for that purpose. With the descendents of Salar Jung choosing to live elsewhere, the deodi fell into disuse for a few years and was subsequently declared unsafe for habitation. It was finally demolished in the early seventies. With its mindless demolition, Hyderbad lost one of the grandest of deodis in the city and the memories of two centuries, not only of the family but also of the city itself.

 

* Rani Sarma is the author of The Deodis of Hyderabad: A Lost Heritage, Rupa, Delhi, 2008.

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