Recovering the aesthetic


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Great grandfather Syed Husain Bilgrami came to Hyderabad from Bilgram near Hardoi in Uttar Pradesh, part of the determined effort of the Nizam Mehboob Ali Pasha and his minister Salar Jung in the later part of the 19th century to build up a competent administration to avoid an Awadh style British takeover. The British were furious. ‘Syed Husain is an able young man, but he’ll have to go!’ noted Wilfred Scawen Blunt in his diary. As it was they had forced the Nizam to cede the cotton-rich lands of Berar. For this he was rewarded with the empty title of Grand Commander of the Bath, or GCB. ‘Gave Curzon Berar,’ said Mehboob Ali Pasha bitterly.

Family lore says great-grandmother never really took to Hyderabad and always longed for the North Indian air of Bilgram. She was delighted each time Syed Husain’s frankness with his employer angered the Nizam and she was told to pack her bags. This according to family lore was twice, once when he was asked if the Nizam’s marriage to two sisters was permissible in Islam, and again when he gave a true report of the people’s dissatisfaction. Each time Syed Husain was requested to return, he did, to his wife’s dismay. Some members of that household kept their North Indian language and North Indian village ways, their Bilgramiyat, until they died. There was a certain straight-forwardness and outspokenness in contrast to the local or mulki tradition of secrecy, double-speak and prevarication. Our family was always considered ghair mulki, outsiders to Hyderabad, even sixty years after they settled.

My memories of a Hyderabadi childhood are a series of flashes without beginning or end. I was too young to understand the feverish, fin-de-siecle public mood of the last days of the Nizam’s rule. My world was the household and the rocky landscape of Banjara Hills. I was used to the comfortable closeness of the women who looked after us in their clean coarse Siddipet sarees. Their clothes were as rough and as satisfying as their food, red rice and spicy khatti dal, stronger on the tongue than our refined white table rice and bland nursery dishes. At night we drifted off to sleep with their stories in our ears, stories that went on for days, that looped and turned and had unexpected endings, stories of rajas who cared nothing for riches, animals and trees that gave wise advice, wicked queens and the wisdom of humble people. Of course we were afraid of the dark, it was peopled by jinns and churayls, witches whose feet faced backwards.


I was everyone’s child and no-one’s child, loved in a general rather than a particular way, cared for by a grandmother, aunts and older cousins. Mother had lost two babies. Her West Indian gynaecologist who loved her wept when I was born: ‘Batul will lose this one too, it’s her kismat.’ But Mamoojan took me to the great homoeopath Baba Jaisurya, Sarojini Naidu’s son. I was cured, lived, and thereafter adopted by the entire family. I was shared out among my relatives. My aunts, cousins and carers made up my everyday world. In my early photographs I have a bewildered look. I never knew where I belonged or why I was where I happened to be. A dispersed childhood like mine could only happen in the shelter of the larger family and ours was large, with grandfather’s house at its centre. After independence the family began to disperse as uncles took up posts with the Government of India in Delhi and abroad, and my Hyderabad shrank.

Grandfather’s house was built above the modest homes of the once-nomadic Banjaras and the graveyard of the Dhers, among the massive billions of years old Deccan rocks, a few miles away from Mehdi Nawaz Jung’s Rock House, a shelter for artists and visited by many famous people including Rabindranath Tagore, in which the walls were uncut rocks. My playmate Zohra, the assistant cook’s daughter, and I were born a few days and a few yards apart. She and I would straggle down the hill between monsoon showers with tins and scoops to catch grain-sized rainbow swimmers from the rock pools that would dry up in a day or two. Where did the creatures go when the pools dried up? Do they still exist or are they extinct, perhaps never known to science, never having had a name? I don’t see any rock pools around Banjara Hills now, because all around Hyderabad the rocks themselves are almost all gone, blasted to bits, except where old shrines perch at their summits.


My cousins and I were expert rock jumpers, creeping out in the afternoon sun while the grownups slept. We knew exactly where to place our feet on the huge sloping sides to reach the heights. The empty rockscape was magical, particularly in the monsoons. Strange curly green leaves would appear close to the ground, tiny flowering plants and the red velvety birbahutis that would emerge after the first showers, creatures that would curl up into little cushions when we touched them. In the rains millipedes invaded the house. Scorpions lurked under carpets and snakes in water pipes. Bigger fry too, including panthers, prowled Banjara Hills all year round, picking up our chickens and pet dogs even as late as forty years ago.

The land belonged to no one; it had little or no monetary value. Once the Golla shepherds wandered freely over it with their flocks. Now it is all enclosed, private property, transformed into real estate, and we can no longer walk all the way to Golconda Fort as we used to, following the secret channel that supplied the fort with water 500 years ago.

We flew kites during Sankranthi, the kite festival. For long I believed, incorrectly as it turns out, that it was only in Hyderabad that the upper part of the kite string is coated with ground glass, the better to cut down the opponents’ kite in kite wars. We threw stones at unripe mangoes to bring them down, picked green tamarind with hooked sticks and shook down jamuns and those curly bean-like fruit that grew wild on the trees in no-man’s land. There were experts among us who could spin heavy wooden tops, carefully winding them with thick cotton string before flicking them into motion. Chirki billa, lone paat didn’t need any equipment, only flat stones and lines drawn on the ground. In summer we ate crushed ice balls dipped in coloured syrups, in winter roasted palm roots and spiced chana, and all year round the bright pink strands of sugar that were called buddi ke baal – all bought from street vendors and strictly forbidden by parents.


The Hyderabad cousins went to day schools, one of the three that were part of the Anglicized education system: the Mahbubia School for girls, the Hyderabad Public School and St George’s Grammar, and during my long visits to Hyderabad I went with them. There was a public bus each morning – number 127 – which, by the way still runs. At one of the stops, if the children were not ready, the bus would wait, and a cup of tea would be sent out for the driver.

Why were we sent to these schools, and why did our parents, so well read themselves in Farsi and Urdu, not pass on their learning to us? I was deposited at the age of eight in a boarding school run by English ladies mainly for the children of English tea planters, and there I stayed till I was sixteen, reading Wordsworth and Shelley rather than Ghalib and Mir. Most of the cousins and their friends were subjected to this Anglicization, which made us as Ananda Coomaraswamy says ‘strangers in our own land’. Still, the folk culture that cocooned my childhood was never quite wiped from my memory, remaining buried in the lower depths, only to surface years later when I came back to Hyderabad in middle age.


But though I didn’t know it, the seeds of fundamental change had taken root in my own small but influential circle: we had taken too well and too early to Anglicization. When Curzon came to Hyderabad it was great-grandfather who could converse with him in his own language. Four generations later this eclecticism turned against itself and produced me, a product of a perfectly English boarding school education, knowing nothing of the Urdu and Farsi in which my parents had played antaakshri.1

Hyderabad’s rocks extend through the Deccan plateau and with it the Dakhni language, though both are now at the edge of extinction. There is a softness to the culture, made up of multiple strands and a shading from one strand to another; to call it a synthesis of ‘Hindu and Muslim’ is to simplify it for the modern westernized mind that confuses complexity with chaos. The shrines and the bastis have defied the divisions that the fundamentalists try to create. From my window Guruji and I watched during the ‘communal riots’ of 1992, the basti dwellers were determined to resist the mischief of setting one against another. Hindus and Muslims together formed vigilant groups to keep watch at night, and turned back the invasions. This happened in bastis all over the city.

I came back to Hyderabad when in my middle age, this time for good. For years I had longed to settle in one place. I had moved in my childhood every three years, to Father’s railway postings in the small railway towns of North India, in later married life too. Hyderabad though was the constant home but with unexplored dimensions. Bewildered as a child, I was ignorant as an adult of my cultural heritage, language, and the world around Hyderabad. Dakhni Urdu was my mother tongue but had receded to inaccessibility until in my middle age I met Ravinder Sharma, Guruji of Kala Ashram, who gave it back to me. The Hyderabad of the last years of the twentieth century gave me the first real chance to be myself. I learnt the sweet Telugu of Telengana too, known until then only through a nursery rhyme about broken swings.

Conversation with Guruji recalled my everyday Dakhni, and I discovered from Father’s repertoire the Dakhni verse of Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah:

‘Piya bin pyala piya jai na

Piya bin ekthil jiya jai na

Kathe hain piya bin suburi karun

Kaha jai amma kiya jai na.’2


When I returned I set out to investigate the roots and branches of craft as expression of the makers. It was the first step in my exploration of local folk traditions and folk culture that would in my mind open the door to a different way of organizing society. I travelled in the villages around Hyderabad and discovered the world of the artisans, the weavers, metal smiths and wood carvers and turners. My bewilderment with life finally disappeared. The first long hot summer of my return I sat in the libraries of the Gazetteers’ Office and the Archaeology Museum and read all that I could find on textiles and natural dyeing. It seemed important to catch the essence of a way of being that was being lost in the surge towards an alien modernity.

By now the thick strong cotton Siddipet sarees that used to be woven specifically for the Golla community had lost their weight and bulk and become featureless. Other crafts and textiles too had been forced into gentrification, the telia rumal no longer worn as head cloth by Malas and Madigas, but translated into sarees for city women, losing its thickness like the Siddipet sarees. Of course the nakashis of Nirmal no longer made their own paints. There were still a few calligraphers in the city, others like the kagzis, makers of fine handmade paper, had given up altogether. The bangles sold in Lad Bazaar are no longer made in the lanes behind it, but are imported from Jaipur, and now who knows? Perhaps even China.

Use and aesthetic are the warp and weft of a material object. What happened to the Siddipet saree and the telia rumal seems to provide a clue to the change that has come about in the material culture of the city. The outward form is preserved while its essential quality and use value are lost. The yarn of the telia rumal was oiled for a practical purpose: it kept the heads of Malas and fishermen who worked long hours in the sun cool, while the sturdy cotton sarees woven for the women of the Golla community withstood the rigours of their working lives.


If someone were to ask me what has changed in Hyderabad between my childhood and middle age, it would not be the physical changes that would first come to mind – the transformation of a unique Deccan landscape with its two-and-a-half billion year rock clusters and architecture of its time and place into an anonymous city of the Third World. Nor would it be the proliferation of malls, gated communities and high rises. Today those transformations are spoken of with pride: An advertisement for a ‘dream project’ boasts ‘Heavy machinery crush [sic] boulders to minute particles…’ Jinns and churayls have nowhere to hide now, the nights are bright with electric lights and noisy with television and traffic. Ancient trees and heritage buildings are mercilessly sacrificed to road-widening or gigantic shopping malls. The 500 year old Hussain Sagar is constricted to a fraction of its original size, the many other city lakes that kept Hyderabad cool in summer are built over. It would not even be the loss of the aesthetic, the thoroughfares dotted with Donald Duck waste bins and huge billboards.


These are only the outward signs of what has changed. A child growing up when I did in the Hyderabad of the 1940s and ’50s was a little speck in a warm cultural soup. It was not a paradise for all, far from. It was a feudal polity with large disparities between rich and poor, but it allowed its many distinct jatis and peoples to be themselves, to practice their traditions and rituals in their own ways. There were areas in which everyone could share and be equal – in the games which did not need costly equipment, the kite flying, the street food. The sharing made for a gentleness in the cultural mix that was the hallmark of Hyderabad, and the essence of its character.

I don’t believe that the changes have happened as an inevitable outcome of modernity. The power to direct change has always been in a few hands and so it remains, though the hands themselves are now different. The new rulers do not sit at the feet of their own wise men and women or of the humble folk, as the kings did in the old stories; they prefer the advice of aliens from a very different culture. That culture comes from countries of ice and snow and struggle against nature. It does not suit our soft climate where we work with nature, not against it… or we used to. Now the forests that channelled the huge monsoon rains gently into the earth are gone, so we suffer floods. Rivers are dammed so that the craft industries on their banks decline. ‘But the Sun has continued to give forth to India its vast vivifying rays, the Heavens to pour down upon the vast surface its tropical rains,’ as Francis Carnac Brown, a cotton planter of the nineteenth century says. Nature, desecrated and desacralized though it is, is still the annadata.3 Custard apple, mango, tamarind, soapnut trees spring up of themselves; stick a branch of sejni in the stony soil and it fruits within the year.


The quintessential Hyderabad is still there too, just below the surface, waiting for the infatuation with so-called modernity to recede. It’s there in the shrines and bastis which the different faiths share. The legendary hospitality of Hyderabad can still be found; a stranger is still offered water, tea, even a meal in the poorer parts of the city if not in posh Banjara Hills. You can still sit for hours in an Irani chai khana over a ‘one-by-two’, a cup of tea halved between two friends. The guardians of Hyderabadi-ness are the ordinary people – Lambadas, Dhers, village or city Muslims with folk traditions that horrify the purists, craftspeople, people who are secure enough in their own multi-layered heritage to share with others, who have not re-defined themselves out of fear into a single dimension. They keep their Hyderabadi grace.



1. A verbal game still common throughout India, in which competing teams have to come up with poems, rhymes or today, songs from films beginning with the last letter of the rhyme quoted by the opposing team.

2. ‘Without the beloved I cannot taste the cup,/ Without the beloved I cannot live even a moment; / They say I should endure the absence of the beloved: / …easy to say, but impossible to do.’

3. Annadata: sustainer, literally food-giver.