Stately mansions of a bygone era
THE DEODIS OF HYDERABAD — A Lost Heritage: Rani Sarma; Rupa & Co., 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 495.
The Southern Mughals, the Nizams, ruled Hyderabad for about two centuries during 1750-1950, which was renowned nationally and internationally as a centre of culture that combined the best of Indian and Islamic civilisations. The Nizam’s dominion, attracted talented men from just about every part of India and sometimes abroad. In course of time, many of these men transformed as nobles, received land grants, sonorous titles in courtly Persian, and numerous privileges. The nobles built their opulent residences called deodis both in the walled city as well as in the suburbs.
Rani Sarma, historian and heritage activist, has written a highly readable account of these homes with sympathy. Besides the introduction, the book has thematic chapters on the deodis in general, a description of the city, five chapters devoted to individual deodis, and two concluding chapters on the decline of the nobles resulting in the fall — literally and figuratively — of their mansions. As I know from my own experience, anyone writing on Hyderabad is handicapped by access to original source material. Overcoming many of these barriers, Sarma has written an eminently enjoyable book with representative examples of the major deodis. I particularly liked the chapter on the Rai Rayan Deodi, belonging to a Marathi-speaking Brahmin family.
The builders and owners of the deodis came from different ethnic backgrounds, but they shared a common origin as landowning nobles beholden to their master Nizam for the grants, their sole source of income.
The deodis were superb examples of traditional Indian domestic architecture with due regard both to climate and to the organisation of the space considering the social norms. Thus the mardana (for men) and zanana (for women) were the portions of the deodi divided by gender, with children, trusted servants, close relatives regardless of gender having access to both. The deodis were invariably courtyard houses with a forecourt and a garden, to the point that many of the deodis were called Baghs, as in Aziz Bagh. Manzil and Mahal were the two words often used to name the deodis, such as Iram Manzil and Wanaparti Mahal. Deccani delights, represented by the Mughal cuisine, were the standard fare at most of the deodis until the late 19th century when some European cuisine was introduced. A love for Persian and Urdu poetry, a disposition toward Sufism, elaborate, graceful manners characterised the inhabitant of the deodis.
On the downside, a horde of indolent nobles, an exploitative system of landownership, a lack of interest in modern scientific education made the descendants of the nobles unprepared for the advent of democratic India.
The Indian Army’s Operation Polo of September 1948 dealt a devastating blow to old Hyderabad. The jagirs were justifiably abolished and land redistributed. The owners of the deodis, stripped of their income, began to sell out, first the excessive grounds, then portion off the mansions, then the entire deodi. Most have been demolished by the owners, none could anticipate an adaptive reuse of the deodis as heritage hotels or museums or cultural centres. Mired in endless litigation and devoid of cultural sensitivity most of the deodis are either gone or reduced to pathetic slums. A second edition of Sarma’s book should fix errors in transcribing Urdu and Muslim names, supply precise dates, and improve the quality of plates of an otherwise highly readable book.
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