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Colonial grandeur

This stately home in Hyderabad — now a women's college — that James Achilles Kirkpatrick and princess Khairunnissa lived in, has come up for restoration. GUNVANTHI BALARAM looks at how it made it to the `World Monuments in Danger List'.

MOHAMMED YOUSUF

The house of Kirkpatrick _ long latticed corridors and a grand durbar hall. There is a staircase too that continues in two graceful sweeps.

FOR those who know the saga of the Hyderabadi princess Khairunnissa and James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the Scottish bureaucrat who built the 1803 British Residency — now the Osmania University Women's College — in Hyderabad, the noisy chatter of co-eds in the complex cannot muffle the resonating drama of the past. I was told the story as a child by my mother, who had studied at the college. Much later, William Dalrymple filled in the melodramatic details in The White Mughals. As I recently journeyed through the tattered and terribly grand mansion — now emptied of classes and waiting to be restored — I felt as though the tears in the walls and the cobwebs trembling on the ceilings were whispering of the endless love of Kirkpatrick and Khairunnissa, a romance that shook not merely the Deccan but all of British India.

Kirkpatrick's arrival

The familiar story of the glaring conquest of India is one we have all been brought up with, but the story of the Indian conquest of so many Britons is not so familiar. Kirkpatrick was among those British officers who were enchanted by India, especially by the culture of the Mughal court and absorbed into it. He arrived as Resident in Hyderabad in 1795 as a "cocky young imperialist intending to conquer India", as Dalrymple notes, but proceeded to promptly fall in love with Khairunnissa, the lovely teenage granddaughter of Nawab Mahmood Ali Khan, whose family had, for some strange reason, thrown them together. Governor General Wellesley's wrath notwithstanding, the lovers ended up getting married, with James secretly converting to Islam and becoming a secret agent for the Nizam against the British!

The house that Kirkpatrick built so carefully for his Begum on the banks of the Musi is among the most splendid pieces of colonial architecture in the country. Designed by Lt Samuel Russell of the Royal Engineers, it was paid for by the Nizam, who had adopted James as his son and named him Hashmat Jung. It boasts a Palladian-style north front and an Indian-style south front, long latticed corridors, a grand durbar hall, and a lovely staircase that divides at a landing and continues in two graceful sweeps and is documented in Philip Davies' Splendours of the Raj. It now has 41 acres of unkempt gardens that meander down to the Musi. In the grounds are also a graveyard where a couple of subsequent Residents and others are buried, the remnants of old bastions and a charming model (the size of a large doll's house) of the Residency as it originally looked.



Shortlived joy -- Khairunnissa .

It was within these precincts that James and Khair lived out the final years of their short-lived, eventful but very happy marriage (which ended in 1805, when James died unexpectedly while on a visit to Calcutta. Khair had stayed behind in Hyderabad and never saw her husband's body. She arrived at his grave in Calcutta only some weeks after he was buried). It was in this house that Khair gave birth to their two infants, William George (Sahib Allum) and Catherine Aurora (Sahib Begum) — a portrait of the duo by George Chinnery, which now hangs in a private collection in England, is considered one of the finest works of art to have come out of the Raj. It was from here that Khair's tots, were, to her undying anguish, sent away just a few days before James' death to be raised in England. She never saw her Sahib Allum and Sahib Begum again. The widowed Khair was soon seduced by James's assistant, Henry Russel, and kept, like Madam Butterfly, as his mistress at Masulipatnam on the coast until she died a few years later at the age of 27.

"It's a long, exciting, weepy story with a most extraordinary resonance," as Dalrymple says. "What it says about the Brits and the Indians, and the image that it gives us of the period, are very different from what one would expect."

The lives of Khair and James' children held none of the thunder of that of their parents. William George, like his ammi jaan, died young. Catherine (Kitty) grew up to become Thomas Carlyle's first love — she is the Blumine of his Sartor Resartus and the Rosegoddess of his Reminiscences — but went on to marry another man, a rather ordinary one, Capt Winsloe Phillips of the 7th Hussars, and to live a regular life in Torquay. She died in 1889.

The restoration

Today, the stately home that James and Khair and their infants lived in has come up for restoration — the result of a longstanding campaign to save the structure by a group of local heritage lovers led by Bilkiz Alladin, writer, activist and Hyderabad high society hostess. Alladin penned and staged a play, "For the Love of a Begum", some years ago to raise awareness about the historical building, and was instrumental in getting the World Monuments Fund in New York to raise a donation of $1,00,000 in 2002 for its restoration.

Picture courtesy: GUNVANTHI BALARAM

James Achilles Kirkpatrick.

"I invited Elbrun Kimmelman, an active associate of the World Monuments Fund, to visit the erstwhile Residency and have it included on their World Monuments in Danger List," Alladin says simply. "Elbrun recognised its heritage value the moment she set foot in the building and before we knew it, she had had it listed! Soon after, the Fund organised a grant of $1,00,000 from American Express for its restoration."

Osmania University's role

Over the last several months, a small team led by conservation architect Vasanta Sobha Turaga has been involved in documenting the building and devising a comprehensive conservation plan for the place. The chemistry department of Osmania University has also played a significant role in the process by training some of its lab-technicians and a group of architecture, engineering and chemistry students in the principles and practices of working on historic buildings and conservation processes. "The idea," Turaga says, "is to create a set of professional conservationists who will go on to work on other restoration projects in the community."

MOHAMMED YOUSUF

Outside -- a Palladian-style north front and an Indian-style south front.

According to college principal Sulochana Reddy, the restoration work is expected to begin later this year. But the academician, whose office is located in an imposing room on the ground floor of the former Residency, is unwilling to hazard a guess as to how long the work will take.

In the meantime, the authorities should take more trouble to publicise the importance of the building, says historian and heritage activist Vasant Bava, former Andhra Pradesh chief secretary, founder of the Institute for Deccan Studies and author of The Last Nizam. "The erstwhile Residency represents a crucial link in a long period of Indian and British history, and deserves to be projected as an important cultural site for both scholars and tourists," Dr. Bava insists. "It concerns anyone who wants to understand the past, and relate it to the present. Apart from its romantic origins, it was the scene of major events in Indian history, having been, among other things, attacked during the Mutiny of 1857. The place was once the symbol of the power exercised by the British in the Indian states. We would like it to be remembered also as an example of Indo-British understanding in the post-Independence era."

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