Art N Soul: Riches and Gems from the Nizams of Hyderabad

in Article
Published on: 25 July 2019

B.N. Goswamy

Professor B.N. Goswamy, distinguished art historian, and recipient of many honours including the Padma Bhushan, is currently Professor Emeritus of Art History at the Panjab University, Chandigarh. A leading authority on Indian art, he is best known for his scholarship on Indian painting, with special focus trained on the work of painters active in the Pahari region.

The Nizams of Hyderabad were wealthy rulers who owned precious jewels and commissioned numerous paintings. From collar necklaces to table-cut diamonds, pearls and emeralds, these jewels shed light on the affluence of Nizams such as Mir Qamruddin Khan and Mir Mahbub Ali Khan. Prof B.N. Goswamy sheds light on how these coveted jewels and paintings tell the tales of the rulers, the dynasties and their culture. (Photo Courtesy: The Tribune) 



This article appeared originally in The Tribune, Chandigarh, and is reproduced here with permission.


The city of heat, of sparkling diamonds and the craggy Golconda Fort. The city of famed perfumes, of rose, jasmine, and sandalwood, and the glitter and throng of the Laad Bazaar. The city synonymous with the minarets of the Charminar and of sweet apricot recipes handed down from Babur. The city of mystics and Sufis, and of the deorhis and havelis of the richest noblemen in India.

— from Hyderabad, the City of the Nizams


Long years back—when efforts were being made to have me take over the National Museum of India as its director—I was asked by the then powers-to-be to join a committee that was formed to examine and report on the Nizam’s jewels, for the issue of their being acquired by the Government of India was under serious consideration. I knew remarkably little about jewellery and felt completely inadequate to the task. But such was the circumstance, and such the decision. Five of us—or was it four?—made our way to Mumbai where, for three days, we were sitting in the cavernous basement of a bank, examining those treasures, one by one, box by bejewelled box, presented with great elegance by designated members of the Nizam’s private Trusts. It is a long and complex story but why I bring it up is that in one’s memory one thing stands out: by the time those three days ended, we were cross-eyed and exhausted, bedazzled by what we had been seeing. Fabulous is the word that comes to mind as long as it is not understood to be related to ‘fables’: this was all too real.

It all came back when I received recently two remarkable publications, grouped under the title: Treasures of the Deccan. One dealt with the ‘Jewels of the Nizams’, and the other with paintings from the Deccani Sultanates. There they were again: those riches. Of the second named, another time. Meanwhile, the Jewels volume, put together with singular warmth and attention to detail by Usha Balakrishnan—who had written extensively on the subject before — and Deepthi Sasidharan, who had worked on the remarkably rich visual archives of the Nizamshahi Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad, opens up new, filigreed windows. Through them, one might say, one gets tantalisingly close to lustre.


Mahal-e-Mubarak, The Tribune, B.N. Goswamy

The book ‘Jewels of the Nizams’ consists of images and descriptions of the incredible range and quality of the jewellery that once belonged to the dynasty (In pic: Mahal-e Mubarak, wife of Mir Osman Ali Khan, monochrome gelatin silver print, gold-toned, Chowmohalla Palace collection, Hyderabad, c 1915; Champakali necklace; table-cut diamonds, pearls and emeralds, Deccan, early 18th century, Private collection; A pair of bazubands, gold, diamonds, peridots, Private collection; Deccan, 19th century; Courtesy: The Tribune)



There is history here: of the region and of dynasty, naturally. One gets to know of the founder of the Asaf-jahi dynasty, Mir Qamruddin Khan, and of how the successive generations of his family grew in power and prominence, amassing great influence and untold wealth. One learns specially of the enlightened Mir Mahbub Ali Khan (r.18691911), the sixth Nizam, whom historians of photography remember as the untiring patron of Raja Deen Dayal, the ‘doyen’ of early photography in India. In the course of the narrative of the times, one runs into celebrated jewels at each step—the Princie Diamond, and the Jacob Diamond, for instance—and much else. For instance, the Nizam’s sitting down, on the advice of purohits, to perform a yajna and do pooja to appease the flooded river Musi, which was submerging the city. There was opposition to the move, the orthodox asking: ‘how can you wear a janeo and sit for pooja like a kafir?’ To which, according to people who remember, Mahbub Ali replied: 'Hindus and Muslims are my two eyes; besides, a ruler has no religion.' Tales like these apart, the substance of the volume consists of images and descriptions of the incredible range and quality of the jewellery that once belonged to the dynasty: all those padaks and chintaks, champakalis and kanthis, bazubands and paizebs, sarpechs and turras. Included in that sparkling list—some bearing Hindi names, others Urdu—is something referred to in the family as ‘baglus’, a Hyderabadi version of the English word ‘buckle’, which makes up the front part of a bejewelled belt. Each select piece of jewellery in the volume is described in precise detail. Consider this description of a chintak-necklace: 'The collar necklace is in the form of a series of rectangular plaques, each set with a pear-shaped table-cut diamond, within a green enamel border. A row of large Basra pearls are strung along the top, while the fringe below is made of drop-shaped elements set with diamonds, pearls and emerald beads. There are red and green bold enamel flowers on the reverse.' Not for the likes of me to be able to take in fully, but clearly precise.


Salabath Jah and Sahebzadi Ahmed un Nisa, B.N. Goswamy, The Tribune

Mir Mahbub Ali Khan was the sixth Nizam and is remembered as the untiring patron of Raja Deen Dayal, the ‘doyen’ of early photography in India (In pic: Sahebzada Salabath Jah and Sahebzadi Ahmed unNisa, Children of Mir Mahbub Ali Khan, Albumen silver print, Photograph by S. Frankel; Courtesy: The Tribune)


An unexpected, but remarkably engaging, section of the book is titled ‘Mahallat’—the Urdu word mahal also means wife, apart from referring to an ‘intensely personal and private space within the palace complex that was exclusively for women’—for in it are reproduced vintage, time-tinted photographs of women of the royal household, taken for the most part by Raja Deen Dayal and Sons. The archives from which these photographs were accessed were closed for a very long time, but when they were opened—box after box filled with old photographs—a whole new world swung into view, as it were. There we see them, from wet nurses and lost-looking children to the most elegant young women, wives of the Nizam, dressed in exquisite finery—tight, figure-hugging pyjamas seemingly stitched from embroidered cloth of gold, long short-sleeved shirts, gossamer-thin dupattas—and wearing the most brilliant of jewellery from head to toes on their lissom frames. Whether they lived in ‘splendid seclusion’, or battled with fierce competition, is not something we can read about here. Here, standing in their languid poses struck for photographers, one sees them simply as personages whom the jewellers might have had in mind while designing each single piece.

This article has been republished as part of an ongoing series Art N Soul from The Tribune.