Ismat Mehdi and Syeda Imam recall the glorious days of Banjara Bhavan and wonder if this is the way Hyderabad pays tribute to Mehdi Nawaz Jung.
The rocky terrain and the old bungalows are figments of a distant memory. A clutch of boutiques, a few kirana stores, a five-star property and new apartment complexes sum up Road no.4 Banjara Hills today. One of the first ever houses, though bungalow would be an appropriate word, Banjara Bhavan, has nearly been wiped out of the city’s map. The memories associated with it, though, haunt old timers in the city. There was a time this area was known for Banjara Bhavan, Rock Castle and Sheesh Mahal built on the rocks. Among them, Banjara Bhavan had its pride of place as the residence of Mehdi Nawaz Jung.
Ismat Mehdi (managing trustee of Sarvodaya International Trust AP Chapter) and daughter-in-law of Mehdi Nawaz Jung, remembers the house streaming with dignitaries, the lavish Sunday breakfasts and lunches, evening Bridge sessions and above all the terrace that gave a 360 degree view of the city. “My parents-in-laws would play Bridge with their friends. My husband and I were more interested in stargazing,” she says with a thin smile on her lips, as she looks at old photographs of the house. A hazy photograph shows Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu with the inmates of the house. Running her fingers along the photograph, she says, “Banjara Hills had more rocks than houses. There were perhaps 20-odd houses and none of them had compound walls.”
The story of the origin of Banjara Bhavan is legendary. In 1927, Mehdi Nawaz Jung purchased 200 acres of land and began constructing the house in 1928. “My uncle asked his friends to loan him Rs.1000 each,” remembers author Syeda Imam, now based in Delhi. “The house was hued out of rocks. I wish it was preserved for the sake of history, for the sake of the man himself,” she says, anguished.
Both Syeda Imam and Ismat Mehdi understand they are not in control over a property that was sold in the early 80s. But flooded with memories, they wonder if the house, which was given a Grade-1 heritage tag in the first heritage list in 1998, could have been saved.
The house was befitting of Mehdi Nawaz Jung’s position, says Ismat Mehdi. “Impressed with the house and the hospitality, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru would visit the house whenever he was in Hyderabad,” she says. It’s a known fact that Tagore penned his poem, Kohistan, inspired by the house.
Ismat Mehdi says of the house, “My mother-in-law felt it wasn’t a practical house, with its flight of stairs and large rooms at different levels. I didn’t feel any inconvenience since I wasn’t the one running the house.” As a child, Ismat lived in her parents’ place Rock Castle, walking distance from the Banjara Bhavan.
Syeda Imam grew up in the same locality, at Sheesh Mahal and often spent her evenings at Banjara Bhavan. “When I was just six years old, my uncle would make me sit at the end of the long dining table and told the guests I was their hostess. Because, no matter how formal the gathering, my aunt was known to retreat to her own room with her paandaan after a while,” she says.
Built around rocks
She tries to relive the construction of the house and describes, “It had a library with shelves culled out of rocks. A flight of steps at the front led to the eldest son’s room. On the right was a spacious living room leading to Mehdi Nawaz Jung’s bedroom that resembled a lion’s lair with its huge rocks. The verandah faced the road that led to present-day Mehdipatnam. The first floor had a living room, two bedrooms and the sprawling terrace.”
The first sign of threat to the structure came to light in 2011. “We moved heaven and earth and tried to see if something could be done. Perhaps it could have been preserved like a museum. A slice of history is vanishing just like that,” says Syeda Imam, citing the example of her husband’s ancestral house in Ranchi, Ali’s Castle built on lines of Windsor Castle. Despite being in ruins, Ali’s Castle stands as a reminder of the bygone era, she emphasises.
“Each one who knew Banjara Bhavan would be mourning today,” says Syeda Imam, sharing an anecdote of the birth of the MNJ Cancer Hospital. Mehdi Nawaz Jung wanted to see a cancer hospital in the city and learning that funds were tough to come by, opted for a Re. 1 raffle. Money thus pooled in from all over Hyderabad went into the construction of the hospital. “Banjara Bhavan is all about a man called Mehdi Nawaz Jung. Today, what could have been a live, vibrant, museum is no longer there,” she bemoans.
Some facts on Banjara Bhavan
l Mehdi Nawaz Jung was the first commissioner of the Hyderabad municipal corporation and later served as Governor of Gujarat in 1960. He began constructing Banjara Bhavan in 1928 and did it in stages.
l After Mehdi Nawaz Jung’s demise in 1967, the house was given out on rent and finally sold in the early 80s.
l The house was classified as Grade I heritage structure in the first heritage list in 1998.
l Recently, the Bhavan was de-notified from the list and attempts were made to demolish it completely.
l A Division Bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court ordered that a ‘status quo’ be maintained, while dealing with a writ petition filed by Forum for a Better Hyderabad.