As iconic British Residency building in Hyderabad is restored, a look back at its monumental history
An architectural marvel designed by Lieutenant Samuel Russell of the Madras Engineers, the British Residency was reduced to a state which was a fry cry from its grandiose past, where it symbolised the supremacy, power and wealth of the British Empire
A stone’s throw away from the perennially crowded Koti Bus stop and inside the zealously guarded premises of Women’s College, an opulent mansion that housed the erstwhile British Residents, built around 1805, was slowly falling apart. While Hyderabad is dotted with mansions and deodis, the former British Residency is considered to be one among the two crown jewels of the city as far as buildings go (the other being the Falaknuma Palace).
An architectural marvel designed by Lieutenant Samuel Russell of the Madras Engineers, it was reduced to a state which was a fry cry from its grandiose past where it symbolised the supremacy, power and wealth of the British Empire. The story of how a glorious landmark was left to decay and is now being restored to its original glory is a plot straight out a potboiler with all the requisite twists and turns.
Few buildings inspired such awe in its visitors, as the Residency did at the zenith of its fame — with its neo classical architecture style, chandeliers believed to be procured from King William IVth’s palace, the massive scale, initially spread over 60 acres (now reduced to 42 acres) and munificent gardens which served as a setting for many a soiree organised by the memsahibs of the house.
A vast villa, closely resembling the White House in Washington, it lay in a garden just over the River Musi from the old city. Surrounded by ancient trees, it attracts attention at the first glance with an imposing edifice which boast of massive Corinthian pillars 40 feet in height. Sprawled at either end are two lions overlooking 21 marble stairs.
As a former British Residency, the building had its own magic with galleried halls and drawing rooms, a Durbar Hall of astounding proportions, painted ceilings, parquet floors of inlaid wood, flanked by giant mirrors. It boasted of dungeons in the basement and oval ball rooms signifying the luxury and opulence the British Residents in India were accustomed to.
At the heart of the building is a doomed love story, which adds to the lore and legend surrounding it. The complex was built by Col James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident at the court of Hyderabad between 1797 and 1805. Kirkpatrick had fallen in love with a Hyderabadi noblewoman Khair un Nissa and not only converted to Islam to marry her but also turned into a desi sahib who wore Indian clothes and wrote Urdu poetry. The couple braved opposition from both the British regiment and the city’s aristocratic set to their wedding but the victory was Pyrrhic owing to their early deaths. While the story was relegated to the foot notes of history for nearly two centuries, the house Kirkpatrick built for his begum became the official home for the British Residents in Hyderabad ever since.
When the British left Hyderabad in 1949, the Koti residency was converted into Women’s college, established in 1924. It is interesting to note that till the handover, the premises were maintained by the Nizam’s government. Between 1949 and 1952, the Residency buildings were modified and modernised for the use of the Women’s College.
It was around then, that the already frayed building was ravaged by the twin attacks of neglect and time. Old buildings in the complex were modified with no heed to their structural requirements. The Residency complex shrunk over the years and poor maintenance led to the collapse of structures — the sociology block and the Principal’s Lodge, were pulled down and replaced with new buildings. Such dereliction ensured that the rich history of the place was quietly buried.
Author William Dalrymple recalls the first time he visited the building in the late '90s when he says it created a huge impression on him, the state of disrepair notwithstanding. He recalls, “It was all falling apart. There were classrooms in the main block with lumps of plaster falling down. There were pigeons in the rafters and the roof was leaking. In fact, as the central block of the house was deemed too dangerous for the students, most of the classes took place in the former elephant stables at the back.”
It was ironic that the erstwhile British Residency needed a British citizen in Dalrymple to attract attention. The author then embarked on a five-year research which resulted in his influential bestseller, The White Mughals, tracing the doomed love story of Kirkpatrick and Khair un Nissa — and brought the spotlight back on the gorgeous building tucked away in the folds of the fortress-like walls of the Women’s College.
The path to conservation began from a White Mughals fan — an anonymous British donor who wrote a cheque for £1 million soon after the book was released. In 2001, the Residency was put on the 2002 and 2004 World Monuments Watch List as ‘Osmania Women’s College’. Soon after, thanks to the donation and the attention it received from Dalrymple’s work, a new story of conservation began.
It took 12 long years mired in red tape and activism for restoration process to finally begin in 2013. Under the aegis of Government of Telangana and World Monuments Fund, the first phase of restoration was competed a few months ago. NR Vishalatchy, director of Archaeology and Museums, who was instrumental in the restoration work, concedes that it was a laborious task. She explains, “The building was in a state of collapse, so the first phase was to understand and consolidate the structure apart from working on its stability. The original structure underwent a lot of changes — dummy windows were added on elevations and the roof needed reinforcements. The first phase was an endeavour to safeguard the foundation so that further work can be carried on.”
Under the paint and plaster removed during the restoration process, a lot of forgotten details have tumbled out too. Anuradha Naik, a conservation architect, one of the three consultants appointed for the restoration project reveals many interesting details. She says, “The repair and conservation works on the fabric of the Residency building have revealed fascinating insights into the history of one the most powerful ‘statements of power’. For instance, the Residency building was initially oriented to face the river on the south but in a hugely political move the British turned their back on the Nizam and faced Delhi to the north after 1857. Understandably the rooms had also to be remodeled to suit this change. Openings were shut. Remains of a staircase were found as also a service stair in one of the rooms. It was perhaps at this time that the rectangular reception rooms were converted to oval ones.”
The first phase, which took four years of painstaking work, has made a world of difference to the structure. The work concentrated on restoring the ground floor which had a grand staircase flanked by oval rooms on both sides. The dungeons or treasury (the use of the rooms in the basement is unclear) apart from the oval rooms and ballroom in the first level were also meticulously restored, peeling away centuries of damage.
The restoration work wasn’t an easy task considering the scale and size of the project. A massive piece of wooden beam in the roof (weighing a couple of tonnes) was unstable and needed to be carefully modified, a mammoth task, considering the narrow openings. Vishalatchy concedes that it was a big challenge and says, “Restoration is a laborious process as the materials and methodology from the original work are not available. The roof beam for example had to be brought down and reused — first we treated it with anti termite chemical, then reinforced it with clamps and refitted it in the roof. Each corner has a similar story to share.”
Why is it then that the restoration process of this building important even in face of such adversities? William Dalrymple gives three reasons for it. He explains, “It is one of the best known colonial buildings in India and the best in south India. Secondly, it gives a different view of the ruling British as it shows Kirkpatrick’s love and integration into local culture. Finally, it introduced a new style of architecture to Hyderabad.”
Vishalatchy believes that it is a story that needed to be told and says, “I think it is a landmark in the city. Throughout the world currently there is strife, and this is an example about a man (Kirkpatrick) who came from another land, adapted to local customs and became a part of it. It belongs to the people of Hyderabad and can be a cultural hub.”
With the second phase of restoration just starting, the government’s plans to make it a cultural center are paying dividends with the premises already hosting concerts, plays. While the first phase of restoration concentrated on structural enhancement, the second phase puts onus on art conservation and restoration of the papier mâché work in the premises.
Dalrymple, who was present for the event commemorating the completion of phase one, says he is thrilled at the restoration work and adds, “For many years I thought it wasn’t possible but the amount of work done is admirable. I’m elated by the archaeologists uncovering so many facets of the place and it is a model for what can be done in restoration work.”
Plans to make it a cultural center will mean that things come full circle for the Residency building. It was in its lush gardens that legendary gatherings were once held which saw performances by the famous courtesan/poetess of Hyderabad of the time, Mah Laqa Chanda Bai, and the landscaped precincts were witness to the nobility of the city reciting verses penned by Ibrahim Adil Shah and Quli Qutb Shah. It would also symbolically ensure that the monument which stood as a silent witness to one of the greatest love stories in India will be available for future generations in all its colossal glory.
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