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The literary legacy of Hyderabad's Bachelors' Quarters

Bachelors’ Quarters was once a hub for poets, writers, activists and painters—as Urdu faded away, it too lost its sheen

A depiction of the British residency at Hyderabad from 1858.
A depiction of the British residency at Hyderabad from 1858. (iStockphoto)

Next to the Gandhi Bhavan Metro Station, commercial outlet signboards at the Andhra Pradesh Housing Board Complex hide a piece of Hyderabad’s art heritage: a 300x14ft mural crafted by the city’s renowned painter, Sayeed Bin Mohammed Naqqash.

On the other side of the road, the grandeur of the recently restored Moazzam Jahi Market is hard to miss. Near it is a lane filled with hookah-apparatus stores and iron works shops. At the end of this street, across the Indo-Saracenic heritage landmark named after the last nizam’s son, stands an architectural anomaly: the Bachelors’ Quarters (Mujarrad Gah in Urdu), once a hub for poets, writers, activists and painters like Naqqash.

Despite its rich past, it’s not a designated heritage site. But its tenants came together to pool in 1 crore for restoration. Today it’s back in play, though its literary and activist legacy has been relegated to the sidelines of Hyderabad’s rich history. Paucity of funds and tussles amongst literary stalwarts took a toll on the organisations that once functioned from here. And as Urdu, the language that had pulsed through it, faded away, Mujarrad Gah too lost its sheen.

City historian Sajjad Shahid explains the structure’s unique German design elements: “A lot of architects from Germany came to the Deccan during World War II and they made certain architectural styles from their country popular here. Mujarrad Gah’s circular windows, curved façade, curved roof, geometric patterns, colours, and profuse decorations are indicative of this.”

In the middle entrance, sandwiched between outlets selling guns, clocks and furniture, a nameplate in Arabic reads Al-Bait-ul-Iqaamatul-Mujarradeen. Beneath that, the structure’s founding year, 1359 (Heijra), takes you back to 1940 (Gregorian).

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The first floor has two rooms that were once offices of the Hyderabad Educational Conference (HEC). An Asaf Jahi-era education lobby group, the HEC pushed for an Urdu-medium university that would be named Osmania. In one room sits Mustafa Kamal, the editor of the monthly Urdu humour magazine Shugoofa, who was born just a year before the structure was built. The Shugoofa office is the only reminder of Mujarrad Gah’s rich cultural history.

“At first, most of the rooms provided lodging for under-privileged students from far-flung districts, who came to the city for higher learning. Rent money collected from all these rooms went towards funding scholarships for women,” Kamal says.

The Bachelors’ Quarters building has unique German design elements.
The Bachelors’ Quarters building has unique German design elements. (Daneesh Majid)

In 1948, the princely state became part of India. Some Hyderabadis migrated to Pakistan or England. A sense of despondency set in. The Bachelors’ Quarters took on a more literary, artistic, and activist role at this point, helping Hyderabad into a new era. Progressive artists, some of them affiliated to the Communist Party of India and its cultural wings, spearheaded an anti-feudal/anti-nizam struggle—distinct from that of the Hyderabad State Congress—in the erstwhile princely state’s Telangana districts.

From 1955, Sulaiman Areeb started bringing out an Urdu magazine, Saba, from room 17A. “Anyone who was to be reckoned with in the city’s progressive literary world used to frequent Sulaiman Bhai’s office. He played a vital role in promoting different literary trends like modernism,” says Oudesh Bava Rani, vice-president of Hyderabad’s Hindi-Urdu Progressive Writers Association.

Though not a flag-bearer of any trend, Areeb created an environment where trends could flourish. Leftists like Rani’s brother Raj Bahadur Gaur—a former Anjuman Taraqqi-e-Urdu president, supporter of the Telangana peasant uprising, and trade unionist—were frequent visitors. Kamal recalls the time the revolutionary poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin met him at the Saba office. “At one mushaira, mazahiya shayar (humorous poet) Sarwar Danda performed before Makhdoom. The audience did applaud the latter when he took the stage but they also chanted ‘Danda wanted!’ ” Makhdoom wondered why people wanted to hear more from the mazahiya poet when the sanjeeda (serious) one was about to recite his verses.

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“People needed a space to initially showcase their talents to peers,” says Shahid. “This was a place where folks could perfect their material before disseminating it to audiences.” Old timers would rehearse there and give informal music lessons to youngsters. Poets would recite their work to fellow artists in search of feedback.

Be it poets, ghazal maestro Vithal Rao, comedian Daulat Ram or music composer Iqbal Qureshi, they all had an artistic abode in room 27, home to the Fine Arts Academy, an artists’ association—well before its literary wing, Zinda Dilan-e-Hyderabad, became a stand-alone entity in 1973.

Daulat Ram met his comedic idol Himayatulla through Rao. “After seeing me perform at a Republic Day programme in 1962, Himayat Bhai asked Vithal that I be introduced to him,” recollects the 80-year old comic. Impressed, the legendary humourist decided to make him an Academy member. “It was a dream come true. He then told me to come to room No.27. I have been a member since then.”

It was more than a space for collaboration and experimentation. Mazahiya shayar Moin Amar Bamboo and he recall the time there was a “labour adda” at the Bachelors’ Quarters. Moin Amar reminisces: “Nassimia Hotel used to be where the clock shop is today. People came there to solicit our services for functions, events, wedding festivities, etc.” Members of the aristocracy would send employees to book performers and negotiate rates. “Sometimes nawabs themselves would also arrive in their vintage cars outside Nassimia,” says Daulat Ram.

Gradually, these organisations began fading into obscurity. “Besides the lack of funds, long-drawn out tussles between literary stalwarts over the reins of their factions did not help. More importantly, there was no infusion of young blood in these groups,” says Rani. And as Urdu began to fade away, there were fewer takers for comedy, novels, journalism, poetry and prose in the language. The linguistic trifurcation of Hyderabad in 1956, with the Telangana portion being merged with the Telugu-speaking areas of Madras Presidency to form Andhra Pradesh (AP), hastened the decline.

Shahid feels the powers that be are poor stewards of Telangana’s historic structures. “KCR (the chief minister) has no appreciation and knowledge when it comes to preserving our cultural legacy. He claims to be a fan of heritage yet he wanted to demolish Osmania University General Hospital and Errum Manzil. Luckily, the judiciary invoked Regulation 13 A to prevent him from doing so,” he says.

According to the HMDA (Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority) rules, regulation 13 A prevents any alteration to historic sites without the heritage committee’s approval. Contrary to what Arvind Kumar, principal secretary, Municipal Administration and Urban Development (MA&UD), maintains about roping in architects and engineering firms during the Moazzam Jahi Market restoration, Shahid says no such bodies were even consulted.

“The recent Moazzam Jahi Market restoration was a publicity stunt,” he claims.

Despite the pomp and patronage with which the latter was restored, there was water seepage from the roof and other parts of the Moazzam Jahi Market. Despite the absence of such “patronage”, the Bachelors’ Quarters has regained its aesthetic glory.

Daneesh Majid is a Hyderabad-based writer on South Asian culture and security.

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