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What draws Dalrymple to the Deccan

From architectural masterpieces to Hyderabadi 'haleem', the Deccan has many charms. It depends which one you have a taste for

William Dalrymple.
William Dalrymple.

On Tuesday, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) and Telangana’s tourism department came together to host a remarkable event on the premises of the partially restored British Residency in Hyderabad.

Singer Vidya Shah and historian William Dalrymple brought alive the courtesan Mah Laqa Bai Chanda’s verses—Shah rendering them in classical Hindustani vocals and Dalrymple reading passages from his 2002 book, White Mughals, which stars James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British resident in Hyderabad from 1798-1805.

More than 200 years ago, Mah Laqa—a renowned poet of her times—had sung those verses in the same Durbar Hall. She had given a book of her poems to Kirkpatrick’s assistant, John Malcolm, which eventually became part of Dalrymple’s research.

Apart from drawing attention to the ongoing restoration work, the event was an attempt to raise more funding to complete work on the Residency, which Dalrymple pegs as “one of the purest examples of Palladian architecture in India".

The North front of the British Residency in 1805.

As you read our cover story on the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s ambitious conservation plan for another Hyderabadi architectural masterpiece, the Qutb Shahi necropolis, the Residency is an interesting parallel for its intermingling of architectural traditions. The main Residency building is Palladian but the house that Kirkpatrick built for Khair-un-Nissa—the Hyderabadi noblewoman he married—was built in the Mughal style and generously adorned with paintings by the ruling Nizam’s court artist, Rai Venkatchellam.

While Dalrymple is not actively involved in the restoration effort, the funding driving it came from a White Mughals fan—an anonymous British donor who wrote a cheque for £1 million (around Rs8.3 crore).

“There have been many false starts (with the Residency). There was one concerted effort in 2004-05 which petered out because of lack of funds," Dalrymple says, adding that its present success is really the result of the public-private partnership between the WMF and the Telangana government.

The North front of the British Residency now.

I ask the historian why he’s so invested in Hyderabad. And why he isn’t campaigning for conservation projects in Delhi, where he lives, instead.

“The Deccan has been disproportionately neglected for so long," he points out. “Far more than any other princely state.... Jaipur, Jodhpur. It’s been overlooked by both historians and travellers since 1947. Even the tourist trails of Bijapur, Bidar, Gulbarga don’t seem to have as many takers as they should."

If things go according to plan, Hyderabad, and specifically the Residency, might be the centre of global attention with a forthcoming film based on the book. There are heavyweights involved: producer Frank Doelger (Game Of Thrones), and actor-director Ralph Fiennes, who is scheduled to visit the site later this year.

But the real draw of the city, which he finally gets to, is the Hyderabadi haleem. “Very different from the north Indian version. This one is badami," he says. “And the place to have it in is Cafe Bahar."

Clearly, the Deccan has many charms. It depends which one you have a taste for.

The writer tweets as @aninditaghose

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