Durrushehvar, the resolute princess: How the Ottoman dynasty heir brought style, reform to Nizam's Hyderabad

Mallik Thatipalli

Begum Sahiba Hatice Hayriye Ayşe Dürrüşehvar Sultan, the daughter-in-law of the last Nizam of Hyderabad and the daughter of Abdulmejid II, the last Caliph of the Ottoman dynasty, was subject to immense attention and adulation in the 1930s. "Jab woh paan khaati thi, toh halak se jaata hua dikhta tha (When she swallowed a paan, you could see it going down her throat!) reminisces a friend's grandmother of the princess. She, and her cousin Princess Niloufer who married her husband's younger brother, have remained role models for the Muslim aristocracy of the city. But on the eve of her 106th birth anniversary, one wonders why modern Hyderabad has failed to recognise this trailblazer.

The princess was ten years old when her family was banished from Turkey under the Attaturk reforms, following which they settled in Nice, France. Her marriage to Azam Jah, the heir to the Nizam of Hyderabad, was a surprise to many, as she was sought after by the Shah of Iran and King of Egypt as a bride for their respective heirs. It was also surprising because though the Nizam of Hyderabad was widely considered the richest man of the world, his lineage of two centuries was far different from the princess, who was the last heir of the revered Ottoman dynasty.

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A photograph taken during the princess' childhood, in about 1920

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Photograph shot possibly by the legendary photographer Jack Birns of Life Magazine in September-October 1948

This marriage was the brain child of Shaukat Ali, the founder of the Khilafat movement, who convinced Osman Ali Khan, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, that it would bring together the two great houses of Islam. It would also ensure that the Nizam became a predominant Muslim leader not only in India, but also in the Islamic world. Her marriage in Nice (along with that of her cousin Niloufer's) was a simple affair, with only a few Turkish and Hyderabadi nobility present. It was presided over by the Khalifa himself.

She arrived in Hyderabad to much curiosity. Historian Mohammed Safiullah calls her marriage "mismatched" in every sense. He shares, "She was 5'10", her husband was 5 '3". She brought with her a completely cosmopolitan life, while most of Hyderabad was still under purdah. She was of impeccable lineage but her family had very little money, and it was a typical rags-to-riches story. She knew of her husband's 50 concubines but carried herself regally."

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The marriage in Nice, presided over by the Khalifa

There was a great gulf between the princess and the prince, owing to her fiercely independent nature and his propensity for philandering and gambling, leading to their marriage falling apart.

Historical accounts of the time place her favourably, as the writer Philip Mason described her: "She was always, essentially and indefinably, royal, and it seems to me that if fate had so willed she might have been one of the great queens of the world."

Sir Walter Mockton said she "was in many ways the most remarkable person in Hyderabad, a woman tranquil yet resolute, whose personality dominated any room she entered."

Author John Zubrzycki, whose seminal work The Last Nizam charts the life and times of Durrushehvar's son Mukarram Jah, remarks that it was very difficult for her to adjust to the very conservative Muslim culture that permeated Hyderabad at the time. He says, "But she never went into purdah. There were also rumors at the time that the Nizam's senior wife Dulhan Pasha wanted to poison her. Relations between Azam (her husband) and his brother Moazzam were also strained. She always thought Hyderabad could never equal the Ottoman culture, and many Hyderabadis thought she looked down on them."

Her relationship with the Nizam was one of respect. While the Nizam called her 'amma' and a 'nagina' (jewel), he also gave into her wishes over matters concerning her son's education. "She was impervious, a true princess, very regal and very smart, not someone to suffer fools lightly. She was fluent in French, English, Turkish and Urdu. She fought and won every battle with the India Office over the education of Mukarram," says Zubrzycki.

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With the beautiful Indo-European palace Bella Vista as her residence, she was soon known as one of India's most beautiful royals, thanks to photographs taken by the celebrated Cecil Beaton and Jack Birns of Life magazine. She and Niloufer were celebrated as style icons, which continues to this day.

The princess made her mark with various initiatives, and education and healthcare were her twin passions. She set up a junior college for girls, as well as a general and children's hospital in Purani Haveli, which is still run in her name. She even inaugurated the Ajmal Khan Tibbiya College Hospital in the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Zubrzycki states, "She did Hyderabad state a great service through her relief work during World War II. She patronised hospitals, educational institutions and welfare bodies."

After her husband's death in 1970, the princess divided her time between Hyderabad and London (where it was rumoured that the Driver still wore the livery of Hyderabad). She returned to the country of her birth only once afterwards, when the Turkish government in 1952 allowed female royals to return. Dr Hansuddin Ahmed, an IAS officer who accompanied her on this trip, recalls the Princess bowing her head and kissing the ground once she alighted the aircraft. Her photographs continue to find a place in the Dolmabahçe Palace, the Caliphate's former home in Turkey.

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Safiullah, who met the princess during her visits to Hyderabad in the late 90s and early 2000s and curated an exhibition on her in 2014 (her birth centenary) calls her one of the last great royals of the world. "I met her when she came to inaugurate the Nizam's museum and she was courteous and down to earth. It's hard to believe that had it not been for some tumultuous events in history, she would've been the first woman Khalifa!"

Even India doesn't recognise her as it has other great royal women of the times, like Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur (on whom 38 books were written) or Sita Devi of Baroda. Zubrzycki says this is because Durrushehvar never deliberately went out of her way to attract attention. "Gayatri Devi wrote her now famous memoir A Princess Remembers which cemented her reputation, even though it is highly selective and hagiographic. Durrushehvar's letters and writings have been lost, and with them her legacy has largely been forgotten. Despite the difficulties she initially encountered, she did a lot for Hyderabad and her contribution should be better remembered." Whether the state and governments remember her or not, it only takes one conversation in the Old City for memories and stories of her to tumble out. Just ask my friend's grandmother!

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