Mukkaram Jah inherited the richest fortune in the world when his grandfather, the last Nizam of Hyderabad, died in 1967. But lavish palaces, stunning jewels, a dazzling blue-blooded European princess for a wife, and a great ability at riding, amount to nothing in the post-feudal world when you lack the will to manage your inheritance. In a little over thirty years, his huge fortune at one point estimated to be worth more than Rs 25,000 crore has all but evaporated. While the fabled Nizam’s jewels makes news worldwide, its former owner now spends his time living in an apartment by the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Shalini Sharma takes a look at a wasted life.
Indolence is not a crime in Hyderabad. Laxity and carelessness are forgiven as natural to the environment. The city of the Charminar is a wasteland of Princes and Nawabs who have seen better days. Tales of lost fortunes and destroyed inheritances are commonplace here, nothing to lament over. More than any other city in the country Hyderabad is forgiving of the men and women still lost in the thoughts of a bygone era, unable to come to terms with the changing times. Ambition and hard work are certainly not among the more envied qualities here.
But even by this empathetic Hyderabadi standard, the story of the Nawab Mir Barkat Ali Khan Bahadur, H.E.H.Wallashan Prince Mukkarram Jah Bahadur, the grandson of the seventh and last Nizam of Hyderabad, stands out. As he watches the Bosphorus flow quietly past his window one wonders if he ever reflects over how his life has turned out as compared to what it could have been. To the world at large, the 68-year old Mukkaram Jah, popularly known as Barkat, is a wastrel. A spoilt, selfish megalomaniac who refuses to come to terms with an India which ousted the maharajahs 50- years ago. Being born to the greatest wealth only led him to commit the biggest of follies. At least that is the perception in his native Hyderabad.
The erstwhile nobility of the Deccan, who still try hard to retain vestiges of loyalty for their ex-king, wring their hands at the perfidy of their lord and master who has forsaken Hyderabad for lesser places around the globe.
The common refrain sometimes gets tiresome, but it rings continuously: if he had chosen to stay in his fiefdom, a seat in the Indian Parliament would have been his for the asking. Other maharajahs transmuted themselves into successful politicians and businessmen. So why couldn’t he, whose fortune and status was greater than theirs? Why did he instead spend an entire lifetime travelling around the world aimlessly? What was he in quest of? Even without a kingdom he could have still lorded over a vast estate instead of living in far off places like a commoner.
Most of what Barkat inherited is now gone. The palaces in Ooty and Mahableshwar were sold for a song. The five palaces in Hyderabad—Falaknuma, Purani Haveli, Chowmahalla, King Kothi and Chiran—lie stripped and bare of their once fabled antiques, chandeliers, furniture, paintings, silver, ivory, carpets, books, porcelain and crystal—a collection that would have made even Hyderabad’s landmark Salar Jung museum look like a petty hoarding. As for the famed jewelry collection, those in the know say what the government managed to acquire—the fabulous 173 pieces including the Jacob diamond that were bought by the government for Rs 218 crore in 1995 after nearly two decades of negotiations and court battles and exhibited for the first time at the National Museum in Delhi recently—was only a part of a fabulous collection. Many of the pieces were apparently spirited out of the country with the Nizam’s blessings before the government began the acquisition proceedings in the mid 1970s. The Italian firm of Bulgari for example was reported to have been setting rubies, pearls and carved emeralds from the collection in the early 1970s.
When Mir Osman Ali Khan, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad died in 1967, his fortune was estimated to be the richest in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records. The Western media claimed it to have been worth around $750 million. At today’s prices that would be valued at over Rs 25,000 crore. For Barkat, then a young man in his thirties, this should have been a much envied inheritance. But as events unfolded over the next two decades, it became more of a burden than a blessing. His problems started at home itself, and that too with his father Azam Jah.
Mir Osman Ali Khan had succeeded to the throne of Hyderabad, India’s largest and richest kingdom in 1911. Tutored at home, he never went to college. According to one historian quoted in a recent book, “Because of the lack of such an experience (public school education unlike the other princes of his time) he was unable to see himself except as the centre of the universe, which he regarded as revolving around him. The traditions of his family, transmitted from generation to generation, had inculcated in him a sense of his own importance which never left him”. Hyderabad had fortuitously backed the British during the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, and the resultant monetary gain to the Nizam’s coffers was unimaginable. Apart from the taxes that he was allowed to collect of a vast empire that stretched all the way from the borders of the present Madhya Pradesh in the North to Tamil Nadu in the south, Mir Osman Ali had devised other innovative ways to get richer. Twice a year—on Eid and his birthday—the nobility of the state and government officials had to provide him gifts or Nazar, the minimum of which was one gold coin and four silver. Noblemen who were granted his audience were expected to bring expensive gifts as a mark of gratitude. Even the famous Falaknuma palace in Hyderabad came to him as a gift from one of his subjects. So it wasn’t surprising that his fortune was the size it became over the six decades that he was the Nizam.
Mir Osman Ali himself led a frugal life, often wearing the same clothes and the same cap for years. Not for him the flamboyance or the decadent globe trotting lifestyle of the other rulers in the country. But he was so much in love with his kingdom that he unilaterally declared Hyderabad independent in June 1947, two months before the nation was granted independence. The revolt was short lived and it did not take more than a police force to subdue his army in the September of 1948. He was however allowed to keep his wealth, and along with it the title of Nizam. As a sign of respect to his status he was also given a new title of Raj Pramukh, or the constitutional head of Hyderabad state. He retreated to a quiet life much through the 1950s and 1960s, spending much of his time managing his massive wealth.
Azam Jah, the Nizam’s elder son, who was to inherit the throne, however proved to be a different kettle of fish. He was by all counts a profligate and rampant womaniser who caused his father a lot of pain. His wife Princess Durru Shehvar was a beautiful European-born and educated royal, daughter of the then Caliph of Turkey and hence the pre-eminent Muslim princess in the world. When she reached Hyderabad she was horrified at the family she married into. The wealth may have been aplenty, but her husband’s harems and lifestyle were too shocking for her European heart to accept. But she kept up the dignity of the marriage in the royal style and Hyderabadis still talk nostalgically about her wonderful grace and beauty with awe. She packed off Barkat to Eton at a very young age to make an Englishman out of him.
When he returned his British sensibilities were offended by the laxity and levity of his father. There was very little he could do about it. But not Mir Osman Ali Khan, who was already upset with the kind of debt Azam had been running up with his wastrel lifestyle. The last straw came while he was on his death bed, when Azam, by now desperate to end his father’s long reign, wrote to the government to recognise him as the new Nizam. A shocked Mir Osman Ali retaliated by writing to the government that on his death Azam be passed over in favour of his grandson Mukkaram Jah for the title of Nizam. Thus Barkat, then in his 30s, woke up one day to find he had superseded his own parents in royal status and now they had to bow to him as the future king. It may have offered him grim satisfaction, but the rift between father and son was now complete. What he did not bank on was the way his mother too turned against him. It’s not easy to accept being diddled out of a fortune and crown even if the usurper is your own son. She turned to her younger son Prince Muffakham Jah for solace. Azam died a bitter man in 1970.
Barkat, despite his British public school education, proved to be too inept to handle the enormous responsibility that was thrust on him. In 1969, the then prime minister Mrs Gandhi abolished all the officially recognised princely titles and two years later abolished the system of privy purses—the tax free annual compensation that was paid to the rulers in exchange for merging their kingdoms into the Indian union in 1948. This meant that the rulers like Barkat now had to feed and look after their palaces, courtiers and the thousands of retainers with money from their own pocket. His problems were further compounded by hundreds of family members who moved courts for a share of the fortune. The internecine warfare to grab some of that booty would have tested the strongest of leaders. And Barkat was definitely no leader. So he crumbled. This was not the life of fame and fortune he had expected. He chose to deal with the problem in the only way he knew, by escaping from it. He left his affairs in the hands of courtiers, signing away his Power of Attorney and took to travelling aimlessly around the world.
With no one to manage the vast estates, it wasn’t surprising that the family fortune started dwindling at a rapid pace. While the king was away, it was a free for all at the palaces. The courtiers, friends and relatives took to plundering the palaces and estates. Anything that they could lay their hands on was taken away to be sold. And whatever could not be taken away was mismanaged. For example, in the case of the famous Nizam’s jewels, which some value at more than Rs 1000 crore, the family ended up getting very little. It was acquired by the government for Rs 218 crore, of which Rs 183 crore came to the family after taxes. Of this Rs 25 crore was paid to Barkat and another Rs 25 crore to his brother Prince Muffakham Jah. The rest of the money is still under litigation with hundreds of relatives claiming parts of it. Says Sadruddin Zaveri, who once controlled much of the Nizam’s fortunes as his Power of Attorney till he fell out of his favour, “His Highness is not a decadent debauch. He is an intelligent man who found dealing with all the issues relating to his wealth and power in India difficult to handle. But in my opinion he ran away from his historical responsibility and paid the price for it.”
Zaveri was a famous jeweller in Geneva who was recommended to the Nizam by the Prince Aga Khan. He soon gained the confidence of the Nizam who handed over control of his interests in India to him. Zaveri and his wife Sherry, a former model, shifted into a permanent suite into the city’s Taj Banjara from where they ruled the Nizam’s empire. The couple may now be out of favour with their ex-employer but they are still hated by Hyderabad’s nobility who blame them for their king’s misfortunes and refusal to live up to his family’s name. “Zaveri with his Machiavellian ways decimated the Nizam’s empire and made him a stranger to his own people by isolating him from his true well-wishers,” they spit in fury. Zaveri of course has another story. “Everything I did was under his clear instruction and knowledge.” Sadruddin is currently grounded, his passport impounded by the government, allegedly under a firm request to the Chandrababu government from the ex-Nizam who accuses him of stealing his antiques.
In the family’s tradition Barkat was married off very young to a Turkish blue blood, Princess Esra, when he was very young. Esra preferred the company of her mother-in-law with whom she had more in common than her taciturn, arrogant husband. Within a few years of taking over as Nizam Barkat took refuge from the home front by escaping to Australia where he fell in love with his secretary Helen, a large, rambunctious, sensuous woman who enjoyed boasting of her many lovers. She could not have been more different from the stiff lipped aristocratic women in his family and he adored her for it. Barkat married Helen only to rue it a few years later when she contracted AIDS and died. The rift with his mother and first wife was now too vast to bridge. They were appalled at his choice and how he had allowed the prestigious 250 years old Asaf Jahi dynasty to be associated with a commoner.
After Helen’s death Barkat got back to his globetrotting ways, moving, finally to Turkey. Istanbul had in any case, right from the beginning, felt more like home than Hyderabad. On a blind date there he was introduced to the charming ex-Ms Turkey Manolya Onur who became his third wife. Manolya was drawn to what she says was, “the sadness in him. He was so obviously lonely. When I came to know that his mother was our Great Pasha’s daughter, I was shocked.” They got married and on her insistence returned to India. By then, fortunately for him, his mother and first wife had migrated to London to set up mansions there. For Manolya, India was a dream. She recalls how they came to India to live in unimaginable luxury in his beautiful palace.” It was like a fairy tale. A palace straight from The Arabian Nights, the most magnificent jewels and clothes to wear, battalions of servants falling over you, a fleet of cars at my disposal.”
But for Barkat the nightmare had restarted within a few months. Says Manolya, “Everyday he was having his ears filled by different factions. People kept threatening him with court cases. The government was constantly encroaching on his various properties. The squabbles with everyone over money irritated him. After three months he could not bear it anymore. He decided to escape to Australia once again. He bought this huge ranch in the outback in Australia and insisted we shift there to live among dingo dogs, cowboys, cattle and snakes. It was a nightmare. When Barkat drove out with the cattle I was completely alone. I could have died there and no one would have known we were so far from civilization.” Shaking her head, she adds, “I begged Barkat to return to the comfort and luxury of India and the respect of his people. But he loved the outback. He actually enjoyed the loneliness and the tough life.”
Manolya got pregnant and insisted she return to Turkey for the birth of their child. Barkat now took to taking off on his own. Manolya heard through Turkish papers that he had got married a fourth time. A Moroccan lady, Jameela Bourges, was his wife for a very brief period. Six months later she was out of favour. Zaveri who was given the charge of paying her off was aghast at the choice. “She was so obviously on the make and looking for a free meal. I could not believe Barkat had got hitched to her. Barkat realised his mistake but the lady extracted her pound of flesh, $ 500,000, before she agreed to the divorce.” Today Manolya Anur is embroiled in a rash of cases against her ex-husband in an attempt to get him to part with one of the Indian palaces he apparently promised their daughter Princess Eliaf Jah as her inheritance. While she may be bitter about him leaving her, even she admits that the erstwhile Nizam is not at heart a bad man.
But that is not the image they carry of him in Hyderabad anymore. In the eyes of his old subjects he is a man who has spent much of his time carousing through Europe’s capitals living in the finest, most expensive hotels with a fleet of servants constantly at his beck and call. Travelling, constantly travelling almost every week, from nothing to nothing, for nothing, almost as if he were determined to run away and through the greatest fortune in the world. Currently Barkat lives in Istanbul with his fifth wife, another Turkish lady Orchid Kapani, whom Manolya (who is a regular on the nation’s social pages) contemptuously refers to as “an ex-shop attendant.” But they have been married 10 years now so maybe she has something the others didn’t.
Meanwhile, during all his personal shenanigans through the world, back home the empire was going to ruin. Nowhere was it more evident than in his stunningly beautiful palaces which have been shorn of all their past glory by the rampant plundering of his retainers and relatives.
We are sitting in a plush modern bungalow in Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills. The rooms are dizzy with grandeur, filled with antiques of every vintage and range. The Marwari lady who owns it recounts this interesting story.
“Thirty years back, the Nizam’s then power of attorney was my rakhi brother. One day he took me to these three huge godowns, the largest I have ever seen, like football fields. They were packed with antiques from floor to ceiling, like Alladin’s caves. He told me to take whatever I wanted and pay him whatever I could. I asked him where all these beautiful old things were from. He told me not to bother about that but that if I had the time he had ten more godowns like these in case I wanted to check out some more stuff. And to send my other wealthy friends to him.” The homes of many of Hyderabad’s modern day rajahs, the Reddys and Rajus are filled with the spoils of the ex-Nizam’s palaces, denuded steadily by various power of attorneys who came, flourished and looted for a brief time.
Today the Prince lives in relative anonymity in Istanbul, only making infrequent trips to Hyderabad when a crisis requires his attention. Interestingly his first wife Princess Esra who now lives in London with her mother-in-law and two children, has after two decades of frigid indifference, started taking an active interest in the family’s Indian properties. She jets to Hyderabad regularly and has been actively encouraging Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu to lobby the government to have the Nizam’s jewels permanently exhibited in one of their palaces—Chowmahalla. Her son Azmat Jah is expected to inherit much of whatever is left of his father’s wealth, so one presumes the mother has decided to protect her child’s interest after years of neglect. Azmat is a quiet, introverted man with a deep interests in photography but according to the very few who have met him (only two short visits to India in the past decade) he is more European than Indian, having lived in England all his life.
The first Nizam of Hyderabad Mir Qamaruddin, a favourite of Emperor Aurangzeb, had a prodigious talent and genius for acquiring wealth. 250 years down the line his descendant has shown his talent for blowing it all up. Back in Hyderabad, not many people are interested any more. Like they say in this city, “Easy come, easy go.”
This story was first published in the March 2002 issue
Image courtesy: D. Ravinder Reddy