Madrasa-e-Azam, pic taken by Shantanu Krishnan and posted here courtesy Madras Musings

Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad is a splendidly restored heritage structure. Its most distinctive feature is its stairway – a pair of curving steps in front which, aerially, gave the building the look of a scorpion. Our city too had one and a much older building at that – the building presently known as the Madrasa-e-Azam and once Umdah Bagh, a property of the Nawabs of Arcot. If the Government has its way, the building will soon make way for a wedding hall.

Located on Mount Road, this is a historic property. In 1816, Colah Singanna Chetty, a dubash, owned it. The Armenian millionaire Edward Samuel Moorat later bought it. Ghulam Ghouse Khan, the last of the titular nawabs, who died in 1855, subsequently acquired it. From him it passed on to Her Highness Azim Un Nissa Begum, nikah wife of the Nawab. Though owned by her, the house was rented by the principal wife of the Nawab, Khair Un Nissa Begum and became the social epicentre of the Muslim aristocracy in Madras. This was where luminaries such as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, and His Exalted Highness Mir Mahbub Ali Khan Bahadur, the Nizam of Hyderabad, stayed when they visited Madras. The curving steps of Falaknuma could well have been inspired by Umdah Bagh, for the Prime Minister of Hyderabad, Sir Vicar Ul Umrah, who built the palace, was also part of the Nizam’s entourage.

In the late 19th Century, the property came to be owned by the Gujarati business family of Lodd Krishnadoss Balamukunddoss. In 1901, the All India Muslim Educational Conference was held in Madras and a request was made that the Madrasa-e-Azam, founded in 1849 and functioning till then at Chepauk, be given the property. The Government acquired Umdah Bagh from the Lodd family, who were kind enough to sell it at less than market rates on coming to know that it was to be used for an educational institution. The Madrasa-e-Azam, then, came to be housed in the original Umdah Bagh palace, which is now in a serious state of disrepair. The Diwan Khana of Firuz Hussain Khan Bahadur, principal agent to the Begum, became the residence of the Principal of the school. A mosque was built in the campus in 1909. In the same compound was set up the Government Mohammedan College in 1919, which acquired its handsome set of buildings within the compound in 1934. The institution became the Government Women’s College after Independence and, subsequently came to include Quaid-e-Milleth in its name, in honour of Muhammad Ismail Sahib, leader of the Indian Union Muslim League.

Madrasa-e-Azam in happier days

Since then, the Madrasa-e-Azam campus has all been steadily downhill. The Government did precious little to preserve the property. The main structure weakened over the years and parts of it began collapsing. Even then nothing was done. Then, a couple of years ago, the main wing came crashing down. Still there was no action. Now, for some reason, the place is all in the news and a minister has announced that a wedding hall will come up here. The standard operating procedure of the Government has been followed in full – do nothing to preserve a heritage structure, wait for it to weaken/catch fire/collapse, then announce demolition.

There is a small ray of hope. The Nawab of Arcot has appealed to be allowed to run the school and take over the place. This being an institution for minorities, there may be some mulling over the idea on the part of Government. Given the school’s heritage, the Nawab deserves a positive response.

You may also want to read – The Six Gardens of the Begum