It’s not often that a book takes on the bold task of reinstating a historical figure – forgotten or misunderstood or controversial – in their rightful place. There was Audrey Truschke’s slim biography of Aurangzeb, there was Ruby Lal’s popular history book about Noor Jahan, and there’s also Supriya Gandhi’s work on Dara Shukoh. In this sequence sits Bakhtiyar Dadabhoy’s biography of the nineteenth century Hyderabad statesman Salar Jung I, The Magnificent Diwan.

Its similarities with the other works mentioned above are only skin-deep, however. Much longer and more dense, the book has clearly involved great labour in establishing and painting the political canvas of the time. And it is not as much of a biography as the rest are.

Salar Jung, as the author admits, is to most people little more than the name of the famous one-man collection in Hyderabad and the dazzling museum that houses it. What is ignored is the fact that the figure behind this museum was not the Salar Jung of The Magnificent Diwan, but his grandson Salar Jung III. The first Salar Jung is more or less forgotten.

In his own time, however, he was celebrated – in the city, in the Asaf Jahi (the house of the Hyderabad Nizams) court, by princes across the nation, and, foremost, by the British both in India and in Britain. He was showered with enviable honours and laurels, including the knighthood. During a diplomatic mission to Europe and England in 1876, he was given an honorary degree by Oxford University – primarily for his “positive” contribution during the “mutiny”. Even earlier, it was publicly held within the British Raj that Salar Jung in Hyderabad and the Maharaja of Patiala were among the indigenous pillars on which the British edifice in India stood.

Charm offensive

Salar Jung – as Dadabhoy’s biography majestically unveils – was a politician who through his charm and inimitable diplomacy maintained Hyderabad’s autonomy on the one hand, and reformed the state’s administrative, finance and military systems, and civil and political life at large, on the other. Hailing from a Persianate family of statesmen who had always occupied high offices in the courts and the battlefields of the Deccan, he was appointed the Diwan or Prime Minister of Hyderabad in 1853, and continued to run the office till 1883.

In this long career (in fact the longest Diwani in Hyderabad’s history), he demolished one decrepit institution after another while relentlessly defending the breathing space for practices of ancien regime that he deemed essential to Hyderabadi politico-cultural fabric. He managed to – among other things – reduce the land under the control of military chiefs who had little role to play at this point, wrest the affairs of finance out of the hands of irresponsible and overpowering managers or Daftardars, and curb the control of Arabs whose interests were antagonistic to those of the monarchs.

During his tenure, the prestigious Nizam’s Guaranteed State Railway, which connected the city of Hyderabad with several economic centres in the Deccan was inaugurated. Salar Jung was appointed the task of financing the stations as per the British plan – so as to allow the Bombay railway zone to penetrate into Marathwada, Telangana, and North Karnataka.

Several schools and colleges were founded in his time – here, alongside Persian and Urdu, Telugu and English were introduced as the media of instruction, and eclectic subjects were taught. His last pet project was his most crucial reform and a critical step towards the modernisation of the Hyderabad bureaucracy, the founding of the offices of Sadar-ul-Maham, which are analogous to present-day ministries: for revenue, security, and judicial operations.

Behind the facade

The book first situates its protagonist in the space that he occupied – literally. The Deodi of the Diwans or the palatial quarters are described as the world of Salar Jung. Here he apparently lived like a prince himself, enjoying the intimacy of several other nobles and would-be Diwans. The chapter is filled with the nostalgia of the Hyderabadi, for the Deodi no longer survives today, but for the gate in a street near Charminar. Instead much of Salar Jung’s world finds breath in the museum. Dadabhoy writes:

“The sprawling palace complex had many gates, but the entrance on the side of Paththargatti was the one used regularly. A narrow passage connected the deodi from the Charminar thoroughfare. To the right, as one entered, were the reception rooms, screened from public view by red velvet curtains with green borders. Beyond the curtain was a formal courtyard which served as the main reception area. A large marble fountain played in the courtyard, and there were goldfish in the cisterns. Exquisite marble statuary stood all around. In its heyday, the apartments of the deodi were luxuriously furnished and full of rare objets d’art.”

Inside the scintillating quarters, however, the human element was of a different shade. The state of Hyderabad and its apparatus churned intrigue, jealousy, and mutual mistrust. The very debut of Salar Jung in his role was prefaced by deep suspicion. After the death of the last Diwan, the Nizam of the time, Nasir-ud-Daula, the fourth Asaf Jah had wanted to succeed him. It was only the deeply-entrenched intervention of the British resident at Hyderabad that allowed Salar Jung to make an entry.

Much of Salar Jung’s career spanned the reign of the fifth Nizam, Afzal-Ud-Daula, who, after the revolt of 1857, declared to Colonel Davidson that he had already suspended the Diwan. Meanwhile, Salar Jung had stolen the show by paralysing all forces of revolt in Hyderabad state. Episodes such as these show that Hyderabad was not the seat of monolithic power, but the arena of individual actors who always had private interests to chase. If anything, this enhanced the heroic dimensions of being a Diwan in the largest princely state – after all, the toughest adversary for Salar Jung was often the Nizam himself.

The Nizam often seemed to have had to defend his position and, to that end, even made a few missteps. This is barely surprising in the universe of 19th century princely India. In his path-breaking work of ethnohistory in 1987, anthropologist and historian Nicholas Dirks asserts that most princes were decorated by a Hollow Crown. He studies the events of the Tamil Nadu kingdom of Pudukottai and shows that there was little substance to kinghood – all there appeared to be was pure pomp.

The princes were surrounded by an architecture of customs, symbols, and practices which heralded power although there ultimately was none. The Magnificent Diwan is a beautiful illustration of this phenomenon. In the chapter titled “A Storm in an Indian Tea Cup”, the author narrates the curious case of the Nizam’s refusal to meet and pay respects to the Prince of Wales during his official royal visit. “Salarjung…opposed the visit…because he did not want the Nizam to pay public homage to the Prince of Wales as his suzerain.”

Instead Salar Jung stepped in as the Diwan of the state. The sovereignty, meaningless as it may have been, was preserved through conventions such as these. Meanwhile the emperor was reminded – this emperor and all the others too – of his real power in matters of administration. When the Nizam had wished to mint his own image on the currency in circulation in the state of Hyderabad, the British resident sternly refused. The Nizam and Diwan could not do much but comply with obedience.

The Diwan and the British

That brings us to what I consider the most attractive feat in the book – the relationship between the British and the state apparatus (and by extension, Salar Jung). Salar Jung was appointed the Diwan on the recommendation of the British resident Low – an employee of the company who would “protect” the interest of the princely state while aborting attempts of revolt against the company – and succeeded his uncle Siraj ul Mulk.

Salar Jung was by and large known for his positive relationship with the resident, but earned much disfavour for this position from the nobility. He stood as a staunch ally of the British in 1857, gathering forces against the rebellion of the king of Shorapore, Venkatappa Naik. In the process, he ensured an attractive monetary and territorial prize for Hyderabad in the 1860 treaty.

Dadabhoy fleshes out the betrayal of this treaty – it was a promise made but never kept. Much of Salar Jung’s later tenure and interaction with the British involved the earnings from Berar, which had been leased out from Hyderabad during Siraj-ul-Mulk’s Diwani. It was to this end that he toured Europe, but to no avail. Berar was a disappointment that the Diwan took to his grave.

In the latter part of the book, the British come through as arm-twisters. Salar Jung’s friendship with the white man perhaps resulted in benefiting only one party. The author mentions that the railway that Salar Jung had to raise funds for served few of the Nizam’s interests. The second largest city in his dominion, Gulbarga, was not even granted a station. It is at moments such as these that the author’s sympathy with the subject of his book comes through – someone who fought no wars but instead made friends who did little for him.

Missing family life

The book, of course, depicts, as promised, the times of Salar Jung. And even his life. His antecedents, his accomplishments and debacles, his relationships. Yet, his personality remains undiscovered. We are told that Salar Jung spoke impeccable English and that he was an avid reader. What were his reading habits like? When did he prefer to read? How, if he welcomed influences from the world over, did he lead such a sedentary life?

Beside a short appearance in Bombay, we are told only of two trips – one to Europe, and only one, interestingly enough, around the Nizam’s dominion even. (There was in fact only one royal trip in the dominion during the reigns of three Nizams – such was the aloofness from the grassroots). Striking, too, is the lack of mention of Salar Jung’s familial life. If not for anything else, his family deserves attention for the illustrious successors who went on to become Diwans too.

An element that was mentioned just once in the book is Salar Jung’s reluctance to permit greater public space for women. This is explained through the stance he took as the defender of Mughal culture. Did this position bear upon his personal and household life too? Questions like these remain unanswered in this narrative.

The Magnificent Diwan

The Magnificent Diwan: The Life and Times of Sir Salar Jung I, Bakhtiar K Dadabhoy, Vintage.