Be it a time of war or peace, a time of victory over sworn enemies, or an evening of a diplomatic feast, a grand show of Mahalakha Bai’s dance was inevitable. About 200 years ago, Mahalakha Bai displayed her art in every darbar in Hyderabad. She is also hailed as the first woman poet to be accepted by the scholars at a time when women were not even allowed to step into a Mushaira. Though she was only a court dancer, she was always escorted by at least hundred soldiers. She made a mark in the history of Hyderabad like no other as a dancer, poetess and a key personal advisor to the NIzams. Mahalakha Bai was lauded highly at the end of 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. During the reign of the Second and Third Nizams her name was known to one and all in this city of Hyderabad. Mahalakha Bai, or Chandabibi has an unforgettable and indelible relationship with Osmania University.
On the occasion of Osmania University which had brought to this city, this state and this country ideas of revolution, celebrating its centenary, it has to be remembered that the OU was built on none other than Mahalakha Bai’s own land.
Mahalakha Bai was born in Hyderabad to a dancer Mida Bai and was named Chanda Bibi. As she grew, she carved an identity for herself as a brilliant dancer, poetess and a politician. From 1768 to 1825, Mahalakha Bai had become an unforgettable part of Hyderabad’s history.
Minister of the Second Nizam, Mir Alam adored Chandabibi’s poetry. During his time Chandabibi was given the area from Nampally to Moula Ali and made a Jagirdar of that area. Beginning from Moula Ali, the Osmania University, Adikmet and Hyderguda was the extent of this Jagir. Chanda Bibi never married but had adopted Hussan Afza Banu, Hasin Lakha Banu and Mohammed Maqbool. These lands had devolved unto these three on her death. However, after some time, the Nizam government had taken the Jagir back in order to establish the present day Osmania University. Mir Osman Ali Khan had conducted an aerial survey and had deemed the area most suitable for the university.
Mahalakha Bai’s grandmother was from Ahmedabad, Gujarat, who had moved away from there along with her family with a devotional troupe. She had travelled along Aurangabad and reached Hyderabad. Midabibi, the youngest of them all along with her sisters had learnt to dance and sing in this devotional troupe. Aurangabad was the capital for the Deccan province of the Mughals. It was here that Chanda Bibi’s family members had joined as dancers for the army. The Asaf Jahis, who were the vassals to the Mughal empire, had shifted the capital to Hyderabad. It was here that Mida Bibi had given birth to Chanda Bibi. She was awarded the title of Mahalakha Bai by the Second Nizam, Mir Nizam Ali Khan. Scottish historian , Jon Malcolm was a guest in the Second Nizam’s court during that time. At his farwell ceremony after Chanda Bibi’s dance, she had gifted the young man a book of her ghazals which is now at the London Museum.
Had that book was not given to Jon Malcolm and had it not reached the London Museum, no one would have delved into the inspirational story of Chandabibi and it would have been lost in time. The stories of her dance, her prowess in poetry would never have seen the light of day. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there was no centre of culture in Hyderabad that had not witnessed her dance and was left mesmerised by her poetry. Chandabibi always ended her verses with the names of the Prophet, his daughter Fatehma, his son-in-law Ali, their sons Hassan and Hussain. Since she was a part of the Shia sect she was a very devout Muslim. Even though she sometimes wrote ghazals of a lover she would inadvertently include a word of God along with the exhibition of her freedom, independence and self-respect.
She learnt Hindustani music along with martial arts and the art of fighting with sword from the army. She had worked closely with Shah Taj Ali, a poet and painter in the NIzam court, under whom she had honed her skills in ghazals and poetry. She was also multi lingual along with being a woman of social sensibility. Her residence in Nampally, Husna Rand Mahal which presently is the Nampally girls school where Chandabibi had strived to educate several girls and had also trained them in the arts to be employed as Court dancers for the NIzams.
Chandabibi chose to be single and lead an independent life. Though many men had fallen in love with her charm, she did not marry anyone. She was, however, in love with Military commander Rajarao Ramba, but still chose to remain unmarried.
The Moula Ali dargah was of great importance to Mahalakha Bai. This can be traced from her mother’s affiliation to the dargah. When Mida Bibi had fallen ill during her time of pregnancy with Chandabibi it is said that a visit to Moula Ali had cured her of her ailments. She had built a small walled enclosure near the hillock and would invite several poets for Mushairas. When Mida Bai died in 1792 she had arranged for the burial near Moula Ali. Her grave today rests next to her mother’s in Moula Ali. This today is known as Chanda Mahal. In 2010, with Kugle’s interest and some help from American enthusiasts, Chanda Mahal was renovated.
A monument built in the memory of a remarkable woman who had made an indelible mark on history is now in a dilapidated condition without any care or concern whatsoever. The watchman who had guarded the place for the past 6 years had committed suicide recently, on April 8th this year.
Osmani University which was built on Mahalakha Bai’s jagir must take the responsibility of remembering her and reminding Hyderabad of her remarkable personality. The alumni of Osmania University is of the opinion that Mahalakha Bai’s name should be engraved into each and every brick in the University.
-Translated by Nutan Mallepally