Although born in Hyderabad and brought up in Mumbai and Pune, the City of Pearls holds a special place in Indira Devi’s heart. A student of Queen Mary’s Bombay, Indira Devi completed her Senior Cambridge from Mehboobia Girls High School, Hyderabad, with honours and is conversant with English, French, Urdu, Hindi and Marathi.
Indira Devi was presented a Shetland pony on her first birthday by Salarjung III, her father’s friend and classmate. Indira Devi used to play badminton, table tennis and billiards, but disliked cards. “We were encouraged to study during those days and were guided mainly by our governess. We hardly saw our parents, and it was usually through an appointment!”, says Indira Devi.
Though she was born in a traditional family, she showed leadership qualities and a helping nature right from childhood. Upper class families in those days encouraged women to take part in social activities and uplift of women. Indira Devi was the president of the All India Women’s Conference, North Branch, Hyderabad, and was elected eight times. A person with a warm heart, she was a sought after name among women. She developed a keen interest in women’s empowerment and rights. However, it was her interest in literature which played a key role in her association with the legendary poet Gunturu Seshendra Sarma.
He was the first Telugu poet to be nominated for the Nobel prize for literature. She first met Seshendra Sarma in a multingual Kavi Sammelan during PV Narasimha Rao’s Chief Ministership in 1968. “I represented English poetry, Makhdoom Urdu, Seshendra, Dasarathi, Narayana Reddy and others Telugu. A Hindi poet once told me not to speak to Telugu poets because they did not know English, so I was calm. Later, at a meeting of different poets, Seshendra took the dais during the vote of thanks, and started speaking English beautifully, and his flair for the language left me impressed. Sometime later, I threw a party for a delegation from Mauritius where we spoke to each other for the first time,” recalls Indira Devi.
Much later, both were invited to Mauritius. Initially, Indira Devi was apprehensive as she didn’t know where Mauritius was. She looked at the names of the invitees, Potukuchi Sambasiva Rao and Gunturu Seshendra Sarma, and was happy to see some known names.
During this time, Indira Devi was engaged to a Maharaja, but Indira Devi’s grandmother used to like Seshendra very much for his suave nature and intellect. “One fine day, Seshendra came to Gyan Bagh and proposed to me. I was in a state of shock and didn’t know how to react. I told him that he was already married with kids. I think this will not work out for both families, but Seshendra told me to take my time. I realised he was my soulmate and didn’t waste a moment and said yes the next time we met,” says Indira Devi. With close friends of Seshendra in attendance, their marriage took place in a temple in Halebidu in Karnataka, on June 16, 1971, and they began their new life in Gyan Bagh Palace. Their marriage was certainly not without its challenges.
Her wedding present to him was a Mercedes Benz car in which he went to Kurnool after he got transferred. She still remembers the crowd milling around the car to see who was in the vehicle. They also exchanged books as wedding gifts. “In our 36 years of life together, I became familiar with many Telugu literary giants and developed a special interest in Telugu literature. He would read out poetry to me and explain in English. I was a hardcore tea drinker and he loved coffee. But later, that changed as he took to tea, while I began drinking coffee,” adds Indira Devi.
Talking about her husband Indira Devi says “Seshendra was an ultra-sensitive person and when he read about the genocide in Vietnam he couldn’t sleep that night. He was very unhappy. One minute, he would melt into a sea and at another moment he stood steady like a rock and at yet another time he would blow like a violent wind. He never remained at one spot. I know I married a great storm; his thoughts were so all-encompassing that his surroundings were just too small to contain him. He was like a whale in a tub. Seshendra was so pure like a crystal that birds used to understand his language. Even the peacocks would love to be with him. If I tried to feed them, they would bite me, but they would have a feast if Seshendra fed them.”
The demise of Seshendra in 2007 was a shock for Indira Devi. He left the world peacefully in the same room where they spent a great deal of time with each other. “My Banarasi shawl became his pillow before he proceeded to meet the gods. He left me with a whole lot of memories,” concludes Indira Devi.
Gyan Bagh, stately mansion fit for kings
As we crossed the Nampally junction and were heading towards old city we asked a panwallah where Gyan bagh palace was. He pointed to a gate just beside his shop. We entered it, drove for almost 200 metres and came across huge tamarind trees, which blocked the daylight because of the dense foliage. Later, we took the main entrance opposite which stood a marble fountain. Then we went up some 10-12 steps and reached a marble verandah and then the reception hall of the stately Gyan Bagh Palace.
The Louie XIV furniture, French vases and antiques, and enamelled birds added lustre to the hall, which was beautifully illuminated. At first glance, the drawing room looked majestic, with lots of memories which were captured in silver and metal frames.
As we made ourselves comfortable, Indira Devi Dhanrajgir entered. Her charm, grace and elegance bowled us over. She was extremely happy to receive us with a broad smile and warm hug. Before we started the interview, she talked about her huge home and also gave us a coffee table book dedicated to the eighth Nizam, Mukarram Jah Bahadur, and Princess Esra. The Dhanrajgir family has been connected with the Asaf Jahi family since the time of the second Nizam, which is roughly more than 200 years ago. “They came from Pune during the reign of the Peshwas and my book, “Memories of the Deccan”, gives one an overview on the history of the 165-year-old Gyan Bagh Palace, and people related to it”, she said.
“Built in the European style, with limestone and marble the palace was constructed in three phases during the period of Raja Gyangirji Bahadur, Narsinghgirji Bahadur and her father, Raja Dhanrajgirji Bahadur. The palace was one of the most expensive mansions of that era which was frequented by royalty, poet laureates, nobles, film personalities and later politicians,” she said.
The palace stands in the midst of a dense traffic corridor. The beautiful lawn has a marble statue of Hercules, and other Graeco-Roman sculptures which catch the eye. Indira Devi tells us that she and her husband, Seshendra Sarma, used to spend a lot of time in the garden near the fountain where peacocks used to play. “In fact, Seshendra wrote many poems in this house and the Ooty house”, she said.
This hall was also meant to receive guests who came visiting. One has hardly seen Gyan Bagh in films given its grandeur and scale, save a few such as the Telugu hit, “Muthyala Muggu”, which was shot there and also ‘Chandasashanam’ in Tamil, in which NTR and Sivaji Ganesan acted. “Seshendra and NTR were classmates. In ‘Muthyala Muggu’ the heroine sings and is shown making a rangoli in the courtyard.” We were curious and wanted to know why film units did not shoot on a regular basis. To this Indira Devi said, “We never wanted to give the place for films and shootings. I had to take permission from my father and others, but it was through Seshendra that director Baapu approached me and it was Seshendra who asked me to give the place for shooting for ten days. I remember we couldn’t cook during the shooting and we had to eat the food which came for the production unit in big tiffin carriers,” Indira Devi said with a laugh.
The interiors and edges of the walls are decorated with a golden lining and are well maintained till date. The dining table which can accommodate 25 people at a time is still in good condition.
The palace consists of 19 suites and is divided into three parts, where the middle part and the left is in good condition, but the right part which witnessed a fire accident is still not in use. Yet, the palace retains its original grandeur unlike a few others which have lost their sheen. The Dhanrajgir family still lives in Gyan Bagh and Indira Devi has fond childhood memories and also reminisces the time spent with her husband. Her nephew, Tejvan Gir Dhanrajgir (Tarun Dhanrajgir), who is into film making, stays with her in the same palace.