The Nizam’s Museum was located right at the end of the grounds of the Purani Haveli — the official residence of the Nizam. Visitors were allowed entry to the museum grounds only. There were two wings on either side of The Nizam’s Palace. The left wing housed the museum and a school. The right wing housed a women’s college. On that day, both the school and college were closed for Janmashtami, though the museum itself would soon open to the public.
While waiting for the ticket counter to open, Gaurav thought he would try to film himself near the actual palace of the Nizam. He strolled casually towards the ground marked ‘Private’. From there, he could see glimpses of the imposing white mansion, the Purani Haveli.
Gaurav had thoroughly researched the place before going there. He knew that the haveli, which is a masterpiece of eighteenth-century architecture, had witnessed the childhoods of at least two Asaf Jahi rulers. Princess Durru Shehvar, the eldest daughter-in-law of the seventh Nizam, used to reside there whenever she visited Hyderabad. He also planned to inform his audience in his vlog that the property is owned by a trust and no one has resided in the palace since Durru Shehvar’s death. Prince Muffakham Jah, one of Princess Durru Shehvar’s sons, divides his time between London, Turkey and Hyderabad and resides in a private mansion in Banjara Hills while in Hyderabad.
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‘Filming not allowed here’
As Gaurav and Pia walked closer to the mansion to get a better view, a security guard walked up to them, his boots crunching against the gravel. ‘Where are you going?’ he asked Gaurav quite aggressively, staring at him suspiciously.
‘Arre mia, I am going to film The Nizam’s Museum and upload it on my YouTube channel. I am just filming the background of the museum for this,’ Gaurav explained.
‘This is a private property. Filming not allowed here. Go back,’ the security guard said, waving his hands at Gaurav as if he was swatting a fly.
‘Arre bhaiyya, do you have any idea how many subscribers I have on YouTube? 1.9 lakh! This museum will be seen by millions of people across the world. It will bring more visitors to your museum. And I am just filming the mansion and explaining how the museum was created. What’s wrong with that?’ Gaurav reasoned.
But the guard seemed least impressed and refused to let Gaurav go even a step further. His argument about the vlog helping promote tourism had fallen on deaf ears.
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‘Taking you all on an exciting tour of The Nizam’s Museum’
As time went by, Pia started getting bored and fidgety. To distract her, Gaurav suggested, ‘Let us start with the background story of the Purani Haveli. Hopefully, the museum will open by the time we finish shooting this part. Remember, your camera should cover both the wings of the palace, and then you will show the main ground of the Nizam’s residence. Unfortunately, we can’t film the actual residence. That bloody guard—’
‘What do you mean by “wings”?’ Pia interrupted Gaurav’s rant.
‘Arre, the row of white buildings on both sides of the ground, ending in that magnificent white building, where the Nizam’s family used to stay,’ Gaurav explained, pointing at the white building housing the museum.
Pia stifled a yawn and picked up the camera. She was getting quite bored with Gaurav and his enthusiasm for vlogging. She knew she would need to end the relationship soon. She was pursuing a master’s in physics from Osmania University and planned to go overseas for her doctorate.
Unaware of Pia’s plans, Gaurav started speaking in front of the camera. ‘Hello guys! Today I am taking you all on an exciting tour of The Nizam’s Museum. In the heart of the Old City of Hyderabad, a fascinating collection of articles belonging to the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, is on public display at the museum.
‘The building is locally known as Purani Haveli. It was the official residence of the Nizam and was constructed for Sikander Jah, Asaf Jah III, by his father Ali Khan Bahadur, Asaf Jah II. The museum in this building was opened to the public on 18 February 2000 by The Nizam’s Jubilee Pavilion Trust, which Prince Muffakham Jah, the youngest grandson of the last Nizam, heads.
‘The seventh and the last Nizam himself registered these articles in 1957 to display them to the general public. There are over 1,000 objects in the museum, of which only 400 are on public display.
‘There are, at present, more than 10 buildings in the Purani Haveli. The main building, where the Nizam family used to reside, is flanked by two long parallel wings. The museum also has a collection of dresses worn by the sixth Nizam. By all accounts, he was extremely fashion-conscious and had an extensive collection of tasteful and high-quality clothes. It is also rumoured that he never repeated his clothes; once worn they were put away. In fact, he used to buy the entire bale of the cloth from which his clothing was made and destroy the extra cloth so that there would be no other dress available in the same material.’
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‘Oh my God!’
By the time Gaurav finished speaking, the museum had opened, and the couple bought their tickets for entry. The museum itself was located on the second floor, and they had to climb up a wooden staircase to reach it. Pia was impressed by the beautiful red staircase, as was Gaurav. He breathed in the faint musty smell of the old museum appreciatively. He was fond of old and beautiful things and felt proud that he was from Hyderabad, the land of the Nizams. Though the wooden staircase was ancient, it hardly creaked as they climbed up.
‘So old and yet the staircase is intact. Just look at the quality!’ Gaurav exclaimed in awe.
Once inside the museum, they started recording again and went through the various silver artefacts, including replicas of the famous Moazzam Jahi Market and Osmania University. Soon, they moved to the third hall, which housed the section containing the gold ornaments.
Gaurav was waxing eloquent about a gold model of the Jubilee Hall, when Pia let out a muffled scream, interrupting his flow. She nearly dropped her camera as she raised a trembling finger and pointed at an empty display unit, its doors wide open.
Gaurav, too, gaped at the display unit and exclaimed, ‘Oh my God! There has been a theft here!’
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[Excerpted with permission from ‘The Hyderabad Heist: The Untold Story of India’s Biggest Museum Theft’ by Sharmishtha Shenoy, Rupa Publications]
(Sharmishtha Shenoy is the author of the Vikram Rana Mystery series, including ‘Vikram Rana Investigates’, ‘A Season for Dying’, ‘Fatal Fallout’. She has also published a book of short stories, ‘Quirky Tales’, and the novel ‘Murder in the Chowdhury Palace’.)