Goodbye, sweet princess - India's great beauties before the pageant came in

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  • Published 12.02.06

Hyderabad/Mumbai, Feb. 12: The royal banquet hall was full and the guest of honour, a visiting British dignitary, had arrived. Yet all eyes, desi and firangi, at Falaknuma Palace kept turning to the entrance.

Everyone was waiting for the “world’s most beautiful woman” to walk in.

The cream-coloured Austin rolled in, gleaming in the moonlight. A hush fell on the gathering as she walked up to the host with graceful steps.

With a hand resting on his daughter-in-law’s shoulders, a beaming Mir Osman Ali Khan Mahboob Pasha, Hyderabad’s seventh and last Nizam, turned to his guests and announced, “Permit me to introduce one of my naginas (jewels).”

It was seven decades ago, long before television, beauty pageants and glamour rags had begun their reign over the public imagination, yet Princess Niloufer’s exquisite looks and clothes were a talking point across the country and in the cities of Europe.

Niloufer, the “Kohinoor of Hyderabad”, wasn’t the only “jewel” in the Nizam’s household, though.

Almost equally famous for her beauty was her sister-in-law Princess Durru Shehvar ? daughter of Abdul Majid Khan, Turkey’s last Ottoman king and the last Caliph ? whose death in London on February 7, at the age of 93, brings the curtain down on a glorious chapter of early Indian chic. Niloufer died in Hyderabad about a decade ago.

“If Princess Niloufer was the nagina, Princess Durru was the heera (diamond),” says Deccan historian Rajendra Prasad in his book on Hyderabad.

The sisters-in-law ? they were first cousins by birth -- had become bywords for elegance in the West over half a century ago, with both attending fashion shows in Paris and London with the Nizam’s encouragement.

At home, their clothes collections have inspired the attires of Bollywood leading ladies from Waheeda Rehman to Diya Mirza and served as textbooks for later designers.

The princesses were not alone in setting the standards. Mid-20th century India seemed to have a knack of throwing up women who captivated the world’s society columnists and photographers.

Seven years younger than Durru, another royal, Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, was ranked among the planet’s most beautiful women, along with actress Leela Naidu, by Vogue.

Like the Hyderabad princesses, they blended style with substance. Gayatri Devi stood for Parliament, setting a record victory margin in 1962 and winning again in 1967 and 1971. Naidu became a darling of the then fledgling women’s liberation movement in India with her Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke that challenged contemporary Hindi cinema’s concept of the Bhartiya naari.

“Durru Shehvar and Gayatri Devi knew each other very well,” recalls the nonagerian former Nawab of Palanpur, who now lives in Mumbai.

“Durru was very beautiful. She was very tall, a little too tall -- she was taller than her husband. Niloufer was more beautiful.”

But apart from their beauty and wardrobe, most of which they later donated to fashion-design schools in Hyderabad, the princesses were known also for their philanthropy.

Niloufer, who divorced Prince Moazzam Jah and left for Turkey, donated her entire meher (dowry) so that a children’s hospital could be built in Hyderabad. Durru’s marriage to Prince Azam Jah, too, ended in divorce.

The princesses’ had been a double wedding, both getting married simultaneously in Nice, France. The Nizam declared a holiday in Hyderabad and newspapers printed special editions.

“Although the marriages didn’t bring a rich dowry (for the Caliph had already been deposed), they earned the Nizam a diplomatic alliance with the Turkish aristocracy,” a city historian said.

The Nizam encouraged both princesses to take part in sports, such as tennis and horse-riding. He sent them on tours of Europe so they could broaden their mind and also pick up works of art for his museums.

“Princess Niloufer was one of the better educated” among the Nizam’s family, said Begum Bilkis Alladin, an authority on the Nizam’s art collections, in a recent article. “She was also a good sportswoman, skilled in tennis and handball.”

The Nizam threw lavish parties where he showed off his daughters-in-law, recalled 75-year-old Nawab Mujib Ali Yavar Jung, a former official at his court. “Princess Niloufer dazzled in them and was the most sought after.”

The princesses were visible in the Bombay party circuit, too, though they apparently did not dance. In keeping with the Nizam’s status, they kept their distance, projecting an alluring mix of oriental tradition and western freedom.

As news of Durru’s death reached Hyderabad, contemporaries recalled her strength of mind and management skills.

“She was a true aristocrat who brooked no interference in the way she brought up her sons,” said Begum Bilkis Lateef, who helped Durru with her philanthropic projects.

She ran the household in her palace when the other women of the family dared not venture into the men’s domain.

Even after her divorce she lived for many years in Hyderabad, but with increasing age, shifted to London a few years ago. She last visited Hyderabad in 2004. When the end came on Tuesday, her sons Mukkaram and Muffakham Jah were at her bedside.