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Mirza Ismail, the ‘serial Diwan’ who made industrial Bangalore beautiful, painted Jaipur

Mirza Ismail, who was born to Persian parents, wrought a civic revolution in four Indian cities during the 1940s.

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Between 1926 and 1948, Mysore, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Jaipur enjoyed the attention of ‘serial Diwan’ Mirza Ismail. Born in 1883 to Persian parents, Ismail grew up in Bangalore, where he would return in his final years, passing away in 1959.

From the age of 43, Mirza Ismail was appointed as diwan successively by the Maharaja of Mysore (1926–41), the Nizam of Hyderabad (1942–46) and the Maharaja of Jaipur (1946–47). These rulers, like the Mughal badshahs, respected and honoured their engineers and townscapists. Mirza Ismail was to them what Ali Mardan Khan, the brilliant Persian engineer who laid out the plans for the Lahore and Delhi canals, had been to Shah Jahan.

In Jaipur, the ruler commemorated him by naming a road after him, just like architect Edwin Lutyens’ engineers Hugh Keeling and Alexander Rouse had two major roads in New Delhi to their names (later changed to Tolstoy Marg and Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg, respectively), even though Edwin Lutyens and architect Herbert Baker themselves were apportioned obscure lanes.

There were some princes, in whose states aesthetic values meshed with their eagerness to adopt innovations to improve urban and rural areas. But Mirza Ismail never felt it was enough. In My Public Life: Recollections and Reflections (published in 1954), he wrote: “Administrations in India, with hardly any exception, have taken little or no interest in the improvement of their cities and towns; the villages, of course, need hardly be mentioned. Look at the great open spaces in crowded London – or in Paris. How many cities in India can boast of such parks? The municipalities are apt to spend their income, not on sanitation and the necessary amenities of life, but on educational institutions which it is the duty of the States’ Governments to provide. Public parks and private gardens may not be the most important amenities, but they are necessary to a full and happy life. The beautification of our towns and cities must be a continuous process… Unfortunately, just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do our municipalities abhor open spaces. They are not satisfied until all are built upon…It is to my mind obligatory for the administration to provide for the recreation and enjoyment of the people, especially the poorer classes, and enable them to enjoy themselves without expense. I have tried to do this wherever I could — in Mysore, Jaipur and Hyderabad.”

Also read: Edwin Lutyens’ Delhi is unique. India’s political class must not tamper with it

Making Bangalore beautiful

If M. Visvesvaraya, as Diwan of Mysore (1912–19), made Bangalore (now Bengaluru) an industrial city, then Mirza Ismail made it a beautiful one, with the Lalbagh and the streets lit by chandelier lamp posts. An interesting story about him goes that he did not simply glance around to check if things were in good condition – he would lift the corner of a carpet to see if the floor had been swept. Mysore still proudly flaunts the label of ‘The Garden City of India’.

His brief spell in Jaipur wrought a civic revolution. An article in the New York Times in 1942 remarked that Jaipur had been a picture of neglect, but after two years of Mirza Ismail’s sojourn, it was “more thoroughly transformed and improved than New York after Robert Moses got through with it.’ (Robert Moses, a contemporary of Mirza Ismail, was himself compared to Baron Haussmann, who transformed Paris in the 1860s). “Reconstruction, new parks, new buildings, restorations and improvements of all kinds are now going on at an amazing pace for India. The city swarms with workers as busy as bees,” Ismail wrote in his book.

He continued, “Money is meant to be spent reproductively, not to be hoarded. If I had not constructed the new offices and new bungalows and made many other improvements in Jaipur, it would probably not have been chosen under the new dispensation as the capital of Rajasthan.”

The illustrious photographer Cecil Beaton, after visiting Jaipur, spoke highly of Ismail in his praise for the city: “Nowhere else in the world have I seen such brilliant and robust colours used to produce an effect so refined and subtle. Sir Mirza is the arch-enemy of corrugated iron sheets, brass bands (Indian) and of almost everything else that is crude and vulgar. The money he spends is put into circulation and is used as a means of getting rid of unhygienic conditions and sources of disease. Already the metamorphoses he has achieved in a short time are incredible, but his plans are as countless as his inspirations.”

But Mirza Ismail was too astute a person not to see the writing on the wall. “Governments in the East,” he reflected, “do not enjoy the confidence and respect of the public they serve. Our countries so easily become the paradise of the professional politician.”

This article is the sixth of an eight-part series on ‘Reading A City’ with Saha Sutra on, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. 

Dr Narayani Gupta writes on urban history, particularly that of Delhi. Views are personal.

Read the series here.

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  1. Even Nawab of Junagadh offered to make him as Dewan if the Dominion Of India had allowed him to come back from Pakistan and reverse his signing of Instrument of Accession with Pakistan

  2. he was is jaipur from 42-46 and hyderanad in 46-47 there are other inaccuracies but you should check.your data. most progress in mysore took place during Sir Mirzas reign which is why it was called the golden years of mysore and ram rajya along with beautifying the cities re governed with an extraordinary team who helped his vision to fruition.

  3. Pl get your facts, diction correct.

    Sir Mirza was Diwan of Mysore (Chief Minister) of Mysore Province for 14 years 1926 to 1940, all the while Sri Naalwai Krishna Raja Wodeyar (in English, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV) was the King of Mysore.
    King Krishna Raja Wodeyar died in 1940 & Sir Mirza, did not want to stay in Mysore Province, after having lost his best-friend.
    King Sawai Man Singh II was the King of Jaipur, he requested Sir Mirza to serve as Prime Minister there.
    Sir Mirza, ignored Hyderabad Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan’s request and joined services of Jaipur Kingdom.

    In 1946, He agreed to join Hyderabad, but was never at ease with Nizam. He resigned in 1948.

    • Mirza worked under Maharaja jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar also till june 1941 . When walchand’s per Car project was not approved by the Maharaja , he resigned .

      Author has obviously mixed up the tenures in Jaipur and Hyderabad.

  4. The works of Mirza Ismail were not really appreciated by the Nizam of Hyderabad. Ismail saheb had reduced the height of the palace walls to ensure the complex did not look like a prison and simultaneously gave people a good look at the majesty of the buildings inside. However, soon after he left, the Nizam restored the walls to their original height because the shortening went against the observance of ‘zanana’.

  5. He was a great Shia Muslim and Shias have made immense positive contributions to Karnatakas culture and heritage. A true mannina maga. Shias live predominantly in central Bangalore, around Richmond Town and Shoolay circle and are admired

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