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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

The documentary ‘Other Kohinoors: The Rocks of Hyderabad is a much needed visual essay, to remind the City of Nizams, how the Deccan rocks are entrenched in its collective cultural memory. The documentary is an ongoing project of independent filmmakers Uma Magal and Mahnoor Yar Khan who explore Hyderabad’s cultural connection with rocks. Interspersed with poetry, language, humour, lores, crafts, cuisines, art and filmography, the documentary is a colourful take on rocks. “Showing an ecological concept like rocks in cultural light sounds unique,” said Uma Magal. She adds, “We have often seen rocks being talked about in the usual environmental context. However, these rocks are part of our heritage. So it was imperative to bring out this side.” In the backdrop of the phone call with her, one can hear how her team is preparing an electrifying rap song on rocks. “The subjects of rocks was never boring and we highlight the same with an out of the box angle while celebrating them.” Magal’s film is expected to bring a long-forgotten connection of Hyderabad with rocks. Here’s a look at it from a cultural lens. 

Rock Art of Prehistoric Times

The rocks of Telangana have been of particular interest to pre-historic humans! From the upper Palaeolithic to Megalithic ages, early man had drawn, painted and engraved extensively on stone structures like cairns, cists, dolmens and menhirs. They drew common scenes from battles, sexual acts, community dances, customary practises like hunting, mythical creatures to flora and fauna. Until now, Telangana has over 60 known rock art sites, making it the newest state with the oldest history, dating back to the age of the earth!

Deccan Rocks (Image Credit: Lenny Emmanuel)

A Testament to Architectural Glory

Rocks are a mute testament to passing times. Every dynasty and kingdom that ruled the Deccan left an indelible mark on these stony structures. One can see it in the form of rock-cut temples, mandapas and forts. Bhongir Fort sits atop a smooth chunk of massive Basso Monolith Rock chronicles how high rocks provided a safe haven from enemies. Built in 1076 by Chalukya ruler Tribhuvanamalla Vikramaditya-VI, the fort looks like a tiny spot when looked at from beneath but it’s an uphill task to climb up the stairs through a narrow passage reach to the top for a panoramic view! The rocky terrain that provides a splendid view now, might have provided a strategic location to rulers back then. 

Another rocky architectural marvel is the Bhogini Mandapas. They were built in honour of the art of Bhoginis– the temple dancers who entertained kings in the harem, temples and courts. The Rachakonda hilltop in Telangana has found Bhogini Mandapas, skillfully conjoined by rock formations dating back to the 14 century when King Sarvagnaya Singh Bhupala from the Recharla Padmanayaka dynasty formed one such Bhogini Mandapa in honour of one of the Bhoginis. It is believed that the king was mesmerised by the beauty, ecstatic dance, and music performance of one such Bhogini and recognized her art by building the mandapa. The Bhogini Mamdapas immortalized the artistry of female entertainers in royal times. 

These rocks not only commemorate the performative talents but are living examples of mastery in fine arts. The 13th-century Ramappa temple is the only one in the period of royal Kakatiyas that is based on the name of its sculptor. The structure is made of granite and sandstone, found in the rocky terrain of Deccan, that add to its rusticity. Now a pride of Telangana having tagged as a World UNESCO Heritage site, the temple is an ode to the architectural and visualization skills of artists. With such magnificent stone and rock structures, the dynasties passed on their legacies to the Deccan.

Rocks in Interior Design

Modern-day, architects have taken the baton to embed Deccan rocks in design and follow the philosophy of construction without destruction. Lava Ram Devineni, a Hyderabad based architect designed a six-floor apartment, Rock Levels, in Banjara Hills in 2016 over the rocky terrain. The gated community was a structure made in response to the landscape in which rocks were retained purposefully. “My aim remains to pay respect to the natural landscape and rocks that are a part of our heritage. These rocks cannot be created again. They have sustained the most naturally volatile conditions. So I follow biophilic design where I can keep human life in maximum proximity with nature. As an architect, I feel the design process needs to be in sync with the deep and profound science found in nature. That will help both man and nature can co-exist peacefully,” Devineni adds profoundly. 

Hyderabad even got its first rock school in 2018 under chief architect Takbir Fatima. The school is a manifestation of the similar design philosophy of organic architecture. The school was on rocky terrain with unplanned settlements near mighty Golkonda Fort and the project was riddled with challenges. “The site was covered with massive sheet rocks and boulders, a topographical trait of Deccan. Due to proximity to heritage sites and residential places, blasting the rock was not an option, rather, preserving them as part of Hyderabad’s rich heritage was our main aim,” said Takbir Fatima, chief architect of the rock school project. The unique school has embedded the rocks into the classrooms and floors of the library. It is a stunning example of how an architect’s tenacity can respond to landscapes.

Deccan Rocks (Image Credit: Abbas Tayabji)

A Muse of Deccan Paintings

Rocks were a source of inspiration for Deccan art. This art form flourished during the rule of Mughals and Nizams in Hyderabad and was a treat to eyes in the provincial courts of Rajas and Nawabs in the Deccan region. Under Deccan school, rocks were portrayed with eccentricity. For instance, some of the most famous works of this period have incorporated the texture and tones of rocks in a unique colour palette of lavender, pinks and powder blue. Such palliative colours charged the paintings with undercurrents of romance. One can observe it in the 18th and 19th century Deccan paintings like ‘Shirin Praying and Khusrao Hunting’ and ‘Khusrao Beholding Shirin Bathing’. A vintage pastel colour palette used in rocks brings an amorous love equation between Khusrao and Shirin– the two famous characters of a tragic Persian poem written by poet Nizami Ganjavi. This way of interpreting rocks– an embodiment of hardcore banal structure into a sensually appealing backdrop was a distinctive trait of Deccan Art.

Cultural Hotbed

In pop culture, rocks have been a host to performance arts. Those who attended the Indian Ocean’s crowd-pulling concert in 2004 held at the picturesque Durgam Cheruvu were moved by the magic of both the enthralling performance and complementing the rocky landscape. This was the fifth concert arranged by that time on the rocks of Hyderabad. Over time, these rocks provided a spectacular backdrop for many classical dance, music and theatre performances, organized by dedicated efforts of Society To Save Rocks. In 2005, the play The Blue Mug staged by Mumbai Company Theatre enthralled the audience. In the same year, a surreal jazz performance by Hyderabadi group Charminar Jazz Collective brought the landscape again to the limelight with their music performance! In 2010, the ariel dance company from Los Angeles, Project Bandaloop, held a performance at the granite rocks at Golkonda fort, making us awestruck by their splendour. Year after year, from hosting puppet plays, rockathons, to painting, poetry and essay writing competitions, these rocks brought art and people together in a cultural potpourri. 

Through the Lens of Filmography and Photography

The climax of the film Mandi, a gem of parallel cinema directed by Shyam Benegal, particularly intrigues the viewer not just for its absurdist humour but the barren rocky setting. The colossal rock formations dotting the backdrop in climax provide a powerful banal template that beautifully chisels out the ludicrous characters. The climax is shot at the famous rocks of Hyderabad.  It was not just Benegal who saw a life in the banality of Deccan rocks and revived them in filmography. In Baahubali 2 – The Conclusion, some jaw-dropping scenes were shot at Kurnool Orvakal Rock Garden. 

Indeed, the Deccan rocks are one of the most interesting subjects for study for artists, filmmakers and photographers. Born and raised in Hyderabad, photographer and activist Vishwender Reddy saw how these rocks were being burst to create a metropolis. As a result, this shocked him to start documenting the trajectory of rocks in his photographs. Since 1994, Reddy has splendidly captured the rocks of Hyderabad.  In one of his tale-telling photographs, a colossal rock seems to gaze at the Quatab Shahi necropolis — a testament to Hyderabad’s age-old history. In another one, a massive rock is shot against a multistorey building highlighting how the rocks are disappearing from the landscape to pave way for urban jungles.  “These rock structures are being blown away in the name of development and rapid urbanization. We have unfortunately lost many of them. My responsibility as a photographer remains to vigilantly engage in conservation of these marvellous muses,” says Reddy. His photographs of Deccan rocks have travelled the world. Lastly, they were exhibited at the ‘Hyderabad in Bordeaux’ festival in France curated by the Indian Photo Festival.

With their omnipresence, the Rocks of Deccan have lived through ages in the cultural spectrum. It’s there in our memorabilia. 

Priyamvada is a journalist working for the National Daily. She writes on culture, art and lifestyle with an immersive lens that incites thoughtful conversations.