Mohammed Sibghatullah Khan is co-author of Hyderabad Deccan: Illustrated which features more than 50 monuments of Hyderabad city and their designs. At 21 years old, he is an architectural and visual designer by profession and a history enthusiast, with his area of expertise focusing on the Deccan region of South India. Mohammed Sibghatullah founded The Deccan Archive in November 2018 to create a digital archive of the Deccan and bring everything related to Deccan under one roof.
We talk to Mohammed Sibghatullah about heritage walks across Hyderabad city, the need for heritage conservation and why archiving is important for the future.
Can you tell us about your background and how you developed a career in the heritage sector?
Born and raised in Hyderabad Deccan, I was always fascinated by the old structures and monuments of the city. My love for buildings grew more when I took up architecture as a profession. As part of academic research on the architectural evolution in Hyderabad city I started reading more and more on the built heritage of the city which was vanishing at an alarming rate. With The Deccan Archive, I started conducting curated heritage walks and workshops in and around the city to connect and educate people about the cultural significance of the city they call home. I have been involved in a number of documentation and heritage conservation efforts in and out of academia. After 3 years of research on monuments, I have co–authored an illustrated guide book that talks about the built heritage of Hyderabad city.
After scraping through the limited resources available at hand and on the internet, I realised that there wasn't enough compiled data on the city to read available on digital platforms. The idea emerged of starting The Deccan Archive as a platform that would shed light on the fascinating and often overlooked history of, not only Hyderabad, but also the entire Deccan; and would hopefully try to bring this information into public knowledge and ignite a sense of pride and responsibility in the people, so they come forward and help preserve our shared heritage.
With this idea and goal in mind, I started my research and brought together my friends who shared a similar interest. Then came the difficult part - scouring the internet and libraries to find authentic literature, material and other documentation that would help us separate fact from fiction and real historical events from political propaganda. Slowly we built our presence on social media platforms, found several like-minded people and within 3 short but exhausting years, here we are.
You founded the Deccan archives with a common concern for preserving the unique tangible and intangible heritage of the Deccan. How did you create Deccan archives from ideation to execution?
The Deccan Archive initially started in November 2018 as an anonymous blog that covered the chronological history of the Deccan in chapters. For an entire year since its inception, the blog was operated solely by me. I would spend days at the State Central Library and the Salar Jung Museum Library, Hyderabad reading about the birth of this fortunate city and the men who shaped it. One year later in November 2019, I brought together my friends from college to form a team of designers, photographers and artists to work on this project. The group travelled together to the old city of Hyderabad in search of lost and forgotten monuments, following the extensive work of Dr. Omar Khalidi as a reference for our quest. A typical outing for the group would consist of documenting buildings and damage to them, identifying their architectural styles and materials, digging out histories associated with them and trying to preserve them digitally.
Who is involved in the team?
The original team comprised eight people which has now grown to 15+ people: Mohammed Sibghatullah Khan (founder), Mani Sahith Gattu (co founder), Mentors: Anuradha Reddy, Pingali Naga Praveen. Creators: Mehdi Saajid, Manish, Surender, Mohan, Toyaj, Spandana, Nabeela, Wahajullah Khan, Ayeshah Mohammed, Riyasath Ali Asrar and various volunteers.
What is archiving and why is it important to develop collections?
To us, archiving is an attempt to create records of media, like original manuscripts, photographs, drawings, films, books etc, that are historically significant to the Deccan and creating a digital repository for the masses to access it without paywall. Over the past 3-4 years, I have come across so many fascinating personal collections of important families of Hyderabad and their descendants. There are defunct libraries with hundreds of rare books that are not taken care of. Most of these collections are not being maintained/catalogued by their respective owners due to various reasons. If not archived digitally, these collections relating to major historical events in the context of the Deccan may be destroyed forever.
How do you think the Deccan is represented and perceived in heritage spaces such as museums and archives, and why did you decide to take action?
The Deccan and its rocky terrain was formed much before the Himalayas and its fertile river plains and has an equally if not more significant history when compared to its northern counterpart. In terms of representation, Deccan and its history has always been eclipsed by the Mughals and the Gangetic plains. Despite possessing cities and monuments that are architectural wonders and the symbols of architectural evolution and cosmopolitanism in the Deccan Sultanates (1347-1687) lie without their deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site tag due to the authorities turning a blind eye to them. The only major architectural heritage site in the Deccan recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the ruined-yet-glorious city of Hampi. As you might have already guessed, there is quite a shortage of museums in the region, with only a few well-curated and well-maintained museums scattered across cities. The Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad is one of the most important museums in the entire country with thousands of artefacts. The museum has more artefacts than it can physically display and a manuscript collection that is very difficult to access. The majority of the collection from Salar Jung Museum belonged to one man – Nawab Salar Jung Bahadur, a nobleman and ex-prime minister of the Nizam of Hyderabad. The immense personal archives of important families and old libraries of Hyderabad are a treasure trove of history, but accessibility is the main hurdle as there is no catalogue or record of these archives. There is the State Archives run by the Government, but it can only be accessed by scholars with valid IDs and letters of recommendation from their departments. Again, accessibility is key, and restrictions defeat the purpose of public archives. However, we see a positive trend where youngsters show keen interest in learning more about the Deccan and have a greater sense of belonging to the city than before.
Can you tell us more about the Deccan archive collection, and why is it important to collect our own stories?
We at the Deccan Archive have been working on the Qutb Shahi dynasty and their architectural understanding of how cities should be built. In order to understand the monuments of Hyderabad city, we have created architectural drawings of more than 50 monuments in the city along with their digital 3D models to explore the idea of virtual reality in heritage. The drawings of these monuments were compiled and published by The Deccan Archive as an illustrated guidebook called ‘Hyderabad Deccan: Illustrated’ in September 2021 which was well received by the readers. We have collected and created maps, rare paintings, located rare inscriptions, and manuscripts relating to Deccan history. We have created bookmarks,calendars and postcards and artworks as merchandise. We strive to digitise private collections which people bring to us to preserve.
Which communities are currently well represented in archiving spaces in India?
It is very difficult to pinpoint a well-represented community in archiving spaces as there is not enough data to back any claim. However, the majoritarian representation in museums and archiving spaces in India is dominated by Indian Arts and Crafts and the Independence movements.
Which communities and Muslim led institutions are you currently exploring and collaborating with for your archival work?
In the month of December, we collaborated with Anjuman-e-Fannan to organise an Urdu poetry workshop in a 200 year old monument to raise awareness about Urdu and the subcontinent’s history shaping its poetry and eventually its future. We are currently exploring the collection of the Abul Kalam Azad Oriental Research Institute in Hyderabad to research on the Asaf Jahi dynasty of Hyderabad.
You conduct heritage walks around the city, exploring and discussing forgotten or largely ignored parts of our history and culture. What has the public response been?
Honestly, we were pleasantly surprised by the positive reception we received. The crowds on our walks get larger every week, our biggest walk yet had 60+ attendees, people give us access to their private collections of old and rare photographs, or share interesting tidbits about their family history, and enthusiastically show us the artefacts or medals from the Nizam era.
They invite us or ask us to conduct walks in their areas and are very happy to contribute and share their opinions and stories, and they are extremely encouraging, asking us to archive and preserve whatever they are sharing like documents or manuscripts. Even the local residents sometimes join us and indulge us in their stories and legends, they express their concern over the neglect of these monuments which are an important part of not only their locality but also of the city. Within one year of starting these heritage walks, The Deccan Archive was featured in numerous media houses for the work we do.
Are you working with mainstream collecting institutions to reinterpret their already existing collections, exploring the untold stories of the Deccan?
We have been working with INTACH [Indian National Trust for Arts Culture and Heritage] Hyderabad chapter. We had surveyed the markets of the Old City of Hyderabad for a workshop which was conducted by UNESCO. INTACH Hyderabad has provided us access to places which are often off limits for ordinary citizens, including libraries, historians and financial support for publications. With INTACH we explore unseen and unknown facets of the Deccan
Do you have any plans to expand the development of the Deccan archives beyond India and make connections with related communities in other parts of the world?
We plan to expand our reach beyond India and connect with similar organisations in Iran and Central Asia as the city of Hyderabad in Deccan gets its roots from Persia, so it would be of great learning to collaborate with such organisations and establish a wider reach for both.
How can people access the collection? What are your plans for the collection as it grows and develops?
Our entire collection has not been completely uploaded on our website yet due to technical shortcomings and lack of funds, but interested people can reach out to us via our website or social media. The user can choose from a list of materials to access from our private servers. The initial idea of The Deccan Archive was to create a public domain archive and we continue to work towards it and create a self-sustainable future for the archive. We plan to create a web platform like that of Google Arts & Culture but exclusive to Deccan as it keeps on growing with contributions from the masses to the archive.
How can archival and public collection projects like Deccan Archives help the development of Islamic arts and culture for the future?
Archiving art is archiving history. Preserving art and culture digitally now would ensure that our future generations can see the wonders of their ancestors long after the monuments and books and artefacts and arts and artisans crumble to dust. Archives and public collections such as ours can immortalise cultures by safeguarding their origins.
The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.
why is this making me emotional it's so precious Again, I'm going to cry, this is so beautiful