Other Kohinoors: Documentary explores Hyderabad's rocks to create awareness on its fading natural ecology

Mallik Thatipalli
·7 min read

Isne kitni tabaahi dekhi, Iske zakhm ka kuch hisaab nahin, Baavjood iske zamaane mein, Hyderabad ka javaab nahin.

She has seen so much devastation, her wounds are immeasurable Despite this in all the world, Hyderabad is incomparable

This couplet by Kamal Pershad Kanwal seems to sum up perfectly the relationship Hyderabad has with its ancient ancestors: the rocks.

Once synonymous with hilly terrains and bewitching boulders, they were an integral part of the city. Ancient rock formations are a beguiling feature of Telangana's physical landscape. With many dating back to millions of years, several of these rock formations are among the oldest in the world.

The rocks affect every aspect of life from water, soil and weather to flora and fauna and wildlife, and as far as human history is recorded, the history of the Deccan is intertwined with its rocks. They help store water, recharge ground water levels, provide home to animals, allow cattle to graze and kids to play hide and seek but in the face of urbanisation, they have fought a losing battle to the point of being nearly extinct.

A mound of broken rocks in Hyderabad
A mound of broken rocks in Hyderabad

A mound of broken rocks in Hyderabad

In just a couple of decades, the rocks have made way for highways, offices and gated communities, and are on the verge of disappearing from the cityscapes.

A new documentary, Other Kohinoors: The Rocks of Hyderabad, aims to shed light on the symbiotic relationship these rocks have with the culture, local weaving and handloom traditions, music and poetry of the region, besides aiming to protect the last remaining clusters of these benign giants.

The idea is to celebrate these beautiful rocks, and showcase how consciously, subconsciously, and unconsciously, they have been valued and woven into the cultural fabric and collective memory of Hyderabad.

How it all started

When independent film maker, Uma Magal came back to Hyderabad in 2006 after studying and working abroad, she was looking forward to seeing the lovely rocks of the city again €" this time with her children. But by then, the IT boom ensured that the blasting had started, and all she found were mounds of broken rocks all around.

"There was a kind of shock at seeing these and a sadness which I have since learned is called 'ecogrief'," Magal recalls. "People also talk about 'solastalgia' €" that is, the very environment and nature that once gave you joy and peace is now causing you sadness €" and that is when the idea of making a film took hold of me. I started shooting with my own camera all over the city."

Magal asked Mahnoor Yar Khan, an old friend who is a filmmaker and drama therapist to join her, and thus started almost a decade-long journey to capture the intrinsic impact of rocks on Hyderabad's heritage. Khan, who has spent her childhood among the rocks, did not need much convincing to hop onboard. "These rocks were our picnic spots, they were our treasure trove. They were where we discovered hidden lakes that we swam in. Just watching them disappear was heart breaking. Today's younger generation know nothing about what was then in our backyard," she shares regretfully.

Other Kohinoors is not only a documentary about saving and preserving the rocks because of the geology and ecology, but also about preserving the composite culture that has developed because of these rocks €" the art, music, sher-shairi, the myths and legends, films and food that have influenced Hyderabad's sensibilities.

It is also about informing and sensitising a wider audience about the treasure (that is the rocks and the culture) that will be lost if not preserved.

The stories uncovered

During filming, the duo unearthed many fascinating stories. Magal recalls meeting filmmaker B Narsing Rao who recounted a story when he had gone to buy a plot in Jubilee Hills. On seeing the plot littered with broken rocks, he could not bear to buy it and remarked that the site looked "like a Kurukshetra without blood."

Peacocks spotted in Hyderabad. Image courtesy: Abbas Tayabji
Peacocks spotted in Hyderabad. Image courtesy: Abbas Tayabji

Peacocks spotted in Hyderabad. Image courtesy: Abbas Tayabji

They have also succeeded in understanding the symbiotic effect the landscapes have had on every aspect of life in the region. Every school of painting under Deccan art from Hyderabad, Ahmednagar and Golkonda, to Asaf Jahi, reference the rocks, which are an integral part of the terrain. Such referencing is also to be found in other works of art: in Bidri, in textiles forms like Kalamkari and Ikat. From dishes like pattar ka gosht to the naming of localities like Borabanda, they have inspired cuisine and pop culture in multifarious ways.

Hyderabad was a city of rocks even till the late 90s. Today's upmarket locations like Jubilee Hills, Banjara Hills and Gachibowli were full of natural formations, which used to reach out to the sky. The area of Moula Ali, where the famous film maker Shyam Benegal shot his landmark movie Mandi, was full of rocks, as is also witnessed in the film. Today, more than half of their formations have disappeared. In fact, the road from Towlichowki to Gachibowli which was declared a bio-diversity park at the Convention of Biodiversity held in 2012 is now rubble with a road cutting through the hill.

"When I was a child, there were so many rocks in Domalguda where my childhood home is. My grandfather would go for walks in the rocks there. My cousins and I used to play there. All are gone," rues Magal. She lived for a while in Gachibowli and that was full of rocks as well. She reminiscences: "We went with neighbours and friends, and took the children on the rocks for picnics and bouldering, and on rock walks with the Society to Save Rocks (as well). All around Durgam Cheruvu were rocks and peacocks; so many snakes. The kids would call it dinosaur park. It is all gone."

The journey so far

The duo has worked on the project for nine years and have explored multiple ways to showcase the rich heritage of the rocks of Hyderabad.

They have delved into the writings, languages, lore, humour, poetry, prose, songs, films, textiles, art, characters, crafts and cuisine of the region, exploring the inspiration of the rocky landscape behind them.

In the making of the film, rock lovers, rappers, geologists, urban planning experts, linguists, scholars, writers, translators, poets, animators, folk theatre performers, balladeers, songwriters, singers and all other contributors were roped in to understand the multi-faceted appeal of the rocks.

The seminal contribution of these rocks to our culture has been treated by our ancestors with respect and affection. Magal shares: "These natural formations ensured safety (hence you had forts in Telangana like the one in Bhongir on a hillock) and protection. In places like Chennai where the water dried up in summer, it was these rocks that ensured that the ponds were brimming with water even in May (in Hyderabad). This was the reason, people acknowledged them in subtle ways."

Magal has shared these findings in an 18-month bi-monthly series called Rockscapes, written by Uma, for The Hindu, where she spoke to noted academicians, historians and scholars to delve deeper into both an individual and collective relationship that the city has cultivated with the rocks.

As the film is readied for release, multiple events titled I am here to Wonder Conversations: Hyderabadi Baataan Mulakhaataan are underway to educate and remind people of the importance of their cultural heritage. Each session will focus on a different aspect €" from the impact of the rocks on the cuisine, miniature art of the region, to its music and popular presentation in cinema.

With the documentary feature releasing soon, its premiere will be followed by an extensive outreach program that will have free screenings of the film accompanied by speakers to start a conversation about the rocks that remain in the city. This outreach program will cover community spaces like the Bengali Samiti, Marathi Mandal, Kannada Sangha, old city spaces, Salar Jung Museum, museums, schools, and colleges.

The fight is to keep the remaining rocks intact. "They are crucial for our unique city beauty and identity. They are crucial for keeping lung spaces in the city that will keep us from becoming polluted like other cities," Magal notes.

With a city expanding each day without sparing any thought towards its natural ecology, it is love letters like these in the form of such documentaries that show what is important and how development needs to be in sync with the environment it is set in. Or else, Mahnoor says, what follows is crystal clear. "Rocks have played a significant part in developing our culture. Once the rocks disappear, that part of our culture will disappear too."

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