Long before any Indian women had won the title of Miss World, there were three princesses in India, who were considered some of the world’s most beautiful women. These were Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, Princess of Berar Durru Shehvar and Princess Niloufer of Hyderabad.
The story of Princess Niloufer is curious and fascinating. She had lost her father when she was only two years old. When she was eight, the Turkish royal family was exiled. They moved to Nice in Southern France. With no income to live on, the entire royal family was dependent on the pension they received from the Nizam of Hyderabad. At that time, Time Magazine estimated the Nizam to be the richest man in the world.
Some years later, the daughter of the last Turkish Caliph, was proposed as a match to the Nizam’s elder son. During the discussions, the Nizam felt that the Turkish side was asking for a very high Mehr (dowry) and imposing difficult conditions. In order to make the proposal go through, Princess Niloufer was proposed to be married to the Nizam’s younger son. Thus, in 1931, Hyderabad royal family got two Turkish brides: Durru Shehvar and Niloufer. At the time of the marriage, Princess Niloufer was only 15 years old.
A few weeks later, the two princesses, Durru Shehvar and Niloufer set sail for India. On the way, they were taught how to wear sarees, and the expected etiquette in the presence of the Nizam. After their landing in Bombay, they boarded the private train of the Nizam. When it pulled up in Hyderabad station, Niloufer, she stepped off the train ever so lightly. All eyes were on her.
Niloufer moved in to Hill Fort with her husband. He husband was a poet of Urdu. Almost every evening, he organized a mushaira. He lived a lavish lifestyle, and doted on his wife, getting her painted and photographed. Life seemed to be quite comfortable, and all was well in the Nizam’s kingdom.
As the years rolled by, Durru Shehvar gave birth to a son, Mukarram Jah. When several years passed, and still Niloufer had not conceived, she consulted various doctors in Europe and was planning to go to America for a medical visit. During this time, one of her maids, Rafath Unnisa, died during childbirth. At that time, there was no specialized hospital for children and mothers. Niloufer’s resolve to build such a hospital materialized in the form of the current Niloufer Hospital in Hyderabad.
The absence of children made her private life empty. On the other hand, her public life became very glittering. She was invited to several functions, and took the lead for women’s advancement. During the Second World War, she obtained training as a nurse, and helped in relief efforts. Her beauty, and her active public life, received mention in the press, and frequently on cover pages of magazines. She was judged one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world, and was offered several roles in films.
Princess Niloufer’s style attracted the public and caught the attention of the media wherever she went. She had sarees especially crafted by Madhavdas, a designer from Bombay. In later years, when she shifted to wearing European style clothes when travelling abroad, she still managed to cut a fine figure. One of her European dresses formed the topic of discussion in the New York Times.
In 1947, when India became independent, Niloufer was in a peculiar position. Hyderabad had yet to decide on joining the Indian Union. The Nizam dilly-dallied, sometimes wanting to become independent and sometimes desiring to join India. Ultimately, Hyderabad was added to the Indian Union, when the Indian Army conducted an operation called the “Police Action”. The Nizam was retained as the Head of the State, though he had become just a shadow of his former self.
Princess Niloufer heard the news of Hyderabad’s extinction when travelling abroad in France. She decided never to return to India again. Sometime later, her marriage came to an end. She continued to live in Paris, with her mother, in a flat. Since she was only 36, she attracted a lot of attention. Among her friends were Ali Khan (Aga Khan’s son), the Duke of Windsor, Princess Sita of Baroda, film stars such as Maurice Chevalier and Olivia de Havilland. She was offered yet another role in a Hollywood film (“Moulin Rouge”), but she turned it down again.
Niloufer died in Paris in 1989. She is buried in Cimetiere Musulman, in the Bobigny area. Her grave is next to that of her mother.
Today is the birthday of Princess Niloufer. Fruits will be distributed to mark her birthday, at the Niloufer Hospital.