M A M HUSSAIN & his Mansion called “Mumtaz”
reported in the Sunday Times of Ceylon Nov 7, 1993
under the section titled "Stately Homes" by Raine Wickramatunga and Renuka Sadananden
Since the dawn of independence in 1948, Mumtaz Mahal has gained eminence as the official residence of the Speakers of Sri Lanka's Parliament. A tradition that began with the colorful figure of Sir Francis Molamure, the first Speaker of Independent Ceylon, is carried on today by present Speaker MH Mohamed, who, interestingly is a kinsman of the man who built this splendid dwelling by the sea.
Having been built in an era when colonial influence was strong economically, culturally, and politically, it comes as no surprise that Mumtaz Mahal, like many other mansions of the day, bore the stamp of British architecture. It was one Mohamed Ali Mohamed Hussain, a wealthy Muslim gentleman, who commissioned a promising young architect, Homi Billimoria, to create the elegant home he envisioned. Blending the luxurious lines of a Mediterranean villa with classic British, Billimoria completed the task and the mansion was later embellished with fine furniture created by French nobleman, Count De Mauny. The Count, who at that time had purchased an island off Weligama Bay, gained a reputation in Ceylon as a fine landscape artist, and Mohamed Hussain, recognizing his skills engaged him to lay out the lawns and sunken gardens of Mumtaz Mahal.
In her book, "Sri Lanka through French Eyes", historian Lorna Devarajah, writes of Count De Mauny, "Count De Mauny gained a reputation in Sri Lanka after the beautiful garden he created in the island. His next love was furniture and he gained inspiration for French models, mainly Nedun inlaid with Ebony, Sandalwood, Satinwood, Tamarind and Calamander. He stamped the furniture he designed with his initial M surrounded by nine little circles."
To embark on the building of Mumtaz Mahal, Mohamed Hussain had to first demolish St. Margaret's French-style villa, bequeathed to him by his father Mohamed Ali. This he did much against the wishes of his wife Ayesha, who, it is said was a mioderating influence on her easy-going husband.
The house was completed in 1929, and the family who had been resident in the neighboring "Icicle Hall" (later demolished to make way for Sri Kotha) moved in.
It was a family friend, lawyer Sri Nissanka who came up with the name that still endures. The friends were once strolling in the terraced gardens of the newly constructed house when Mohamed Hussain, turning to his friend, asked him whether he could suggest a name for the house. "What is the name of your youngest daughter?" Sri Nissanka queried, and on being told that it was Mumtaz, he replied, "Why not call it Mumtaz Mahal? After all Shah Jehan, whose wife was also Mumtaz named his monument Taj Mahal."
For the next few years, the family lived a life of leisure and abundance. The four elder Hussain children, Badr, Mahdi, Alavi & Mumtaz, were drilled in their lessons by an English governess, Violet Bell, who lived with the family for several years. Another son, Ali, was born later. Palmy days they were, recalls Mahdi, elder son of Mohamed Hussain and Ayesha.
"My father was essentially a product of the inter-war generation", he says. A scion of one of the wealthiest Muslim families in Colombo society, Mohamed Hussain had the added advantage of an indulgent father who lavished every luxury upon his son. As a young man, Mohamed Hussain travelled frequently in the continent, and developed a special fondness for Paris and the Riviera. On his travels, however, he was seldom accompanied by his home-loving wife who considered it her duty to be with her children at all times. It is, however, a reflection of her quiet strength of character that she undertook the Haj Pilgrimage, a rough journey in the 1920's, making the trip from Jeddah to Makkah across the desert sands on camel back.
Mohamed Hussain's son remembers his father as a man who had an eye for all things beautiful and a highly developed aesthetic sense. He would return from his travels bearing as hand-picked collection of art pieces, and one in particular was an exquisite statue of Joan of Arc bearing a lamp which was placed on the banister at the foot of the staircase at Mumtaz Mahal.
Mohamed Hussain's collector's passion extended to sleek limousines and the Napiers, Minervas, and Ausburns of the early days gradually gave way to flashier Cadillacs and custom-made Chryslers.
Although not given to literary pursuits himself, Mohamed Hussain, nevertheless set his children on a good academic footing. Once, he even purchased the entire library of French books at Adisham, Haputale from its owner, Sir Thomas Villiers, to encourage his son Mahdi.
Mahdi also recalls childhood memories of his maternal uncles, Faleel and Yusuf Caffoor, cantering up the drive to Mumtaz Mahal on their polo ponies and even attempting to ride them up the steps of the house, much to their sisters disapproval.
"We children were however delighted and would rush to greet them with lumps of sugar and carrots for the ponies", he says.
When the Great Depression of the 1920's ravaged Europe, its effects were even felt in far away Ceylon, and many families - the Hussains among them - saw their fortunes decline. Soon the family moved back to Icicle Hall and Mumtaz Mahal was leased to the French Consul.
Successive French Consuls made this their official residence until World War II when the Vichy Government took over power in France in 1941 and recalled its envoys. The last Consul,
Morand, is still remembered by family members with wry humor. Morand's dogs, it seems - much to Mohamed Hussains chagrin, mauled his prized Persian carpets.
Thereafter, Mumtaz Mahal was requisitioned by the British Government for Admiral Layton, chief commander of the South East Asian Forces in Colombo, who lived there until the end of the War.
It was then that a new chapter in the history of Mumtaz Mahal began. It happened when Sir Francis Molamure proposed to his friend Mohamed Hussain that he let the Government acquire Mumtaz Mahal together with its furniture - to be used as the Speaker's official residence. And so it was that the first Speaker of Independent Ceylon, Sir Francis Molamure, came to live at Mumtaz Mahal.
Sir Francis too had grandiose plans for Mumtaz Mahal, says present caretaker Sunil Dassanayake, whose father, Podi Appuhamy Dassanayake, served as caretaker from 1948 to 1977. He laid the foundation for a swimming pool on a side lawn but for reasons unknown this was never accomplished.
Sir Francis, however, made full use of the existing billiard room, like Mohamed Hussain before him. Interestingly, the billiard room, came complete with a hatch, used for delivering food from the kitchens. Not wishing to offend Muslim sensibilities, however, Mohamed Hussain had the billiard room built as a separate section adjacent to the main house.
Since then, many eminent Sri lankan Speakers have used this as their official residence. They were Sir Albert Pieris, HS Ismail, TB Subasinghe, RS Pelpola, Hugh Fernando, Shirley Corea, Stanley Tillekaratne, Anandatissa de Alwis, Bakeer Markar, EL Senanayake and MH Mohamed.
For Mr Mohamed, it has been a happy homecoming of sorts. Being a close relative of both the Abdul Caffoor (Ayesha's parents) and the Hussain families, Mr Mohamed, upon assuming office, hosted a reception to his kinsfolk who all had a sentimental link with the house.
Forty five years later, Mumtaz Mahal is still the grand old house of Mohamed Hussain's dreams. Still a landmark in Colombo with its tall wrought iron gates, its white wall facade is visible to the passerby on the busy Galle Road.
For the Hussain family, whose life at Mumtaz Mahal was all too brief, the house, nevertheless, evokes many happy memories. Among the Hussain family members is Mumtaz herself who immortalized a mansion.
Mahdi Hussain's daughter, Ameena Hussain, married to Sam Perera, is a coveted author and publisher in Sri Lanka, today.