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VICTORIA PUBLIC HALL

Celebrating an Empress

ARCHANA SUBRAMANIAN

Designed by Robert Fellowes Chisholm, the Victoria Public Hall was built to commemorate the golden jubilee of the British Empress Queen Victoria and it was opened to the public by Lord Connemara in 1887.

PHOTO: S. THANTHONI

Stately:The Victoria Public Hall

An old building near Central Station in Chennai, the Victoria Public Hall is one of the finest examples of British architecture. Closed for renovation now it was a storehouse of art and culture.

Look closely and you will see the resemblance it shares with the Central Railway Station located on EVR Salai Road, a couple of blocks away.

Unique architecture

Built to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of the British Empress Queen Victoria, it was designed by Robert Fellowes Chisholm.

The land for the Hall was gifted by the Maharaja of Vizianagaram to honour the Queen's golden reign. It is known for its Italianate tower capped by a Travancore-style roof. It served as a theatre and public assembly room in the late 19th century and early 20th century and was used extensively to promote art and culture.

PHOTO: S. PICHUMANI

WAITING FOR THE FACELIFT: Inside the hall

Inaugurated by Lord Connemara in 1887, the ground floor of the building was roughly 13,342 sq. ft. and the first floor had a built-up area of 12,541 sq. ft.

The two halls in the ground and the first floors were built to accommodate 600 persons, while a wooden gallery in the eastern end had seating arrangement for more than 200 persons. It had witnessed numerous stage performances, lectures and was also at times, transformed into a ballroom. Designed specifically for public gatherings it witnessed important events like the protest meet following the collapse of the Arbuthnot Bank and also the first demonstration of cinema.

PHOTO: S. PICHUMANI

SPACIOUS: The vast hall

Though it was mainly built to encourage dance and music performances, public lectures and for staging dramas it was later taken up by the South Indian Athletic Association for its activities. But the building began to deteriorate partially because it was not used to its optimum capacity. The Victoria Public Hall building is in poor state and recently, the government has taken some steps to restore this heritage building. Work on the Hall first began in 1967 and even though it was made public it soon closed down for almost 40 years.

In 2009 there was an attempt to renovate it and use it as a centre for music and dance, was made. A year ago it was restarted at a cost of Rs.3.96 cr under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. And now after almost two years it has been decided that that hall will be thrown open to the public in July.

Main attractions

A sound and light show will be held on the ground floor. This programme will be conducted during week-days, while cultural events, including folk arts, which would help tourists and locals to get to know the culturally-rich traditions of Tamil Nadu, will be held on Saturdays. This will be held in the first floor, where 600 people can be seated. The first floor will be used to conduct cultural programmes. The civic body has decided not to collect a fee for these programmes. This is to ensure people visit the Hall to enjoy the events and to promote the heritage monument.

Randor Guy remembers:

I remember Victoria Hall as a place where dramas by amateur theatre groups took place. Located in one of the popular areas pioneers of Tamil theatre, Sankaradoss Swamigal and Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, staged their plays here. Many dance troupes from all over the southern province came here to perform. I remember the plays were mostly in Telugu but since there were no language barriers back then and crowds from all over would come to watch the artists. D M Reddy, known for his Vahini studios always told us how he once spotted Mahatma Gandhi in the audience while he was performing. Many schools would celebrate their Annual Day here. Victoria Hall was also famous for its Andhra Mahasabha and had a club where snooker and billiards could be played.

It was only when Telugu theatre moved out that the importance of this heritage building started losing importance. With sari exhibitions being held there, it soon lost its reputation and was in fact even considered for demolition. A movement organised by S. Muthiah and Geeta Doctor made the Government take up restoration plans.

Eminent personalities who have visited the hall: Mahatma Gandhi Swami Vivekananda, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Subramaniya Bharathi Sardar Vallabhai Patel

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