The Gokhale Hall, Chennai built by Annie Besant is in ruins - Is there any solution to restore it?

Gokhale Hall, Chennai in the shambles .

A public hall  on the  Armenian Street close to  the Armenian church, Georgetown, Chennai  was  built in 1915 by  Annie Besant (1 Oct. 1847 – 20 September 1933), a multi-faceted  personality whose contribution to India was vast. She wanted to have a public space for the people to express their view freely and frankly without any inhibition or restriction against the foreign rule. Hence, this hall was Anne Besant's brain child  and she  bore the cost of construction. The foundation  stone of  the building was laid by one Jinarajadasa, a theosophist. This town hall served  as the  the headquarters of the Young Men's Indian Association (YMCA) which Ms. Besant started in 1915.  In 1916  she announced the formation of Home rule League and in the same year the  hall was  renamed as  the  Gokhale Hall  in honor of   an Indian national leader, social reformer  and patriot Gopal Krishna Gokhale, after his death in 1915. He was the founder of the Servants of India Society and  a reputed educationist.

That as  it has happened to many historical monuments and heritage sites across India, this once a popular  venue of political meetings, cultural and musical events in Chennai  is in a dilapidated state is a blot on the Chennai city and its rich cultural heritage. This hall steeped in the city's as well as our country's political history looks closer to ramshackle. I understand hardly people in the neighborhood  know about  Gokhale hall and let alone its cultural history. Further, the structure looks so shabby any passerby on the street will turn his face to the other side.  It looks like a haunted house as one will see in the fairy tale. This is not the way to express our gratitude to a dynamic Irish woman who was actively involved in India's freedom struggle and who daringly supported   both Irish and Indian self-rule. 

Being an educationist,  she was one of the founders of  the Banaras Hindu University (earlier Central Hindu College of Benares).  Apart, she was an avowed  Theosophist  and was the President of the Theosophical Society in Adyar in 1907.  Armed with experience in the Scout Movement,  Ms. Besant set aside  a part of the hall  to house  the Young Men's Indian Association (YMCA). The purpose was  ''to  equip the youth with a strong body, an informed mind and a noble character”  so that they could be  well trained to lead the young nation and take care of their lives as well.  Provided with a gymnasium, library and a canteen,  it served as a home to numerous young students  from other places outside of Madras city.  YMCA's founding members included  stalwarts like legal luminary Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar (Diwan of Travancore state), Dynamic  former Diwan of Mysore V.P. Madhawa Rao (native of Thanjavur), G.A. Natesan and a host other distinguished people.   

Dilapidated Chennai's Gokhale hall

Chennai's Gokhale hall in ruins.

Once a fine building with a dome, well planned balconies and a comfortable airy auditorium with good acoustics,   it was the epi-center of India's  active freedom movements in Chennai. In the past the  hall reverberated  the  spell-binding and fiery oration of great people like Anne Besant, Nehru, Kamarajar, Gandhiji,  Tagore  and others. After independence, it also served as a coveted venue for well-known artists in  Music - both Tamil and Carnatic and other cultural activities.  The popular artists  never failed to enthrall  the audience.  After the death of Anne Besant many eminent personalities of Madras managed the YMCA association and  it served as  a cultural center and  a political platform.  For  Kalakshetra, it had been a tradition to  conduct  its dance performances  in the Gokhale Hall particularly on the birthday of Dr. Annie Besant. 

Statue of Annie Besant, Chennai

Above image: The statue of Annie Besant in the near-by YMCA Hall Chennai.on 2nd line Beach road.  Earlier it was in the Gokhale Hall on the Armenian street, which is still in a legal dispute and the this statue and others  were removed. to the other YMCA house. Famous Bharatanatyam exponent and one of the founders of Kalashetra Rukmini Arundale herself served as President of the YMIA after Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer passed away in September 1966. After  2002  there has been no activity and the structure has fallen into disuse.................

The Gokhale Hall,  Armenian St. Chennai.

Above image:  In those days prior to 1947 the early meetings were   oratory  in nature, but if they turned  out to be  mainly political and often inflammatory, then they would get  the attention of the British police officers. In October 1964, when the YMIA and the Hall celebrated their Golden Jubilee brief revival took place under the guidance of Sir. C.P.  The then Vice-President of India Dr. Zakir Hussain and the Governor of Madras, Jayachamaraja Wode­yar. participated in the festivities. .............

 In 2008, the structure would have been pulled down but for the High Court' restraining  orders. A part of the structure including  the wooden stage made of Burma teak  was torn apart   Devoid of urgent repair works, way back  in the past,  parts of the building were damaged.  YMAC had a proposal to build a commercial complex in that place after  pulling down the structure  and in 2012  the Madras High Court in response to a PIL  filed by a  resident of Sowcarpet. Had the court not intervened at the right time, the place would have become a flat ground with no traces of the vintage structure. Now, the case is pending before the Supreme Court.   According  to the  INTACH team, the old building can still be be repaired and restored  without demolition and once it is done it can be used  safely without any fear. But it all depends on the supreme Court's  early verdict on the once famous hall. Countless  heritage lovers and  historians expressed their apathy in this regard. 

It reminds me of  American radio broadcaster (for ABC News Radio)  Paul Harvey's quote:  ''I have never seen a monument erected to a pessimist.'' Late Gokhale and Annie Besant were people of great optimism and hope. Let us hope the Gokhale Hall will be back to old splendor and a center of cultural activities promoting the rich culture of Tamil Nadu and other states. The irony is no young  men have come near the Gokhale Hall since early 2000s. Will the YMCA,  the owners, make a compromise and allow the structure to  be retained for the posterity?