This is a historic building about which I have been writing in the past five years. I have now come to learn more about its usage as a venue for political and nationalist issues. Here are some facts. The irony is that the building is slated for demolition as the owners, the Young Mens Indian Association want to build a highrise here. The High Court of Madras has stayed this pending further action.
“The Gokhale Hall has been the scene of great achievements in oratory and public speaking as well as music and the fine arts. It has received with open arms persons of every description without distinction of caste, creed, colour or political persuasion. The Hall ever reminds us of the voice of its founder and no one associated with it can ever forget the inspiration of that voice” – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India in a tribute to Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street, Chennai.
The voice of the founder and the contributions of Gokhale Hall appear to have been forgotten when the Young Mens Indian Association which owns the place began demolishing the building a few months ago.
Annie Besant (1847-1933) is a name that will forever be associated with India’s struggle for freedom. Mrs Besant arrived in India in 1893. By then she was an ardent Theosophist. She became President of the Theosophical Society in 1907 and was re-elected three times. In between she found time to found the Benares Hindu University in 1898. Becoming a member of the Indian National Congress, she became a strident champion for Indian freedom. She edited a newspaper, New India and its articles demanding independence for India ensured it was banned by the British.
In 1914, Mrs Besant founded the Young Men’s Indian Association which was meant to provide “a political gymnasium as it were, to equip the youth with a strong body, an informed mind and a noble character to inherit and imbibe the country’s glorious tradition and to take their rightful place as leaders of the future”. In keeping with these ideals, Mrs Besant planned a home for the association which would have a hostel for needy students to stay in and pursue their higher education in Madras city, a library, a canteen, a gymnasium and an oratory which would later become Gokhale Hall.
Her close associate, A Ranganatha Mudaliar writing in the Besant Centenary Volume further added that she confided in him that she meant the venue to be used “when in times ahead when there would be difficulties for free expression of opinion for want of a hall whose authorities were prepared to resist official pressure and let it be used freely even if it was to severely criticise the policy and methods of the Government”. Mrs Besant was clearly foreseeing intensification in the struggle for Indian independence and was meaning to build a suitable venue for it in Madras city.
The first office bearers of the YMIA were Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer, Sir Pitty Thyagaraya Chetti, Sir VP Madhav Rao, GA Natesan, Sir T Sadasiva Iyer, FB Tyabji, KS Chandrashekhara Iyer and Sir S Subramania Iyer. Mrs Besant funded the construction of the YMIA’s home in her personal capacity and in the words of Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer, “if Rs 1000 was needed for it, she contributed Rs 999 out of that”. The actual construction cost Mrs Besant Rs 3.00 lakhs. The foundation stone was laid in May 1914 by C Jinarajadasa, noted Theosophist and writer and the construction was supervised by Rao Sahib G Subbiah Chettiar, Hony. Magistrate and Auditor, Madras Customs. The entire building was completed by end 1915 and as Mrs Besant close friend and eminent patriot Gopal Krishna Gokhale had passed away by then, the oratory was named after him. In time Gokhale Hall was to become the face of YMIA.
Gokhale Hall, with its magnificent dome, large wooden balcony and large windows providing good ventilation, became the centre for artistic, cultural and literary endeavours. In an era when George Town was the hub of the city, Gokhale Hall was soon in demand. It regularly attracted the attention of the law with its management often being hauled up before the Police Court for allowing “more than the number of people permissible”. The first such instance, known as The Gokhale Hall Case ended on 15th August 1918 with Sir CP arguing for the Hall and with a fine of Rs 2 being imposed.
Under Mrs Besant, the Hall became one of the two foci of the Freedom Struggle, the other being Tilak Ghat on the Beach. At Gokhale Hall, on 3rd September 1916, Mrs Besant began the Home Rule League in response to Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Home Rule Movement which began a year earlier in Poona, demanding that Indians be allowed to govern their own country. It was from here that Mrs Besant delivered her famous “Wake Up India” series of lectures asking the average Indian to rise and realise what his country was going through. During this period, she also organized famed mock parliaments in the Hall, to train youth in public speaking. Sarvepalli Gopal, in his biography of his father, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, mentions that he (S Radhakrishnan) often attended Mrs Besant’s lectures here and was inspired to become a powerful speaker. In response to her Home Rule League, the Government served an arrest warrant on her in 1916. A formal meeting was addressed by her at the Gokhale Hall prior to her internment and this witnessed one of the largest gathering in Madras.
In 1917, Sarojini Naidu spoke addressed the Madras Students Convention about her vision of Freedom. On October 2nd the same year, Mrs. Besant unveiled portrait of Gandhiji in Gokhale Hall, Madras, on his birthday.
Mrs Besant planned a series of Home Rule Deputations to leave for England to lobby with the Government in the 1918. Each deputation was seen off from Gokhale Hall after a formal farewell event.
In 1919, Annie Besant set up the 1919 Club to study the proposals made under the
Montague Chelmsford reforms. Her speeches attacking the Act were heard by audiences in rapt attention in the hall. So strident were her criticisms about the Act, that she incurred the wrath of everyone in the Establishment, including the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford.
Over the years Gokhale Hall witnessed speeches by Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, S Satyamurthi, Morarji Desai, K Kamraj and others. Nonagenarians today remember climbing onto the dome of the Hall and looking down through the windows to just get a glimpse of Nehru and other great leaders. In particular Pt Nehru’s speech on 8th October 1936 on Socialism and the Indian Struggle witnessed record participation.
The Hall played an important role in language politics as well. The Hindi movement in south India was started in the year 1918 by Mahatma Gandhi. The movement was inagurated by Dr.Besant at Gokhale Hall, Madras. The first Hindi class was started here by Devdas Gandhi. Later in the 1950s it became the venue for anti-Hindi demonstrations as well, with C Rajagopalachari addressing mammoth crowds in favour of Tamil. Tamil language issues were discussed here too when in 1940, the Madras Presidency Government decided to appoint a committee headed by the Rt.Hon. VS Srinivasa Sastry to look into the development of a standard lexicon to facilitate teaching of science in Tamil schools. A very important development was the formation of the Madras Presidency Tamil Sangam which met here on 31st August 1941 to protest against the recommendations of the committee which had included several Sanskrit words. The meeting was addressed by Sir Mohammed Usman, then Vice Chancellor of the Madras University and also scholars such as Arul Thangiah, TP Meenakshisundaram Pillai and S Muthiah Mudaliar.
The Labour Movement in Madras too used the Gokhale Hall as a venue with BP Wadia addressing a large gathering of workers here in 1917. One of the biggest demonstrations by the workers of the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills took place here in the same year.
Gokhale Hall played venue to the rise of the Self Respect Movement as well. One of the earliest speeches by Thanthai Periyar was made here in September 1917 when he stressed the need for a Self Respect Movement. In 1929 Sir A Ramaswami Mudaliar spoke here on 15th April on the first anniversary of the founding of the Dr TM Nair Literary Association and this theme was on the evils of the caste system. The Justice Party which was the forerunner of most of the other self respect movements often held its meetings in Gokhale Hall.
In the field of Fine Arts, the Hall remained a famed venue for long. The Indian Fine Arts Society, which turned 75 last year, held programmes here from inception. Prior to that, the Hall was home to several of the older Sabhas such as the Muthialpet Sabha, the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha (not the present one) and the Tondaimandalam Sabha. It was here that the seeds of the Tamil Isai Movement were sown when patrons such as Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar and writers such as Kalki R Krishnamurthy highlighted the fact that Tamil was not given due importance on the Carnatic platform. This brought Tamil into greater focus and led to the founding of the Tamil Isai Sangam which soon built its headquarters not far from here.