Can Government please restore National Gallery and not just its compound wall?


The State Government has announced that it will recommence and complete the task of repairing the ornamental compound wall of the National Gallery, in keeping with the existing design. This is a welcome development. But what is really needed is the restoration of the National Gallery itself which has been declared unsafe and out of bounds for visitors. Sadly, there appear to be no plans for this. It is anybody’s guess as to what is happening inside the building as it had remained locked for over three years now.


The compound wall, part of the original design by architect Henry Irwin, was made of the same Jaipuri sandstone as the building proper. Over the years, with the continuous raising of road levels, most of this had sunk below the footpath and many slabs had also vanished. In 2001, it was announced that repair work on the compound wall would commence and would be completed to mark the sesquicentennial celebrations of the Madras Museum of which the National Gallery is a part. The 11th Finance Commission sanctioned Rs 30 lakhs for the work. However, only a part that ran along Pantheon Road was attended to. The portion that ran along Casa Major Road was left unattended and the reason given out was that the quarry which was to supply the stone had become defunct. Fresh funds were allocated in the 12th Finance Commission and a second part of the wall was then taken up. Now with stone being sourced from alternative quarries, work is expected to commence on the remaining 100m or so. What is heartening is that the old pattern is being followed faithfully with talented stone-carvers from Mamallapuram working on the project.


However, there is complete silence on the part of the Government as to what is to happen to the National Gallery itself. The building, originally the Victoria Memorial Hall, completed in 1906 was dedicated as the National Gallery by Pt Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951. It is in many ways a historic and architecturally significant landmark in the city. However owing to years of continuous neglect, it came to a situation when the building began to leak and show signs of stress. It was then decided to lock the building up pending restoration work. Conservationists have cried foul over the closure as any locked up and untended building deteriorates faster than one which is inhabited. But these protests have fallen on deaf ears. What is strange is that not a single announcement has been made on what plans are even being contemplated on for this building.


This silence is all the more puzzling considering that other buildings on the same campus have been receiving regular attention. The Museum Theatre was renovated very well a few years ago and has since been put to regular use. The old wing of the Connemara Library was restored and opened to the public for a brief while. Those who were lucky to get in have praised the work done. Regrettably, the building was once again declared out of bounds for the consulting public. The other galleries of the museum too have been restored recently and the bronze gallery in particular has come in for praise. In the light of this, this inaction on the National Gallery is a matter of great regret. Overseas visitors who come to visit the Museum are invariably attracted by this edifice and express disappointment at its being inaccessible. There is a stern notice hung on the front door that states even those who squat on the steps of the Gallery do so at their own risk. The Government museum website talks about the Gallery but does not commit itself as to any restoration and does not state that it is locked up either.


Can the Government wake up and realise the value of this architectural treasure?