VP Hall became home to the SVS in 1902 when the latter began renting a small room on the Western side of the Hall. The society had till then managed its activities at various places in North Madras. Space was rented in Chindadripet for storing the props and curtains. By this time the SVS was also blossoming as a social club, providing cards and reading room facilities. A central location like the VP Hall became an asset. Gradually, the SVS expanded its occupation of the VP Hall. In 1910, the Cycles Club and the Mercantile & Marine Club, which were occupying the entire lower floor of the Hall became defunct and the SVS took over the space at a rent of Rs 125 a month. The legal luminary Sir VC Desikachariar expressed worry over the move as in his view no organisation that had rented the VP Hall till then had flourished! A new acquisition by the SVS that year was a billiards table which was housed in the ground floor of VP Hall. In between, in 1908, the SVS also inaugurated its library, which was perhaps the only one in the city dedicated to books on theatre. Begun with a collection of 180 books, it expanded by 1930 into a vast horde of 1680 books which included works in English and the four South Indian languages. The SVS also felt that a Hall named after Queen Victoria ought to have her portrait in it and commissioned one at a cost of Rs 200. Unveiled in 1910 by Sir Arthur Lawley, the Governor of Madras, it was later put up on top of the stage and is probably the one that still survives in the Hall.
By this time the SVS was the preferred agency for organising entertainments whenever any important personage visited Madras. Viceroys and Governors witnessed its plays and on one occasion the Viceroy, Lord Minto, refused to believe that the women on stage were actually men in drag. Sir Arthur Lawley however, was not fortunate to be entertained by the SVS. When approached to organise a suitable entertainment for the Governor’s farewell, the SVS chose to snub him by refusing, a decision that was warmly endorsed by V Krishnaswami Iyer despite his being a sitting High Court judge! When Krishnaswami Iyer passed away within a year, the SVS organised a commemorative meeting at the VP Hall and unveiled a portrait of his. It also contributed Rs 1000 towards the statue that was later put up in front of the Senate House.
By then it was said in a lighter vein that if anybody desired to become a High Court judge, he ought to become a member of the SVS. V Krishnaswami Iyer, PR Sundara Iyer, TV Seshagiri Iyer, Sir CV Kumaraswami Sastri, K Srinivasa Iyengar, C Krishnan, Sir M Venkatasubba Rao, Sir Vepa Ramesam, Masilamani Pillai and VV Srinivasa Iyengar were but a few examples. Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar also became judge of the Small Causes Court. Many women also became members of the SVS, though they did not take to acting. Dasara celebrations were particularly colourful at the SVS thanks to the women. The practice of kolu was initiated thanks to a large Ganapati idol that was gifted to the SVS and which began to be worshipped before each performance. For Dasara, members would bring clay idols and these were duly arranged in steps in the large auditorium on the first floor. There were days during Dasara that were exclusively earmarked for children and women. The Ladies Day allowed only for women to attend and they were entertained by select scenes from plays, all enacted by men of course. On one occasion Sir T Sadasiva Iyer demanded to be allowed and an exception was made for him. He was allowed to sit on stage and witness the performance. For many years, it was the practice of Sir CP and Lady Seethammal Ramaswami Iyer to defray the expenses incurred on Ladies Day. Within a few years, Ladies Day had to be celebrated in a special pandal on the grounds belonging to the South Indian Athletic Association.
By 1915, the SVS had begun to outgrow the VP Hall. In that one year alone 363 new members were enrolled and it was commented that if all members of the SVS were to come in to attend a programme at the VP Hall, it would be impossible to accommodate them. One such instance was the staging of a play for the benefit of the warship HMS Madras. The demand for tickets was so high that the play was eventually enacted in a tent in neighbouring People’s Park. It was also the same year when the SVS perhaps pioneered the concept of a December cultural season. By way of commemorating its silver jubilee, the SVS hired the auditorium of the VP Hall for 45 evenings and staged plays on all days. Despite this there were days when sale of tickets had to be stopped early in the morning.
With all this, the SVS realised that it would have to move out of VP Hall. Funds had been systematically set aside since 1900 for the purchase of a suitable plot of land which in Sambanda Mudaliar’s words, “would accommodate an auditorium at least six times the size of VP Hall”. The Government agreed to lease the Napier Park (present May Day Park) for this purpose and on 31st January 1925, the foundation stone was laid for this by TV Seshagiri Iyer. Within three years, the stone was back in VP Hall, Napier Park being found unsuitable for the purpose. Money continued to accumulate, with performances in the mofussil, Colombo and Bangalore being particularly remunerative. Ten years later, Pitty Tyagaraya Buildings on Mount Road, which had belonged to the Justice Party and which was keen on selling following its decline, were negotiated and purchased for Rs 95000. The SVS finally had a new home but it never fulfilled its promise of being a dramatic society. Today it is a thriving social club though office-bearers still sport titles such as Tamil/Telugu Conductor, these being a throwback to the days when those occupying these posts really conducted plays, one of them being S Satyamurti.
The best days of VP Hall were over with the SVS moving out. It became home to the Chennapuri Andhra Sabha and later the South Indian Athletic Association. Several Sabhas, in particular the Indian Fine Arts Society, hired it for its events, but none could bring to it the colour that was lent by the SVS. But its association with the world of theatre was so strong that most officers associations and similar amateur groups still considered it as the first venue for their performances. The Indian Fine Arts Society for instance, conducted its music performances at Gokhale Hall but when it came to plays, it invariably used VP Hall.
The Hall suffered with the continued degradation of People’s Park and its downward slide ended only last year when the Government came to a settlement with the Trust that governed the Hall and took it over for restoration. When the repairs are over it should be put to good use, for it is in only by continued usage that a heritage precinct can survive.
2 responses to “The Victoria Public Hall & The Suguna Vilasa Sabha – Part II”
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