We need to be thankful for small mercies. The Tamil Nadu Government has sanctioned Rs. 17 crores for the restoration of Rajaji Hall. It is reported that the Public Works Department has been entrusted with the task and has since begun the work. The announcement also has it that with this, Rajaji Hall will be restored to “its former glory.” That by itself is a rather ambiguous statement, but what is more important is to realise that restoration is not an end by itself. Subsequent maintenance and usage hold the key.
Built between 1800 and 1802 as per the designs of John Goldingham, Astronomer Royal and architect to the Government of Madras, the building’s main purpose was to serve as a Banqueting Hall for the Governor’s official residence that stood by its side. Both buildings, along with a whole host of other structures including bandmaster’s quarters, were part of what was once Government Estate. In the years post Independence, MLA quarters and even an Assembly building came up within the same precinct, the last-named being later converted into the Children’s Theatre and later renamed Kalaivanar Arangam. The focus of the Estate was the Governor’s House and when that residence lost its status to Guindy post-Independence, Government Estate lost much of its purpose. However, Banqueting Hall, which had been put to use for gubernatorial levies, tea parties, dinners and balls, continued to remain a venue for official and even quasi-governmental events. It also acquired a new name – Rajaji Hall, after the senior statesman and freedom fighter.
As long as the city lacked major convention centres and star hotels, Rajaji Hall served a purpose. But from the 1960s it became best associated with the deaths of state leaders for their bodies would be brought to the grand staircase leading to the hall and kept there for the mourners to pay their last respects. From Annadurai to M. Karunanidhi, we have seen a host of VIP biers being kept here and then taken for last rites. The Hall itself was still being used till the early 2000s, being available for hire for private events and exhibitions at a nominal rate. This ensured that the building was subject to routine maintenance at least, which ensured upkeep of a kind. There were even regular restoration exercises carried out, one of which left the building painted a shocking pink.
Impact of New Assembly Cum Secretariat
2008 brought about a major change. That year, with Government Estate being marked as the site for the new Assembly cum Secretariat, most of the structures therein were demolished. Rajaji Hall alone was left standing, no doubt its link with the senior Tamil Nadu leader being its saviour. But the building was locked and has since remained out of bounds for the public. Consequently, it has not even been subject to routine maintenance and the building presents a run-down appearance. The Government needs to reflect on this and decide what it wants to do with the structure post renovation. There must be a plan in place for regular use of the venue.
No Future Plans for Reuse
If this does not happen, the money spent on restoration is just thrown away. The Government has only to look at what is happening to University Senate House. After a Rs. 11 crore restoration in 2007, the building was locked up and except for an occasional opening, remains closed much of the time. It presents a run-down appearance and a glance at the roof will show some tiles missing as well.
Rajaji Hall and University Senate House are both ideal locations for public events. Putting them to use will be the only way we can restore them to “former glory”.
This article appeared in the Madras Musings issue dated June 16, 2023 https://www.madrasmusings.com/vol-xxxiii-no-5-june-16-30-2023/govt-sanctions-rs-17-crores-for-rajaji-hall-but-what-after-that/
A video on this article can be seen here – https://youtu.be/WA1PGGcSOt0