N. Harinarayana delves into the past of the Pantheon, an exquisite building that gave the stretch its name
During the Madras Week celebrations, it is well to recall that the Madras Museum Campus on Pantheon Road contains some of the oldest and most exquisite buildings of the colonial era. The very name of the road on which the campus stands — Pantheon Road, is derived from the oldest building on the campus — The Pantheon or what is also known as the Public Assembly Room.
The Pantheon was a popular place of entertainment for the European community pre-independence. They held dinners, balls and theatrical performances in it. It was the venue for fetes organised in honour of distinguished personalities, such as Lord Cornwallis after the successful campaigns in Mysore in 1793 and Sir Aurthur Wellesly after his victorious Mysore war in 1805.
At present, a part of the Pantheon exists as an appendage of the portico which connects it with the building of the Connemara Public Library and it is recognisable by the flight of steps on either side, for guests to enter from.
When the museum moved into it in 1853, the Pantheon was a small structure in a vast area. Antiquities and natural history specimens were flowing into the museum at a rapid rate, due to the efforts of its founder, Edward Balfour. Space was found in three main stages, in 1863, 1875, and 1893. To this was added the Lecture Hall with a raised platform at the back and wooden flooring.
A solid expansion of the museum came in the 1890s, when the Museum Theatre, the Connemara Public Library and the Anthropology Gallery were constructed. Then came the construction of the Victoria Memorial Hall instituted for setting up the National Art Gallery. The concept of the gallery was to exhibit the best of the museum’s collection of art. It was a case of exquisite masterpieces arranged in a building which itself was a masterpiece of architecture.
The second half of the century of the museum’s history witnessed the establishment of a number of buildings which were utilitarian and suited their purposes well, but did not have any noteworthy architectural features. However, if there is one thing that has not changed over the years, it is the tree cover on the premises. Lush, green and flourishing.
(The 81-year old writer is a former director of museums, and a museologist)