The Gokhale Hall has been witness to the speeches of great leaders and concerts of yesteryear musicians. But right now a question mark hangs over the building.When The Hindu, December 6, 2006, reported that the YMIA's "sprawling building on Armenian Street" was "facing the threat of demolition," it was received with shock and concern by heritage enthusiasts and historians.The Young Men's Indian Association was the brainchild of Annie Besant and following her announcement, The Hindu commented in January 1914 "that the objects of the Association are undoubtedly worthy of the attention of all who are interested in the well being of the rising generation of Indians."Founded formally on February 17, 1914, the Association was meant to provide the young men of India an organisation where they could enrich their knowledge, build their physique and practise their speaking skills.Consequently, the YMIA building came up with a reading room, a gymnasium and an oratory. The building was funded entirely by Mrs. Besant and it cost her Rs. 3 lakhs. When the oratory was completed, she named it Gokhale Hall after Gopal Krishna Gokhale and it proved to be a splendid auditorium for many purposes. Almost every freedom fighter, from Mrs. Besant to Mahatma Gandhi to Pt. Nehru has spoken from its dais.
Home for musicIt was, however, as a home for many other activities, most of them cultural, that Gokhale Hall really became famous. Speaking on the occasion of the unveiling of a tablet commemorating Annie Besant's gift of the Hall to the YMIA, Sir C.P.Ramaswami Iyer asked "how many men and women who have partaken of the many entertainments and functions that have enlivened the life of the city... know that this building... is the sole and exclusive contribution of Dr. Besant out of her private purse to the glory and the grace of this city?" (The Hindu, October 8, 1925). Among the earliest concerts to be held, there was the first performance of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar in Madras city. He was accompanied by Malaikottai Govindasami Pillai on the violin, Kumbakonam Azhagianambi Pillai on the mridangam and Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai on the kanjira. The crowds were unmanageable and soon the organisers had to lock the doors. But those outside protested and so the doors were reopened, the street was cordoned off and the performance continued. Fortunately, Chembai had a voice that could reach everyone.Not surprisingly, such unmanageable crowds invited the wrath of the law and the YMIA was hauled up before the Police Court on July 3,1918, in connection with another programme in which "more than the maximum number of persons allowed" (The Hindu) was permitted to enter the Hall. The Gokhale Hall Case as it came to be known, ended on August 15, 1918, with the Hall's management being fined Rs. 2! Kanchipuram Naina Pillai with his full bench, comprising nine and more accompanists, was a star of Gokhale Hall. Each one of the accompanists was a star in his own right as well and the tani avartanam could take much as an hour to complete, giving each performer his rightful share of time.
Narrow exitMusiri Subramania Iyer was a very popular performer at this Hall and when at the end of his concerts, the Hall's narrow exit posed a problem to the crowds, resulting in much pushing and shoving, a wag used the line "ennai tallal aagaadu" (I am not to be pushed) from the song `Tiruvadi Charanam,' one of Musiri's hits, to good effect and caused much laughter. Almost all famous musicians of yesteryear have sung at Gokhale Hall including Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Madurai Mani Iyer, GNB and Semmangudi. Srinivasa Iyer was once locked out of the Hall when the watchman, mistaking him to be another gate crasher did not allow him in for his own performance. Among the women, while MS, D.K.Pattammal and MLV performed here to record crowds, it was K.B.Sundarambal who was the biggest star. Among the Harikatha exponents, C. Saraswathi Bai, February born like the Hall, was also a great draw.The Indian Fine Arts Society, which turns 75 this year, held its programmes for many years in this Hall and it was here that it conferred the title `Harikatha Prasanga Marga Darshini' on Saraswathi Bai on December 24, 1936, in an early instance of a woman artiste being given a title. The Hindu reported the event in its issue of the 25th. With the waning of George Town as a centre of the city, the Gokhale Hall too lost out on its premier status. For many years, Rukmini Devi Arundale was the president of the YMIA and on founder's day, students of Kalakshetra would put up a cultural show. This year, a question mark hangs over the building.Does such a political and cultural landmark deserve demolition?