Closed to tourists, exposed to risk

Majestic: A view of the Rajaji Hall. Photo: S.S. Kumar  

These are architectural marvels of the city and had once played host to the crème de la crème of people and events but today they are no longer in the circuit. Two public spaces — Rajaji Hall inside the Omandurar Government Estate and the National Art Gallery in the Government Museum — have remained shut for some years now. Heritage structures that remain closed to tourists tend to fall prey to decay, a reason why heritage enthusiasts of the city are concerned.

The 100-year-old National Art Gallery was closed to the public in 2002 following detection of cracks and other structural defects in the building. Paucity of funds was cited as the reason for the building not being renovated. It is almost 10 years now and sources in the Museum say that attempts are still on to obtain Central government funds.

The museum authorities are also waiting for a technical report on the nature of repairs required. Apart from the structural beauty of this Indo-Saracenic style hall, one of the highlights inside was the paintings of the British era that adorned its walls. While the paintings adorn the Contemporary Art Gallery, other artefacts such as bronze statues are kept in the Bronze gallery.

Rajaji Hall might have been inaccessible to the public for the last few years but the Greek Temple-style structure with a tall flight of steps that takes one to the main hall has witnessed some very impressive events. The hall was built to mark the victory of British forces in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799. The building was renamed Rajaji Hall in 1948 from Banquet Hall through a government order by the then Madras State. Since then, the space was a favourite venue for stately events, exhibitions and meetings.

Rajaji Hall has been the site of some key events in Chennai's history. In February 1961, Queen Elizabeth cutting her birthday cake there at a function organised by the then Chief Minister K. Kamaraj.

The bodies of former Chief Ministers C.N.Annadurai (February 4, 1969) and K.Kamaraj (October 4,1975) lay in state in Rajaji Hall. The swearing-in-function of Governor K.K. Shah was held in this majestic hall in May 1971. According to historian and writer K.R.A. Narasiah, the Omandurar estate originally belonged to Antonia de Madeiros and the company purchased it in 1753. It was then known as Government Estate. “Rajaji Hall was built for state functions and get-togethers and so its purpose is to serve have a decent meeting place. Since it was a building to commemorate the English success in India, it naturally should be for public functions,” says Mr. Narasiah.

In 2000s it was a sought-after location for film shootings to meetings, but sources say that in the last two or three years the hall has not been let out. Currently, records of the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission are stocked there, say sources. Conservation architects feel keeping a heritage building idle is unhealthy for the building. “Any building needs air, light and ventilation, more important in the case of heritage structures where there are problems that come with age.

You can only take measures such that it does not worsen. It is extremely important to keep the walls dry. Most of our heritage buildings are victims of leaking roofs and toilets, and rising damp from groundwater. There is also the danger of short circuit with cables lying loose,” says K. Kalpana, conservation architect.

In the case of the National Art Gallery, it has a major structural issue. “Temporary measures should be taken to support the roof, which is giving trouble,” she says. Giving the example of Senate House in the University of Madras, which was also locked for several years and then handed over to conservationists, Ms. Kalpana says, preserving such structures are certainly more expensive.

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 3:02:11 AM |

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