The pillars of Rajaji Hall have seen tears — happy and sad. Previously known as Banqueting Hall (it was renamed after Independence) the building is where important political leaders are laid in state. This includes CN Annadurai, Periyar EV Ramasamy, K Kamaraj, the ashes of Indira Gandhi, MG Ramachandran, J Jayalalithaa, and now, M Karunanidhi.
Hundreds of thousands of men and women have walked the wide flight of stairs leading to the hall over the years, for one last look at their leader. It appears in the public eye on such occasions and is largely forgotten the rest of the time. What is the story behind this building?
Built in 1802 by the East India Company’s astronomer and engineer Goldingham, (‘Once a Council Hall’ by Savitha Gautam, Madras Musings, Vol XIX No 23), the hall takes the form of a Greek temple. Gautam writes that it was extensively remodelled from 1875 — ‘the terrace was enclosed by the arcaded verandah in 1895’. According to historian V Sriram, it was meant for Governors to hold public events and was used for that purpose till 1947. “It was used for Government events and conferences. The first road conference took place there. Those days, there were very few hotels in the city for such events,” says Sriram.
Sriram adds that when Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar completed 50 years in music, a grand celebration was held at Rajaji Hall. “MS Subbulakshmi sang the prayer,” he says. Sriram says that it also hosted the first Madras Week celebrations in 2004. “A one-day programme for school children happened there on Madras Day that year. They had brought in monuments that they had made for display,” he remembers.
Another significant event held at the hall was the Madras Exhibition of Industries in 1854. Not just Europeans, but also Indians had brought their products to the exhibition. Sriram explains, “That was the beginning of the industrial thrust of what is recognised today as Tamil Nadu.”
He adds that the exhibition had furniture, silver and gold jewellery, sketches in water colour, bronze ornaments, marble figures, pottery, among others. “There were even lectures on how people should start business ventures,” he says, adding that he hopes the historical building will put to other uses so that it’s maintained well.